Since Thursday, I’ve kept a tab open in a web browser for updates on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The main feeling I had, and still have, is grief accompanied by powerlessness. Perhaps you have felt it, too.
This newest invasion already has and is certainly going to result in even more terrible devastation. As Human Rights Watch summarized, the current invasion has been simmering, sometimes boiling over, since 2014:
“The armed conflict between government forces and Russia-backed armed groups has taken a heavy toll on civilians in eastern Ukraine. The conflict, ongoing for almost eight years, has killed over 16,000 people, including both combatants and civilians, and has displaced close to 1.5 million. The fighting has also led to widespread damage and destruction of civilian infrastructure, including homes, hospitals, and schools on both sides of the 427-kilometer line of contact … .”
We are witnesses of these things, of a situation going from bad to worse, and the terrible price that will be paid in life, wellbeing, and happiness. Yet we do not yet know the full price that will be paid; we grieve for this, too.
We often speak from the viewpoint of the large scale of things: the history behind the Russia-Ukraine conflict; the political aspects, such as the role of NATO; the religious aspects, such as the tension between branches of the Orthodox Churches; the global trends, such as the rise of authoritarianism and the role of nationalism in Russia’s justifications.
But in these first days of the invasion, my grief leads me back to the humanity that is lost in war, both those who die and those who live to bear the scars. When I close my eyes, I see the masses huddled in subway stations seeking protection from falling bombs, and I remember the disabled and people with limited mobility who are unable to seek safety in that way.
I read the proclamation barring all males aged 18-60 from leaving the borders of Ukraine as part of the general mobilization of the military. I see a human being kneeling beside the body of another human being killed by an air strike. I feel pride and fear for the protestors arrested in Russia. I think about the stream of refugees already fleeing the violence, numbering at least 120,000 so far. I hear the pleas of organizations like UNICEF to support the needs of vulnerable children and families, including “510,000 children — living in the Donbas region.” Amnesty International is already documenting indiscriminate violence against civilian populations and infrastructure, such as hospitals. And the invasion of Ukraine has also reminded us of the risks of living in an age of nuclear weapons.
The injuries of past wars are still alive, largely untended and still tender, in our histories, cultures, and generations. These unhealed wounds are part of why it is so painful to observe the new wounds being made in Ukraine. As a pastor, I have worked with veterans who were still struggling with the cost of war decades after they were discharged.
As a peace worker in Cambodia, I saw the trauma of war still living in people’s hearts, influencing cultures, and scarring the land itself, decades after the official end of war. The wounds of war are deep and last a long time, unless and until we decide, as a society, to do the work to heal them. In the current situation, we have both the immediate responsibility to help bring about an end to the war in Ukraine as swiftly as possible, and a long-term responsibility to help bring about healing and rebuilding for all who have been impacted.
Part of this work is within us – in our hearts and in our communities. Those feelings of grief and powerlessness too often pass without any healing or resolution. We move from one crisis to the next, without changing either ourselves or the world. I hold close to my own heart the story of Maha Ghosananda, who tirelessly worked for peace in Cambodia. He was practicing at a temple in Thailand, and then became trapped there, when the violence broke out and the Khmer Rouge came into power.
He learned that all of his family had been murdered. He learned of the many monastics who were killed. He struggled with what to do. To return to Cambodia at that moment would not accomplish anything, but he was also overwhelmed by his grief. It seemed all he had left was his tears. But his teacher, Dhammadaro, told him: “Be mindful. Prepare for the day when you can truly be useful to your country.” This became Maha Ghosananda’s practice, so that when it became possible for him to return to Cambodia, he would be ready to return. He taught: “The present is the mother of the future. Take care of the mother. Then the mother will take care of the children.” Maha Ghosananda did return to Cambodia, and the fruit of his efforts are still remembered and live on, especially in the renewed commitments of Socially Engaged Buddhists.
Our grief is an important response to war. Our hearts should be tender. And we should also respond, even in our powerlessness. If you are inclined, contact government officials and support aid groups. Please act in whatever ways you can. But please also remember the lesson Dhammadaro taught Maha Ghosananda.
What can you begin learning now, practicing now, that could help heal the last war or prevent the next war? How can you prepare now, so that when the opportunity to act reaches you, you are ready? Even in our powerlessness and grief, there is a way to move forward. “The present is the mother of the future. Take care of the mother. Then the mother will take care of the children.”