Human Rights

Choosing life during war

KATERYNA GLADKA*

The war arrived without warning. You can’t prepare for it, no matter how many bomb shelters and “Plan B” scroll through your mind. Less than a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, my friend and I were in Stockholm. From a distance, the situation in mid-February looked less alarming, though the last six months were pervaded by a feeling of unquenchable anticipation of disintegration and by psychological exhaustion. There was no more “space” in which all this could possibly fit. We had to return home on February 17, just when airline insurance companies began declining to insure flights over Ukraine, citing the threat of war. It was all “before.”

Honestly, I didn’t accept the appeal of insurers then as a sure sign that the war would begin. But the brain understood what it meant: that there is already solid intelligence that caused such actions. A representative of our airlines told us the day before departure that they were flying according to the schedule and were closely monitoring the situation in Ukraine. And I exhaled a little.

We returned to Kyiv, where I felt an almost physical feeling of calm before the storm. An imitation of the continuation of ordinary life with the jokes about the “daily invasion” predicted by various international media and some officials. But for Ukrainians who were activists during the Revolution of Dignity and continued to fight in the Donbass region, such predictions failed to impress. And in any case, we Ukrainians tend to think better of our neighbors than they really are. It was difficult to imagine that the surrealism in the heads of a group of people in Russia trying to rewrite the twentieth century, would reach such proportions. Or that long-established rules of warfare would turn to dust.

I overslept the first explosions. The irony of fate is waking up to the news that the full-scale war has begun. Everything inside me seemed to freeze, as on an old computer. I went out to a coffee shop near my house to find out what other people were saying and what they were planning. The emotions of the visitors and the owners were different—anxious humor, family evacuation plans, some chaotic forecasts and complete confidence that in a few days we will turn the “uninvited guests” back. Nervous laughter and restless eyes of women were the first beacons for me that something really happened. Over the next few days and nights, my prayers were accompanied by the sounds of sirens and explosions. Every “How are you?”, we said, means “I love you.”

I’m no alarmist, but my body was recording all the sounds, as if on a flash drive, and in the first days it was trembling. To die like this? From a missile hitting the house? I thought a lot about how I perceive death in general, and day after day I learned to accept any development, without ceasing to keep in touch with colleagues and friends and pray every night. From the fourth day, the ear began to distinguish fifty shades of sounds, not to react so sharply to the sirens. Even my dog ​​began to distinguish when our guys from the Armed Forces repelled missiles with air defense systems. The sounds of war became our monotonous music. And the further the events unfolded, the fear disappeared, just as it disappeared in 2014 on the Maidan in Kyiv, when walking under bullets on the Hrushevskoho Street with a camera did not cause any special emotions. The only difference is that then we saw evil in front of us in one static place, and now you do not know every minute what and where it flies, or how this night will end.

Death and Gratitude

Yet in a sense, the internal sources of war are more powerful than external events. In simple terms: what war is being waged inside us, and why?

Everything we heard from our grandmothers about the Second World War or saw in the movies suddenly materialized. On February 24, the Ukrainian nation confronted a difficult challenge: to accept reality. What does it mean to accept? First of all, that war means that people will die. And not only soldiers.

The second level of acceptance is even deeper: nothing will be the same as before. Even if we win, even if we rebuild everything, we ourselves will not be the same as we were before. How can people who have seen hell and miracle be preserved in the past? Hell and a miracle in one day. Every day.

This returns us to reflection on death. Death is about saying goodbye to the past, to the old forms and old habits. Death forces us to leave the past in the past. It turns out that the walls are not a given, relatives are not a given, food on the table is not a given, freedom of movement is not a given.

My antidote is simple: gratitude. We must learn to be deeply grateful for all that we have here and now. For many years, various iconic figures came to Ukraine, from politicians to the most powerful spiritual teachers. Many of them expressed a similar feeling: this is a country of great potential. But in order to use this potential, you need to be able to appreciate it, to be grateful for it. Yet individually and collectively we continued to take many of our natural talents and changes for granted.

