As a child growing up post World War II, I participated in school drills intended, allegedly, to keep us safe in the event of a nuclear war. At the prompting of our teacher, we crawled under our desks, drew our knees up to our chins, and huddled there until the teacher deemed the imaginary situation “safe” and allowed us to return to our seats.
The Doomsday Clock, a conceptual means of visualizing the likelihood of a human-caused global catastrophe, was introduced in 1947. Midnight serves as a metaphor for a mass-extinction event. Climate change was included in this assessment in 2007, and the clock inched forward to five minutes before midnight. Over the years the hands on the clock have been moved back or forward depending on progress toward nuclear disarmament or the latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change. In 2020, the clock was moved forward to 100 seconds before midnight. In January of 2021 and again 2022, scientists left the clock hands unchanged, stating, “We're as near to Doomsday as we've ever been, thanks to continued nuclear hazards, the threat of climate change, disruptive technology, and the apparently unending Covid-19 pandemic.”
The latest adjustment was made just one month prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Within days of that unprovoked invasion, Vladimir Putin made veiled threats to retaliate with nuclear force against any NATO intervention.
Instead of crawling under my desk, I scroll through news feeds, my despair growing with each new image. Children huddled together in a stairwell while bombs destroy the city around them. Mothers gather at a train station with a bevy of children, each pulling a wheeled suitcase. They cling to husbands who will remain behind to fight as they seek safety away from the only community they’ve ever known. To date, nearly four million refugees have fled to Poland, Romania, Hungary, anywhere that will have them. Their faces run with tears; their mouths open in a collective cry of anguish that reverberates around the world.
Chagrined, I am the safe observer, watching from a world apart. I read about men who have set aside their careers as tennis players to fire British-made anti-tank weapons. Women who opt to stay in occupied cities caring for the wounded or shouldering machine guns, firing again and again until the guns grow too hot to hold. From this safe distance, I could, if I chose to, block this out. Pretend that what happens between Russia and Ukraine has nothing to do with me. But I take a larger view, knowing that this conflict is part of an appalling attack on democracy and human decency. Soon enough, rising oil prices and scarcity of wheat, corn, and fertilizer will impact us all. And if this devolves into World War III, everything will change, and the clock will edge closer still.
In an effort to quell a wave of grief, I try to meditate. Breath in. Out. In. But instead of the calm I crave, my mind paints images of burned-out cars, gutted buildings, pulverized streets, bodies covered in tarps. What was once a country of elegant cities is now a graveyard. I imagine those who soldier on, grit burning their eyes, phantom booms ringing in their ears from bombs that fell earlier in the day, lungs choked by the relentless smoke with its burnt rubber smell.
The landscape too is a casualty. In photos, fields are pocked with mortar blasts and trees are stunted and chard just weeks before the birds return to nest. What will become of the golden oriole, the melodious Calandra lark, the elegant Siberian crane with a global population of fewer than 4,000 individuals?
How can I not grieve for them all? I want to gather orphaned children into my arms to feed and wash them, and tuck them safely into a warm bed. I want to find the lost dogs, the terrified cats, the displaced birds. I am overwhelmed by the wrongness of it all.
As someone with Buddhist leanings, I consider the notion of compassion. It’s easy respond with compassion for the Ukrainian people. Easy even to sympathize with Russians caught up in a war they never saw coming.
I can imagine a Russian soldier. One who would rather be on vacation drinking beer in a Kiev pub, instead of bombing it. A Russian soldier with Ukrainian cousins going back generations. How he must wrestle with himself when he knowingly firebombs the town where he went to college, or follows orders to open fire on an apartment complex where his grandparents lived until they fled, until just days ago.
But even Buddhism, with its central teachings of forgiveness and loving-kindness, makes exceptions for certain unforgivable sins. The Russian pilot who willingly dropped a 1000-kilogram bomb on a theatre was almost certainly aware that it harbored hundreds of Ukrainian women and children. The word “children” in Russian was painted in huge letters in the parking lot in good faith, not as a target. For him I find no forgiveness. My compassions lie squarely with his victims.
Gratitude, another essential teaching of Buddhism, can help balance out the awful nature of war. To that end, I have gratitude for the governments who have unified behind sanctions and streamlined the process for refuges entering their countries. I have gratitude for the people who make an extra bedroom available for a family and set the table with enough plates and food for everyone. Gratitude for women who placed strollers and blankets at the border in preparation for mothers whose arms ache from carrying babies and hauling suitcases. Gratitude too for longer days and warmer weather to come, to ease the difficulties that winter brings to this war.
Still, I wonder how my compassion and gratitude can be enough. Here I am, looking out over the tranquil waters of the bay under an overcast sky, one hundred shades of blue, seeing everything, and doing almost nothing.
But there’s this - I stand for the spirit of Democracy – the greatest experiment of our times. I stand with the Ukrainian people who fight not just for their lives and country but also for a fragile concept of choice and freedom. They fight not knowing if they can win, only knowing they must resist this violent injustice if there is to be any chance of securing the future of Democracy for all of us.
The events we currently face challenge us at a collective level as never before. We have this opportunity to get it right, together.