Hello from my office on a day that seems to hint a seasonal change,
The desire for Spring only grows more fervent as each day seems to say we’re not there yet. It is amazing how easily we are spoiled by a few warm days and the incredible natural motivator, also known as the sun. This winter has hung in there in ways I do not remember recently. We have not gotten the snow, but the bitter, cold, damp reality of Pennsylvania in March has been front and center. It is now almost the middle of April, and while I see daffodils, hyacinths, and other Spring flowers, little on my daily walks to the university has felt like we are on the summer side of March 21st. These days only push my intentionality to move somewhere outside the states when I retire. Some would argue I do not need too many more reasons, but I will add to my rationale anyway possible.
Over the past week, while watching the news, reading various opinions, and trying to wrap my brain around all that is going on, I have come to one conclusion, and it is a startling one for someone who is generally optimistic in my views of human nature. I want to believe in the goodness of people, and generally I do. I believe when people are offered an opportunity to stand up and make a difference, to do something for the common good, most often they will. I witnessed that these last weeks when so many people stood up to assist a family when they lost everything to a fire. I have witnessed it in my classes when I speak with my students and they offer their sense of what is happening and how they hope for better. That very ability to yearn for goodness is an important thing. I see it when people are willing to spend over $12,000.00 to support students who are often maligned for their choices, their identity, or their stance on individual rights. Indeed, there is goodness in the world. The millions of Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee their homes, cities, and country have been supported by other countries, opening arms, buildings, supplying food, clothing, and other things (and I realize there is much more that needs to be done). My heart hurts for my friends, acquaintances, and others throughout the European continent, and for those I care about in Russia also. It is easy to become overwhelmed, disillusioned, or to come to the conclusion that the entire world has lost it, but I do not want to allow for such pessimism.
As some of you know, my dissertation is on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was hanged for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler. My work in trying to understand the incredible effectiveness in the communicational processes of an Austrian and his unparalleled ability to convince one of the most gifted nationalities in history to exterminate another group is mind boggling to me. And now, another group of people, under the spell, or so it seems, of a 21st century madman, who seems hellbent to destroy another group of people, and those profoundly close ethnically, linguistically, and religiously. How does this happen? How does one person convince the great majority of an entire country that what he is doing is reasonable, justifiable, necessary? All of these are difficult and complex questions, and there will be books written about this time, but allow me to offer some initial thoughts. First, Ukraine is much more complex as a country than most Americans realize. There are those who are probably supportive of the Russian invasion, and yes, those in the Donbas region. There are those who live in the southern part of the country that do not consider what is happening in Ukraine to be completely wrong. Ukraine is a complex compilation of people, religions, and ethnic connections. It might even be said that some of what Vladimir Putin has argued about Ukraine as a country has some validity. All that being said, what about the Russian mindset as they find themselves in the midst of being named country non grata? The 19th century Russian scholar Boris Grushenko noted this about their ability to suffer. “To love is to suffer,” he said. He would continue noting the only way to avoid suffering is to not love, but to not love also is a type of suffering. Consider what that says. It matters not whether we love or fail to love, we suffer. To suffer is also to suffer . . . we are happy when we love, but we will also suffer . . . is there any escape? If Grushenko is accurate, we have no options. And yet, are we that doomed? What happens when we consider this sort of self-reflective understanding of our psyche? Experiments about the consequence of self-reflection seemed to indicate the opposite (Wray Herbert). Interestingly, the difference between Russians and Americans seem to be more about the communal versus the individual. Russians, according to the experiments, are more focused on harmony in terms of their interpersonal and therefore the individual is thoughtfully connected to the larger context. Americans’ love affair with this sense of rugged individualism focuses on the personal. Again, according to the experiments performed, this immersion within one’s oself can more regularly lead to distress and depression. So what are we to say about the current state of Russia and its decisions?
While America is a relatively young country in the scope of civilized nations, we have been stable (for the most part). Our Civil War is the only real significant upheaval in our society since our independence (I realize some might argue our current situation post- January 6th is important, but hear me out for the moment). Russia, in just the 20th century went through two revolutions, two World Wars (they occurred on their soil), and a Civil War . . . and their own socioeconomic struggles and political upheaval in the 1990s has left them disillusioned. It has also affected their national and individual identity, created uncertainty about their future, and a simultaneous concern or melancholy as well as a nostalgic hope and connection to their socialist past. This is an oversimplification of their politics, but it is offered to provide some foundation. This does not even begin to consider their ethnical or national identity. In the United States, we have created this unique idea of State’s rights under the overarching idea of e pluribus unum. In spite of our current struggle with what occurred in our last election, we have managed to maintain this idea of 50 cats, but all cats, under a big umbrella, so to speak. The size of Russia as a federation (as they call it) is enormous, and it is a country of conquest. The 2010 census showed that there are 200 ethnic groups within the Russian Federation. Those most are Slavic, there are Turks, Mongols, Tatars, Ukrainians, Bashkirs, Chechens, and that is just the beginning. The Russian poet, Fyodor Tyutchev (1866) once said, “You cannot understand Russia with your mind . . . you can only believe in it.” In my reading, and in my experience, Russian people are respectful and emote little initially. Additionally, they take pride in their appearance. They are honest about their opinions, and are more than willing to share them, seeming to be more bold than perhaps they really are. They are incredibly connected to family and they desire to make personal relationships to be willing to trust, but there is still a caution they employ. There is a reason for networking and it is generally to create opportunity. I believe there is an authentic element to my Russian acquaintances that is refreshing if you will . . .
So a week has past and the world seems to be on a crash course for something. If I were to put all the events in the past eight days into some kind of box or storyboard, I think the cartoon Family Circus might appropriately characterize my life. From an amazing dinner to an Elton John concert, from school meetings and grading to Zoom meetings with other faculty and alumni, from celebrating Easter to waking up to a mid-April snowstorm, and finally from remembering the passing of my best friend on this date to worrying about another as they struggle to manage their life, it seems each day has created some collage of experience, thought, and consequence that has the appearance of an entire room of stuff thrown into a toy box haphazardly. Any attempt to structure it all will require significant thought, consideration, and effort. Perhaps that is the real truth to our lives. Structure is fundamental to our health, be it physically, mentally, or emotionally, but creating structure requires constant effort. It is hard work, but it is also habitual. The more careful and consistent we are the more we become habitual ironically by habit. That is just the way I seem to function most effectively. The consequence is also important. Those around us know what to expect; they know just what our capabilities are. I have witnessed once again what happens when one seems to have no capability to manage things. In spite of our incredible resilience, there is a threshold, a point when our body cannot respond to our actions. This is the case for us both individually and societally.
Inconsistency creates chaos. That is my mantra for the moment. The chaos one can create be they a single person in a relatively small group or the leader of a country is self-evident in my own view at this moment. As importantly is the domino-like fallout or consequence of their action. Perhaps this is the most poignant element or truthful aspect of our being inhumane. Our selfishness, or self-centered desires, for assuaging our wants, our needs, our irresistible habits create hurt for others. This narrow-sighted process leaves destruction both visible and unseen. Selfishness and abuse of power changes the hopes and dreams of those far beyond what can be understood or imagined. Perhaps selfishness is the ultimate example of our inhumanity. There is much more that could be said, but I have other work to do. Working on a summer syllabus and CMS work needs to occur so my students can know what is coming more than a day or two ahead. In the meanwhile I find it necessary to pray for those both near and far, hoping our inhumanity might be lessened.
Thanks as always for reading.