In Times of War: Gifts

This week’s offering is short due to the conjunction of my 75th birthday and the spring holidays. The war and its personal repercussions are never far from our thoughts. My family celebrates Passover, and the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine came up many times in our conversation. We all saw Putin as a would-be latter-day Pharoah, certainly a tyrant. There’s a part in the ritual where we call out the names of the plagues visited upon Egypt when Pharoah refused to let Moses and the Israelites free. Our Haggadah includes calling out the names of contemporary plagues. We all looked at one another and said, “Putin!”

And yet, the holiday reminds us to have compassion, even for our enemies. There’s a part in our version where angels start singing when the Egyptian soldiers are drowned in the Red Sea. HaShem admonishes them by saying, “The work of my hands is dying and you want to sing hymns?”

I’m not suggesting anyone should pray for Putin. I very much suspect that if he were to keel over from a massive heart attack tomorrow, there would be dancing in the streets in more than one nation. As much as we hold him responsible and abhor his actions, what do we want from him? Certainly, to stop waging war on Ukraine. To pay reparations to make ameliorate the grievous wrongs he is solely or primarily responsible for?

If we say we want Putin to be punished and to suffer for what he has done, the question remains, in what way? How is it possible to quantify the amount of human suffering—not to mention financial loss, environmental degradation, the ruin of cities? How can there be amends for such heinous crimes?

As a corollary: If we focus all our righteous outrage and even hatred on one man, what are we then ignoring? Even if Putin were to be tried in an international court of law and found guilty, even if he were to be deposed or assassinated by his own people, that cannot bring back the slaughtered Ukrainians or restore their once-beautiful cities. For all our focus on the unfolding military conflict and economic sanctions, consider what it does to us to turn away from what we can do, if only in small measure, for those in desperate need of help.

I love home generous Americans and our allies can be when we see the need. This is why I asked friends and family to donate to Doctors Without Borders (Médicins Sans Frontières) instead of birthday gifts. While the $1500 is a small drop in the bucket of need, I know it is part of the effort to save lives and alleviate suffering. I chose this charity because it’s one of my long-standing causes and I believe in the work they do.

I have also found that taking action, no matter how small, helps me to feel less powerless in the face of seemingly overwhelming evil in the world. We’re in a position to make small donations of money. I don’t think that’s necessary. Small actions of lovingkindness can be even more powerful.

 

If this post is meaningful to you, please link to it. And check out my previous posts.

In Times of War: How Will This End?

At best, uncertainty is a difficult emotional state. We live in a world of routines, reliable cause-and-effect, and pattern recognition. We don’t need to test gravity every time we take a step, which is a good thing. We make assumptions about how people we know well (or people in general) are going to behave, based on their past actions. (Erratic behavior, whether due to mental illness, substance abuse, or misreading body language, can be traumatic, especially for children.) We anticipate many things, from the functioning of traffic lights to our own digestion to the reaction of a deer suddenly come upon in a meadow, based on our understanding of “how things work.” We use these strategies all the time without thinking about it. Having a reasonable sense of how events will unfold frees up mental (and physical) energy and gives us a sense of control over our lives.

Unexpected things happen, of course. Most of the time they’re ordinary bumps and bruises like burned dinner, a sprained ankle, a higher-than-normal electricity bill, or a traffic ticket.  They can be terrible: 9-11, a hurricane, the wildfires that swept through my part of the country a couple of years ago and resulted in my family evacuating for a month. A death in the family. Often we have little or no advance warning: it’s over, leaving us stunned or horrified or grief-stricken. We don’t get to vote on what happened, we only get to pick up the pieces afterwards. At other times, we have advance notice, like the wildfires or other weather events (but not earthquakes, lived through a couple of big ones, too) or Covid-19. We grab the kids and the pets and get out of town; we wear masks and stay home, and so forth. Even if there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves, we often have a pretty good idea how things are going to go. Not always, of course. I remember staying glued to local news while camped out in our hotel room, anxiety eating away at me as the fires got closer to our house; I’d go to sleep certain that in the morning, our place would be ashes (but it survived with only a little storm damage).

I think war is fundamentally different. On a day-to-day basis, for those in the fighting zones, it must be like a monstrous union between the Chicxulub impact, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the Black Death. Adrenaline fight-or-flight panic overload survival time, one blast at a time. But for those of us watching the catastrophe unfold from afar, anxiety takes over as the dominant emotion. Watching one horrific event after another taxes our ability to pay attention to the present moment, and that is normal. It’s in our DNA to anticipate what will happen next. In our minds, we flee to the future.

