|Photo by Benry Be, Unsplash|
A little under three weeks ago I sat with my youngest son on the crest of the Col du Ranfolly, the Pointe de Nyon to our left; the ridge of the Roc d'Enfer sparkling in a cobalt sky. We'd ordered burgers and fries from a buvette that supplies the skiers who come here for their annual fix of alpine adrenaline. In truth, it's as pre-packaged an experience as the fast-food we were about to tuck into.
I'm not being critical here, just telling the truth as I see it. And admitting too, that, despite my misgivings, I'm one of those hundreds of thousands for whom the heady cocktail of sociability, snow and sliding is an addictive draw each winter. For all that my favourite skiing is in the back-country, ideally alone or hanging back from the pack, by far the majority is on the groomed pistes that are the manufactured playgrounds of middle-class folk like me.
Perhaps it was the Arcadian nature of our situation that explains why the news hit me so hard. I suspect the subliminal unease in our privilege plays a part too. Of course, it might simply have been the shock of the unthinkable... But whatever the reason, when my son said 'have you seen that they've full-on invaded Ukraine' it suddenly all felt so wrong.
In the passing of that one sentence, the contrast between the beauty of our location and the horror of wider circumstance became all too clear. The thought of finishing our food only to career carefree down the slopes seemed grossly inappropriate. I wanted to get back, to return home and take comfort in those I loved…
But if I'm honest my heart sank for less noble reasons too.
The prospect of another crisis—on top of Brexit and the pandemic and the rising cost of living—surfaced deep, if selfish, anxieties. Will we ever, I wondered, be free of this grinding uncertainty? Is our yearning for security, like Helen Keller claimed, 'mostly superstition'—out of reach of the children of men? Her assertion may well be right in fact, but the longing is real and heartfelt, for few of us are truly stoic by nature.
These last two weeks I've limited my exposure to popular news and certainly avoided social media. Not because I want to hide away but because I'm wary of their amplification of the noise and its impact on my own, and indeed our collective, wellbeing. I know too well the process of generating stories and constructing narratives that do little to improve our knowledge but a lot to worsen our worries.
Quiet reflection, coupled with a steely resolve to stand by our conclusions, is not what sells newspapers, generates clicks or raises viewer ratings. And yet—for me at least—this internal reasoning is what's most needed to find peace with, rather than panic in, the actions we must now take.
The historian Yuval Noah Harari spends weeks each year on meditative retreats to see things as they really are. That's not an appropriate response to an international crisis, but perhaps there’s something in it for our coming to terms with the long-term implications of the course we must follow. Might it also help put into perspective our other worries and fixations? As I write these words, I'm conscious that Brexit, the pandemic, the cost of living… all seem so trivial compared to what’s happening a mere few hundred miles from Berlin.
Perhaps then, a tangential benefit of this upheaval is that we might find the courage to focus more on what really matters—not just in geo-politics but in our daily lives too. Is it just possible that in facing into issues that are existentially vital we might begin to abandon our obsessions with the inconsequential and worry less about what cannot be changed? Some of us might even learn to give more thanks for the overwhelming (and largely unearned) good fortune we enjoy?
It has taken me a fortnight to be able to write this post, the issues—and the feelings they evoke—shapeshifting in my mind. Only gradually has my heartbeat slowed. But with its calming has come a greater acceptance of the realities of the world and the potential for evil which deep down we always knew was there. There’s an affirmation too of what needs to be done and a resolve to see it through rather than wish it away. In some strange way, it almost feels good to have this clarity forced upon us.
So no denial for sure.
Though curiously, and certainly unexpectedly, in reflecting these last two weeks I’ve found myself more hopeful than I might have imagined. If the situation in Ukraine gets worse by the day there is, I sense, a flicker (if not quite a flame) of optimism in the exposure of our delusions and the galvanising shock of a truth that's been hiding in plain sight. There’s a refreshing honesty too in the equally plain actions we’ve taken, and a rare pride in the unity of democratic governments and their recommitment to principles we’d let slide for too long. Am I alone in feeling that this wake-up call is a chance to reset our values (and our policies) to ones that are ethically sound rather than economically convenient?
This week I'm in Majorca, on a cycle camp that was first booked pre-pandemic. The very fact I'm here on holiday feels more poignant and privileged than it would have three weeks previous. Yesterday, as we rode in the warmth of a soft spring sun one of our group spoke unprompted of the delight she took in her retirement, listing her blessings—financial and otherwise—for all who cared to listen.
I didn't reply, but I counted my own, more aware than ever of the myriad protections that insulate me and my family from the cold realities faced by millions elsewhere. And as I did so—and this, I promise, is no word of a lie—I looked up from the wheel I’d been following, only to realise that we were riding through a field of poppies.