Views are solely my opinion. I am not a journalist and am simply publishing to share and describe my feelings.
My father was born and raised in Ukraine, my mother born in Armenia and raised in Ukraine. My grandparents lived throughout Ukraine and Russia. My older brother was born in Ukraine, and a few years later, my parents immigrated to the US as refugees. Three years later, I was born in America. Three years can feel quite long to most of us, but it’s a blip. The tiniest stroke of luck that has made the difference between my taking a safe walk in my neighborhood this morning and having had to flee or pick up arms this morning.
I am struck by how my feelings in response to the situation in Ukraine are physiological. I have a slight headache, tension or tingling around my heart, a subtle crunching feeling in my stomach. I’m a very sensitive person, and when I feel depressed, it’s not just a mood, I actually experience the cells in my body respond. Last night, I felt it throughout my body, but especially in my right shoulder, as if it were drooping. As if the cells were little people who all together decided to take a seat and sulk a little. None of these are strong, nor intense, they’re just mild changes due to an emotional response. I’m sure there are many doctors who can explain what’s happening – what chemicals are being secreted by my brain resulting in this physiological response.
I am also struck by how our collective experience, including my own, of this war is so drastically different from any comparable event pre-2009 (iPhone, social media). If this happened before 2009, I might have read it on a newspaper (digital or print), and I would have read the one or two headline articles, been sad, and not known how else to proceed… most likely would have proceeded with my day however it was planned. If this happened before 2009, I may have seen it on the news on the TV and watched it for a while. I probably would have had a similar emotional response, but again, wouldn’t know what else to do, would have gone on with my day.
But this is happening now, in 2022. With it happening now, I have access to a smartphone, to live coverage of a NATO meeting (last night) and of reporters with the major networks, I have access to Twitter, to live updates in the New York Times app. That changes a lot. I have this feeling in my shoulders and head and chest and stomach and I can stretch them beyond their initiation. I can keep reading Twitter and the New York Times. I can type up my feelings quickly, I can donate to humanitarian and military aid. I can keep watching and scrolling and typing. It is conceivable that my own actions are prolonging my malaise.
I have been curious about my friends’ and colleagues’ utterances about a collective lack of empathy. We keep saying this, so many of us keep saying that there’s some sort of crisis in empathy. Well, I cannot speak for others but empathy is part of the reason I have this feeling in my chest right now. Right or wrong, helpful or harmful, this is an empathic response.
Since 2009 (ish), most of us have had this amount of access and have been continuously barraged with these types of news. For me, personally, this feels like the worst of it, but that doesn’t mean other recent devastating events might not have enacted worse emotional responses in others. Different pieces of news tug at our heart strings in varying ways. It’s a peculiar position to have this much access and information, other than being there, we get an exceptionally clear view of what is happening, and obviously that affects us.
Many people got the news this morning, from one outlet or another, and probably saw it as another iteration of bad news in this never-ending string, acknowledged that with a mental check mark, then moved on with their day. One might accuse this person of lacking empathy. Perhaps in that moment, it is, but I think this is a learned behaviour and learned response to the barrage of bad news. We have gotten used to a flood of bad news and our psychological immune systems need some way to cope. So we might segregate it, box it up as “a thing that’s happening over there,” as if “over there” is not connected to “over here.”
The fact is that we stand on the same ground as Ukraine. Not metaphorically, in actuality. We drink the same water and we breathe the same air. And that might be a challenging concept to acknowledge, but where else do you think the air and water come from? There are no physical barriers separating this. Sure, some countries have walls, maps have borders, but air and water molecules don’t care about that.
As one begins to put this into perspective, this war in Ukraine no longer feels like a war in Ukraine, it feels like a war we are all experiencing. I don’t mean to trivialize the action on the ground – I have extraordinary compassion for the people of Ukraine fighting right now and I wish them inordinate luck. I have immense respect and appreciation for the journalists on the ground now covering this, and for the neighboring countries and charities offering aid.
I also have compassion for the people who saw their emails this morning, read the headline then deleted it. For those who got on Twitter, saw what was going on, and scrolled on to something else.
I don’t think that empathy is the problem here. Empathy doesn’t always serve us well. I’m nearly envious of those folks who haven’t reacted emotionally, they’ve got their biological and psychological systems functioning in ways that are helping them continue to be productive citizens, continue to care for their families and friends, continue to take care of themselves. These are all good things. I don’t think the problem is that the empathy switch was never flicked in these people. Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I imagine the fuse box associated with that switch may have gone out a while ago. Or the wiring is weak. That is completely imaginable to me, because the news was bad yesterday, and the day before that, and the week before that, and every year prior. At one point it’s just another set of characters or words, that’s all the meaning it holds any more.
However, this situation is especially grave and many of us are noticing it. #StandWithUkraine is trending on Twitter because people are actually taking moments to tweet that. So, while some people went on with their lives, many others did have an empathic response and moved their fingers to signal it. Some of us are staring at our screens, hoping we’ll just wake up from this nightmare, waiting for Biden’s speech in a few minutes. But is empathy serving us well here?
Tweeting isn’t nothing. Donating is better. Calling our friends and relatives is also good. In my stature, those (and this) are just about the best I can do. There isn’t something to vote on today and I don’t have the power to enact policies. I’m also not willing to risk my life by hopping on a plane and going to fight. That is suicidal – bad for me, bad for those who know me, and most likely bad for the Ukrainian predicament.
(10:05am PST) Ukraine just lost Chernobyl. I don’t know what Putin or Russia want with it, but I am terrified.
If you want to stand with Ukraine with me, I suggest you donate to these two causes:
International Rescue Committee, addressing the incoming humanitarian crisis
National Bank of Ukraine’s (NBU) account to raise funds for Ukraine’s Armed Forces (to view page in English, click “En” in top right corner)