Where will Russia strike next? What weapons will they use? What can we do to shield Ukrainian civilians? Will anything come of the peace talks? What will China—or India—do?

Enter the pundits and op-ed writers, predicting everything from the economic collapse of Russia and Putin being deposed, to Russia bludgeoning Ukraine into surrender to plots, to assassinate Zelenskyy to even wilder speculations. They speculate about increasingly grim futures: Is this a prelude to nuclear war? The collapse of Russia and a worldwide recession? We gobble up the columns, even though they often leave us feeling even more anxious and wretched than before.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

I think the answer lies in how predictability lowers anxiety, and the greater the stakes, the stronger the allure of a promised outcome. Not-knowing is a hellish limbo, and all too often it’s more intolerable than believing an authoritative voice with a fixed answer, no matter how grim.

I’ve started avoiding those opinion pieces. I see headlines while I’m scrolling through news, but I’m getting better at not clicking on them. Instead, I remind myself that masking anxiety with visions of doom is not likely to help anyone, beginning with myself. The truth is that I don’t have a crystal ball—and for sure the pundits don’t, either.

Working myself into a lather harms impairs my ability to think clearly. It cannot affect the outcome of the war.

Powerlessness is hard, and in evolutionary terms it’s dangerous. But when it is our true condition, the best way to manage it is by seeing it for what it is, and then finding ways to make a big difference in our own lives through good self-care and a small difference in the world.

In Times of War: A Flood of Horrific News

After the 2016 Presidential election, I wrote a series of blog posts, “In Troubled Times.” In them I explored my evolving feelings of disbelief, shock, horror, despair, fury, and rising determination. “Nevertheless, She Persisted” became our mantra. I hoped that my words provided solace and inspiration to others, and the process of putting them down did for me.

Now we face new, often overwhelming challenges to sanity. I find myself reacting to the news of the war in Ukraine, and yet being unable to look away. Then my friend, Jaym Gates, wrote this on her Facebook page, posted here with her permission.

Be really careful on social media for the next few days, friends. A lot of footage of Russian Federation war crimes, torture, rape, and murder just came out from Mariupol and other occupied cities. It is *horrific.* While it needs to be seen, shared, and remembered, it is going to be extremely traumatic to engage with.

If you’re a survivor of abuse or trauma, in particular, please be especially careful.

And send support to Ukraine if you can. What’s happening there is awful beyond words.

 My daughter, a psychology student, spotted this article by Heather Kelly in the Washington PostHow to stay up-to-date on terrible news without burning out.

It can be hard to look away from your phone and live your life while terrible events are unfolding, Kelly writes. There’s an unrelenting flow of images, videos and graphic updates out of Ukraine, filling social media, messaging apps and news sites.

It’s important to stay informed, engaged and even outraged. But it’s also important to pay attention to our own limits and mental health by taking breaks, looking for signs of burnout and consuming news in the smartest way possible.

That means setting some ground rules for the main portal connecting us to nonstop tragedy: our phones [or computers]. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Give yourself permission to take a break

It is okay to hit pause on the doom and go live your life, whether that means going outside with the kids or just losing yourself on the silly side of TikTok. It’s necessary for everyone’s mental health.

  1. Take time for self-care

A break is not a few minutes away from Twitter. Start with real breaks of at least 30 minutes to an hour so that your brain has time to come down from what you were last watching or reading. Ideally, you’ll put your phone down and take a technology break … or do some activities known to help with stress reduction, including exercise, mindfulness and meditation, journaling, engaging in hobbies and other activities you enjoy, spending time with family and friends, and doing faith-based activities if you practice.

  1. Change your news habits

Disinformation like propaganda is designed to capture your attention and elicit strong emotions, which can contribute to any anxiety you’re already feeling. Instead, stick with reputable sources. If you can wait, opt for deeply reported stories at the end of the day over constant smaller updates. Avoid using social media for news, but if you do, follow sources and people that contribute to your understanding of an issue rather than those that just generate more outrage.

  1. View your phone in black and white

In your smartphone’s accessibility settings there is an option to make the screen black and white instead of color. Some studies have indicated that turning this on leads to less screen time.

  1. Know when to ask for help

Look for signs that you are burned out or experiencing serious anxiety. First, consider whether you’re predisposed to reacting strongly to a particular issue. Anyone who has personally dealt with similar trauma or war in the past might find constant vivid social media posts about Ukraine to be triggering. [Italics mine.]

In conclusion: be kind to yourself, friends. Practice healthy boundaries and filters, and good self-care. Ask for help, whether it’s a friend or family member screening news for triggers, or a companion on a hike through the redwoods. Find safe people to reach out to. I’ll be writing more about our journey together.