Sunflower

4 May 2022

Column from The Mercury, Friday April 1, 2022

"Like many people, I was shocked when Russian invaded Ukraine. Stunned.

Sure, there had been warnings. Absolutely, there had been serious military posturing on Ukraine’s borders.

But for some reason – now proven to be naïve and unfounded – I believed that the threat to Ukraine would dissipate. Like many (most?) people, I had the idea that a war like this one was pretty much inconceivable.

Putin would stop at a line in the sand, wouldn’t he? Surely, even he would be constrained by the edge of reality. Where reality = nobody wants World War III.

Instead, here we are – with millions displaced, an unknown but vast number of people dead or injured, cherished buildings and cultural icons destroyed, many of the most powerful people on Earth flummoxed by the sudden revelation of their utter powerlessness to stop the carnage, NATO countries nervously seeking out the exact location of the boundary between helping Ukraine and tipping the world into an even greater cataclysm, children across the world plagued by the same kind of apocalyptic nightmares we Generation X-ers had when we were growing up in a world dominated by Cold War politics.

It turns out that the reality I had settled comfortably into, and that I assume I shared with millions of others – the one in which nobody wants a World War III – was an illusion.

It’s not as if the years since World War II have been war-free. And we in the West need to admit to ourselves that the media coverage of the Ukraine war – in which some reporters have unfortunately referred to Ukrainians as ‘like us’ – reveals something ugly and shameful about our failure to be fully mobilised into care and concern by wars that have devastated the lives of people who may seem, superficially, to be more different from us.

We know from experience that wars happen, but a World War? A war with the potential to pit nuclear-capable super-power against nuclear-capable super-power? That was supposed to be unimaginable? Wasn’t it?

Why did we think World War III was almost inconceivable? How did we build that illusion?

Answering for myself, I think – for one thing – that I believed too deeply in the premise of a famous quotation by writer and philosopher George Santayana – ‘those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it’ – and relied too heavily on what those words seemed to promise: that those who can and do remember the past will not be doomed to repeat it.

The world is populated by people who remember, viscerally. War has left its indelible marks on their bodies, minds, families, countries, buildings, souls. But even those of us who escaped the most immediate impacts know what war means. Our culture is saturated by storytelling about wars, the World Wars in particular. Countless novels, memoirs, films, documentaries and ceremonies have served to remind us of the terrible suffering. We have not forgotten.

It turns out, though, that vigilant remembering is not enough. Nowhere near enough, because the horrible truth turns out to be that all the collective remembering in the world can be swiftly trumped by the actions of a single man who doesn’t care.

Pessimism is warranted in this situation, but pessimism can lead us back into one of the habits that probably helped us maintain the fiction of a safe world in the first place: something I’ll call ‘wilful optimism’.

We have to believe things will be alright. Don’t we? Confronting the reality of our planet’s problems, the reality of our powerlessness in the face of them, is just too hard, too painful. And since we feel as if we can do nothing, how much easier it is to switch off the news and post a picture of smashed avo on our Instagram account! The modern world provides us with almost unlimited ways to numb ourselves back into that comforting place where it’s possible believe that it will all, somehow, be alright.

Sometimes we need to switch off the news. We need to protect our fragile souls from over-exposure to suffering, so that we can keep doing things like going to work and taking care of other people. But the all-too-human propensity to give in entirely to wilful optimism is our biggest liability when it comes to taking action on some of the biggest and most pressing issues of our time. (We human beings are smart, right? We’ll stop trashing the planet before it’s too late, won’t we?)

When we feel as if it’s impossible, individually, to do something significant we have a tendency to do nothing much at all. But I wonder what would happen if, instead of resorting to the numbed state of wilful optimism, we all found small things we could do? Like donating to or raising money for Médecins Sans Frontières, UNHCR, Save the Children, Four Paws or whichever aid agency touches your heart? Like participating in, being grateful for and protecting our democracy? Like reading the news from Ukraine sources and financially supporting media outlets that bring you reliable information? 

When this is all over, and let’s hope that’s soon, we’ll need to remember the past in order to avoid repeating its mistakes, but we’ll also need to be clear that remembering alone is never going to be enough."