This current moment is filled with particular dread and anxiety. There’s a war going on right now. Innocent people are being killed. Theaters, subway stations, maternity hospitals, schools have all been hit by artillery shells and, missiles and tanks. Putin and his henchmen cruelly calculate the murder of civilians. They want to terrify the population, wear them down with cold-hearted brutality.
We watch it on tv. We see it on social media. The suffering is jagged and so unrelenting. Why? We wonder. We seek some logic, some twisted reasoning that may expose what Putin wants. Alas, I doubt there is a reason. It’s all about hatred, all about a pathological need to destroy. There is nothing rational in Moscow.
As Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes, “Authoritarians stand out from other kinds of politicians by appealing to negative experiences and emotions. They don the cloak of national victimhood, reliving the humiliations of their people by foreign powers as they proclaim themselves their nation’s saviors. Picking up on powerful resentments, hopes, and fears, they present themselves as the vehicle for obtaining that which is most wanted, whether it is territory, safety from racial others, securing male authority, or payback for exploitation by internal or external enemies.”
This was not written as a description of Putin, but it certainly fits. If one rereads it a few times, other names come to mind, men who have taken this well-worn path of wanton destruction in the name of “the people .”And how does it end?
Sometimes the authoritarian is taken down by the people he’s tried to bend to his will. Sometimes the people rise and vote the self-defined savior out of office and often send him to jail. And sometimes, there is war, and other nations must destroy the offensive conflict creator.
What happens in Ukraine, what happens in Russia, is anybody’s guess. As it turns out, no one knows. For most of us, who number in the hundreds of millions, there’s not much we can do about Putin. We cannot do much for Ukraine or their fabulous president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. We send money, stay informed, support our leaders who vote for aid to Ukraine, and eschew the handful of Congressional Putin supporters and their ragtag media sycophants.
We are primarily powerless at this moment. Some want to acknowledge the suffering of Ukraine by being circumspect. Innocent Ukrainian deaths signal that we must somehow alter our lives, that our safety is a kind of shondeh [Yiddish for something shameful], that we shouldn’t be having too good a time.
I understand this deep desire to empathize. But it misses a larger truth. If we are to mourn Ukrainians actively, what about outrage at the loss of life in the civil war in Yemen? What about American losses to Oxycontin and Fentanyl? I am not saying compassion is wrong. I am saying that to focus on one nation, one war, one authoritarian, and then use it as a reason to sit shiva misses the point.
The point? There is so much suffering in the world. There are so many innocent people whose lives are broken every day. In my worldview, God weeps 24/7/365. God cannot prevent cruelty or subversion. God cannot blot out the deeds of psychopaths or narcissistic, strutting fools, which means that it is up to us to keep on keeping on.
In the beautiful movie, Drive My Car [please see it on HBO Max], the protagonist, Yusuke, who has suffered a terrible loss, says to the equally broken Misaki, “We must keep on living. We’ll be OK.” We realize that the only solution is through the pain and the loss. That life itself is a gift, an ever-unfolding mystery that may take us to a moment of calm wholeness. Suffering is a given. Joy must be created every day.