I went to Lviv for a change of scenery, greedy for warmth and uninterrupted electricity, and to recharge and recalibrate, to come back to myself. I went to Lviv, ultimately, because I could.
In fact that’s why I do a lot of things. I grew up in the US with its “can do” spirit, believing that I really could do or be anything I wanted if I put my mind to it and worked hard. Only this “I can” often stands on ignorance of actual material facts—from the specificity of one’s physical body to events that are happening around you to the challenges posed to your freedom by the people with whom you share your life and world. “I can” has no power when it doesn’t acknowledge its flip side: “I can not.”
Like many Americans, I ration out my generosity: I give when I have what to share and keep something for myself in reserve. I am generous when I can be, as much as I can, because I can.
Many years ago I went to visit a Ukrainian friend who was studying for her PhD on a meager Ukrainian university scholarship. She lived in a dormitory far from the center of Kyiv in one room with two other women plus occasionally the boyfriend of one of them. It was a long walk from the metro, and after spending several hours in these spartan conditions it was time to leave. Upon parting she gave me a jar of honey her mom had sent her. I was moved by the gesture.
True generosity—as a principle—is about sharing rather than giving away your surplus. It is about including the other—and whatever they offer you or ask of you—in your life. Just because they are here.
On vacation in Lviv, I was protected from the difficulties of regular blackouts (they happen in Lviv but not in the place I was staying), detached from my friends in Kyiv, and instead of peace I encountered old habits and states of mind I thought I had left in the past.
In a moment when I was feeling overwhelmed, a dear old friend reached out to me asking for help. It touched a nerve and some personal history, and in this critical moment I did something childish and ultimately cruel. All the more cruel because it was inadvertent: I did not see that I was acting from a place of cowardice.
I was operating from my American mindset that clearly separates me and my responsibilities from the responsibilities of another. So what if I don’t help? I have other problems. Can’t she just ask somebody else? Blinded by emotions rooted in the past, I missed the significance that I was being called upon to do something.
Instead of acknowledging I was facing a challenge, taking the time to think and broach a conversation with her, I simply put my own feelings first and refused to help. Because I could.
War is unforgiving. Letting yourself be overcome by emotions, falling into habits and patterns from the past, allowing circumstances to get the better of you... all these things are inexcusable when you need to take decisive action.
Your action shows who you really are. My capacity to ignore a friend’s request for help betrays that somewhere in the back of my mind I still think that I can sequester myself from the demands of living through russia’s assault on Ukraine. My cowardice is like that of Americans who admire Ukrainian heroism without seeing that these Ukrainians are ordinary people, just like us, only they have nothing to fall back on, no corner in which to hide from the harsh choice between stopping russia’s invasion or being annihilated.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time to grow up.
You think you’ve matured, you’re learning to listen to your sensations and be true to what they tell you. You notice a conflict of interest and you take some time to think it through.
And then all of a sudden you don’t. You are swept up in some old emotional habit, jealousy, feeling left out — a truly childish state of mind, and instead of recognizing it and taking some time to think, you act rashly and destroy a friendship of 15 years.
Now Ladies and Gentlemen, before you gasp, “I’m so sorry!” let’s be real: this is wartime.
And all that self-development and therapy and practices you’re fond of, improving and always striving to be your better self…
Well, guess what, war catches you unprepared, the way that you are. And that self is at whatever stage of development and when after nearly 11 months you are ragged and worn down and so is every single person around you, your ugliest comes out.
And sometimes that ugliest meets the ugliest of a person who has played a very important role in your life and something dies. Not you, not the other person, but whatever trust or affection there was between you.
You only get one shot, one chance, and when you fail to think (no matter the reasons) the consequences can be deadly.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to real life.
I’ve told you about my Ukrainian grandparents. My grandfather was marked for murder by Polish insurgents and so they made a plan with their friends to flee westward in the middle of the night. Only my grandfather had an intuition that it was better to wait until morning to leave.
Next day my grandparents saw their friends, who had left at night, lying murdered by the side of the road.
Did my grandfather share his intuition to wait with his friends? Did they argue about it and reach different conclusions? Or was he unable to get a message through? Or did he just decide it was too late or too risky to try to contact them and simply didn’t show up as planned?
I’m here today because some people before me were really good at saving their own skin.
Isolation is tempting. If you don’t have friends, then you won’t see them dead, lying by the side of the road. If I don’t forge connections, if I don’t take on responsibilities, can I remain free? Am I more comfortable holding onto the dream of desired connection than doing what is asked of me as a participant in a relationship?
Instead of seeing the seriousness of my friend’s request and the need for me to address it directly, I chose to view it as an abstract problem, thus securing my right to act “freely” according to my own wishes. I hurt her deeply and destroyed something that was a fundamental part of my life.
There is something similar in the way the Western world is treating russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. It is easier to protect your own reserves, to keep working toward an imaginary peace, to think it’s not your problem than to face the monster that is threatening to destroy the world while its forces seem focused in a distant land.
When the US states a commitment to support Ukraine for as long as it takes, it begs the question: As long as it takes… for what? For Ukraine to defeat russia? Or for Ukrainians to tire and concede to a peace settlement? Or for Ukraine to be completely destroyed?
The challenge facing each Western person, myself included, is to see what is right before your eyes and to meet it head on. Pretending it doesn’t concern you will have devastating results.
That is the cruel lesson this war could teach us.
PS Please urge your government representatives to act decisively in supporting the Ukrainian military fight to secure its territory from enemy forces.
You can contribute directly to Ukraine’s defense, survival and recovery through United24, a portal for charitable donations launched by President Zelensky: https://u24.gov.ua/
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Thank you for this powerful missive...and for the link to send $.
What more do you think US should do for Ukraine? What would you like us to tell congress.
Yes, turning away from a friend who needs help is disturbing. I hope your friend got was needed.