Sunday, March 13, 2022

Poppies

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.  

13 comments:

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post, containing much wisdom. I am still far from making any sense of the calamity that has struck Ukraine, while also dealing with the more predictable sadness of saying final goodbye last week to my fox terrier Bertie.
    Feeling slightly envious of the Mallorca cycle camp!
    Gail.

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  2. "Am I alone in feeling we’ve been given a chance to reset for the good?" It is, I think, very possible that you are. It is certainly not how I see the unfolding catastrophe and where it might lead. I only think of the hand of a dead woman protruding from a bloodied sheet and of a wicked wax-faced tyrant in palatial isolation and of an innocent girl singing "Let It Go" in Ukrainian in a crowded basement.

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  3. Hari Om
    The shock waves keep coming, don't they? I too have struggled in similar fashion. However, I seriuosly question your thought that Westminster clowns are any better now than they were three weeks back...we shall have to agree to differ.

    We are 100% in agreement, though, in appreciation of the privilege we have to live where we do and in relative comfort. And, in your case, to still have the benefit of travel by choice and not force. YAM xx

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  4. I have such a hard time with brutality and inequity and violence. I have taken a different perspective, one of not looking away. Probably a quarter of my friends have Ukrainian last names. There is a large population of Ukrainians in Canada and in Alberta. I have patients who were either born in Ukraine or have Ukrainian heritage. It's too close here.

    I've been donating to the Red Cross and have applied to take in a refugee family. I would volunteer as a nurse but our three year old grandson lives with us half the time and I still have my disabled daughter. I'm also kind of old but I have a strong need to do.

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  5. By '..for the good' I meant that we might stop deluding ourselves of the intentions and underlying evils of autocratic regimes (not just Russia but many other stoo) and just perhaps have the courage to reset our values (and indeed our policies) to ones that are ethically sound rather than economically convenient. I have reworded my text to make this clearer.

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  6. I think we all struggle with the juxtaposition of daily life in our (relatively) safe and secure countries with the misery being faced by the Ukrainians. I'd like to think this will remind us all of the value of unity and cooperation in the face of evil, but even in the West right-wing commentators (yes, right-wing!) are using Russian propaganda to divide the populace and to work against Joe Biden. We are truly in la-la land.

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  7. I find it difficult to answer. I think we should look at the situation with clear eyes and therefore accept that the human race never learns. Western culture is lulled into a sense of false security and then gets puzzled when we are attacked. The current situation is immeasurably sad for the people caught between two ideologies. But as a 'Green' I would argue Western values need several more worlds for our pleasures.

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  8. Wish I was in Majorca. Have a great week.

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  9. The world needs Russia - not as a counter-point or punching bag but as a full and willing contributor to all features of humanity. Why, in some ideological effort to make Russia an international power have generations of its leaders impoverished its own people, not just in material terms but also in their ability to express and participate in the design and development of their own communities and gain a wider understanding of the world they exist in? Yesterday we had a conversation about what we and the people around us would do if the prime ministers of our respective countries enacted legislation to make themselves autocrat for life - could you imagine it happening in UK? I can't imagine any New Zealand leader being allowed by the populace to get away with that. (I would be tearing the bricks out of the symbols of power with my bare hands if I had to.) Ukrainians have begun to taste some of the 'privilege' of being masters of their personal and collective destinies - I hope they succeed in their fight to continue along that path and I wish the same for the benighted people of so much of Russia.

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  10. The horrific attacks on Ukraine are a wake-up call to the world. Defending democracy is key. Sadly, as long as non-democratic leaders exist, the world will need to rally to safeguard democracy.

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  11. I think I have given up on humanity. We are human but we are not humane. Not as a species, I think. Of course, there are many uncountable good people on earth, doing the best they can to treat others as they would want to be treated. But there is and will always be, that thread of evil, of cruelty, of the desire to control the will of others.
    This is just the latest reminder of that.
    But I will say that being in the shadow (figuratively, if not literally) of such horror brings both darkness and light to my own life. I am so very grateful that we here are not in danger like that and yet, at the same time, I feel guilty for the same reason. Why should the Ukrainians suffer while we do not?

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  12. The juxtaposition of the comfort and security of my life at this moment with the sun streaming in the windows and a cozy fire burning, seen alongside the horror and brutality of what is happening in Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis in Europe is hard to grasp. I feel angry. I feel helpless.
    My grandparents (all of them) came from Ukraine after the Russian revolution. They were of Dutch and German heritage and were offered sanctuary in Ukraine by another Russian invader, Catherine the Great. Earth's geography is so complicated.
    I fear we in the west have become complacent and perhaps this is, as you've suggested, a time to rethink policies with ethics in mind rather than economics. Cynically, I fear that economics will always win.

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  13. I've just discovered your blog after seeing a comment of yours on another blog so I hopped on over. Who would have thought it, but I live just down the road from you (where you have a house???). I'm in a small village just above La Roche-sur-Foron so I know many of the places you write about, although you are obviously fit enough to explore and me - well not so much, although I do make the effort. And I agree with you that it's hard to be looking out over such beauty and even try to imagine some of the horrors that are going on not so far east of here! I shall have fun reading back through your blog though!

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