I came to a second reflection on the subject of death: Deciding to live is an inner choice, which cannot be made by someone else. Each person creates for himself the will to live and to survive. I think everyone remembers the story of Victor Frankl well. How many opportunities did he have to die every minute? Many. But he deeply analyzes what is the root of human will and what it means to choose life.

In early March, I was recording the story of a man who was sitting under bombardment in the basement of a house in Kharkiv with his mother and little daughter. They did not leave. Day after day, Grad rockets hit the city. And in these conditions, we talked to him (the war of the 21st century, it’s when you’re sitting in a bomb shelter, under fire, but with the Internet). At first he said: it is impossible to leave Kharkiv. And there was a clear feeling that he was talking not just about external danger, but about inner impossibility. Fear for yourself and your family, an emotional paralysis. But at one point something changed. Another decision was born inside him: what if I don’t cling to the place now, but escape. The next day he and his daughter managed to leave the city for Western Ukraine, and then abroad. Such a choice does not mean that everything will go easily. But it is a question of the decision inside—to live further. Absolutely sure to live on.

After the Flood

Everyone’s experience of this war is very different. Some fled under fire, some remained in a relatively quiet place, some rescued their relatives or animals, and some gave birth in a bomb shelter. We can’t combine all these experiences into one picture, but we can deduce two principles of how this reality works.

Principle 1: Everyone confronts precisely the conditions that he or she needs to find herself/himself, to learn the essential lessons. Nothing happens by accident.

Principle 2: Today, most people in Ukraine are experiencing a whole cocktail of heavy, negative, destructive emotions: anger, aggression, hate, despair, revenge, mourning, and many others. We feel an understandable urge not to keep it all to ourselves, but to cry and shout. We cannot build a new and progressive country on the foundations of hate. Evil in itself is not self-sufficient. It always joins the good and as if a curved mirror distorts the picture. This war is not just about the Russian invaders, but about how we are going to live, to fill ourselves. When the ark emerges from the flood, what will we create next?

It is possible that many people will discover knowledge and opportunities that they could not have imagined: sharper intuition, telepathy, greater clarity about the origins and meanings of life. And at the same time, there will always be people who focus on the “earthly” needs of the moment. They set up volunteer points, carry food, buy medicine, and of course fight. All this is exactly as described in Plato’s Republic. There are warriors, philosophers and rulers. To each his own. It is important not to underestimate any of these roles.

In each of these roles, hatred is definitely not a helper. To stop hating does not mean to justify. The crime must be named, responsibility must be acknowledged. But hatred never nourishes; it destroys from within.

Men, Women, and the Lessons of War

A century and a half ago, the male way of life not only foresaw patriotism and efficiency in society, but also long-term participation in military campaigns. If a man survived these campaigns, he could expect to live out his days with mental and health problems. Of course, this is a very generalized picture, but genetic memory, like energy memory, is difficult to erase.

The female nature, in return, with its focus on “live, preserve, create space around” can help us not to forget, to choose life. We see this male/ female dynamic everywhere in nature. In men: an external orientation, a giving. In women: an interior orientation, a receiving.

In one of the trains on which I was fleeing from Kyiv to the border, I noticed a woman who looked about 55 years old. She had been driving for more than a day from Volnovakha, a town in the east that had been destroyed by the occupiers. Day after day, they prevented people from leaving the town through the humanitarian corridor. Finally, a miracle occurred. Tired, nervous, she could not eat or even drink tea. “A new stage of life on adrenaline,” she repeated. I watched her, how hard it was for her to come back to herself, accept the fact that everything had changed now, and take responsibility for her future life.

Women’s self-awareness, the impulse to create, to be in order to help—this is the homeland to which we ultimately want to return.

Many of us, like that woman on my train, have been living on adrenaline for weeks. We are tired. Under such conditions, emotional distress and depletion are inevitable. But it remains one of the lessons of war to learn not just to endure, but to cease the war within ourselves. The next stage for Ukraine will usher in a fundamental change of spirit.

*Translated from the Ukrainian by Olha Fendyk