Purpose

Purpose

Anyone out there feeling strange feelings in response to Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine? I’m not talking about anger or fear or frustration or dread. Those are all media-friendly and acceptable in wartime. I’m talking about jealousy.

Part of me envies Ukrainian residents right now. I admit it. Hiding my feelings has never done me much good, so fuck it: I am jealous. This doesn’t mean I don’t fear for their safety or mourn their innocent (all innocent) dead. It doesn’t mean I minimize the agony and losses that will only accumulate as this continues. But, as Chris Hedges reluctantly argues in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, our pleasant or unpleasant daily existence cannot compare with the addictive urgency of fighting or running for your life. Former war correspondents and soldiers don’t suffer from depression just because of the horrors they’ve seen or done in combat, they are also depressed because they are not in combat. What could be more real, more present, more in the moment than constantly being on guard for your very life, and the lives of those you feel compelled to protect? It’s physically and emotionally unsustainable (ask a pandemic nurse, if you don’t know a soldier), but it’s hardly depressing.

There are convincing theories, too, that the more comfortable we become as humans, the more anxious and lost we are likely to be. Those of us who have benefited from capitalism, etc. are only forced to face our own mortality on rare occasions, whereas our ancestors were up against it daily, either via hunger, predators, or deadly illness. Look, safety is great. It paved the way for all the things that fill our existentialist lives now. Art and philosophy and love replaced running for our lives and making babies so our species doesn’t die out as ways to give our lives meaning, and I would never trade them for the adrenaline of war.

Not permanently.

Victor Frankl believed that a sense of purpose made the biggest difference between surviving and slowly dying in the concentration camps. Some speculate that the invasion on our Capital last year, the growth in QAnon conspiracy followers, the need to believe in the Big Lie comes largely out of boredom. That those folks have manufactured something that threatens their country, their children, their democracy in order to feel that rush of purpose. I’m not desperate enough to go that route, but I sympathize. I try to redirect my inherent need for meaning, if it does exist, into approaching the world with a relatively passive commitment to kindness and compassion. I try to resist the compulsion to find a villain and a position on which to hang my focus.

But, damn. Can the enemy, the goal, and the urgency be more clear than today in Ukraine? I know it’s never as simple as it seems, but what it seems is that a ruthless, murdering, amoral dictator is attempting to take over an independent, Democratic country in an attempt to restore a long-dead empire and increase his own power. His rhetoric attempts to erase the strong cultural identification of Ukrainians, and he flat out lies about the government and the people. I admire the civilians who are taking up arms to defend their cities, but I don’t find this surprising in the least. What greater purpose could you ask for? Not just protecting oneself or one’s family, but one’s cultural brothers and sisters, land, way of life, political freedom, language, heritage, etc. etc. I heard on the radio this morning that folks who had left the country when war started to look inevitable are now returning to fight. Volodymyr Zelensky adds more fuel to the righteous fire in his refusal to leave or be cowed by Putin. A great purpose and an honorable leader? I mean, come on!

So, yeah. I’m jealous. I don’t know if there are atheists in a foxhole, but I’ll bet there are no depressives. All the systems that our body employs to respond to a clear and present danger preempt depression. The floating anxiety that seems to crave a target, and which our systems seek to fill with abstract, random, manufactured worries transform in battle into real, tangible concerns, ones we can prepare for and fight against.

There are real devastating and apocalyptic things happening all around us in this century. The pandemic and global warming, to name a few. But climate change doesn’t present us with a clear way to stand up to it, not one that is inspiring and motivating, anyway. And the pandemic doesn’t present a way for most of us to contribute, other than by isolation and inactivity, which feel purposeless and depressing. Some do a good job of forcing urgency – chaining themselves to pipeline construction or even less extreme protests – and that can help both society and the individual involved, but when your community continues to roll along as if nothing is wrong, it’s very difficult to sustain motivation there, either. Medical professionals on the aptly named “front lines” of the pandemic have more than enough purpose, but it’s not just the excess that is wearing on them; it’s the disconnect between the war they face at work, and the obliviousness outside of the hospital. Some drone operators may suffer more psychologically than soldiers on the ground, because they likewise inhabit a world in which the battle they are fighting is invisible once they step off base. That is certainly not the situation in the Ukraine.

Look, I advocate for nonviolence, and my inclination is toward nonviolence, but it is not a ride or die position for me. And I can’t say for sure that it is the right answer for every person in every situation. I don’t know what I would do if I were a Ukrainian in the Ukraine right now. Most of those Russian soldiers probably don’t want to be there either, and could be the victims of reactive Ukrainian violence that is yet another element of the injustice seething from every pore of this attack. I am not minimizing the horror of this situation. But I don’t believe in binaries anymore. It is frightening and monstrous AND it would be really nice to feel, in my body, that I truly mattered to something greater than myself, that I could make a real, life-or-death difference in my community, that I could make a meaningful sacrifice.

Blessings to all those good people, regardless, as I sit here with the luxury to ponder, and critique, and analyze, and envy. May you be well. May you be happy. May you be safe.