Ukrainians Hold a Mirror to America’s Egotistical Anxieties
They have already given us a great gift in their display of calm courage.
I have almost always liked the Ukrainians I have known. Maybe it’s because they remind me of my fellow West Virginians: Tough but big-hearted, hard-working but prone to hard living, and equipped with both a deep faith and a dark sense of humor to get through life’s troubles.
Growing up in the Ohio Valley, I got to see from an early age how well Ukrainian immigrants fit in with Appalachian life, not to mention how their varenyky (what Poles call pierogies), stuffed cabbage, and Easter paska bread made life more delicious for everybody. If you ever get the chance to attend a Ukrainian wedding reception, absolutely do so, but make sure your calendar is clear for three days afterward so you can recover.
As I went out into the broader world, the experiences of my youth were confirmed by encounters with the Ukrainians I have known in the world of politics and diplomacy. American elites today spend lots of time and money trying to instill “grit” into their children. It comes in the factory presets with Ukrainians. Now, they’re giving all of America a lesson.
Thank God for the human ego, because without it, we would never strive to do great things. But man, oh man does it get tiresome.
It is the natural conceit of every generation in every great power that its own moment is the inevitable result of the millennia of human history that came before. This is rooted in the mistaken belief that there is a certain evolutionary quality to societal development or an “arc of history” that has an obvious positive trajectory. As the author Alice Walker put it: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
That kind of blinkered thinking is very easy to fall into because it imagines that the ones who came before us were too slow or unsophisticated to address the obvious ills of mankind; that the reason our predecessors failed to perfect the human condition was that they lacked our insights, knowledge, and technologies.
It’s hard to imagine that the men and women who lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago were just as smart as we are now, and were in many cases better educated. But neither progress nor history is a straight line, nor are individual eras uniform within themselves. One period may see rapid technological advancement but be a moral disaster. Another time may see the rise of virtue but experience economic hardship. Greeks couldn’t spend the day listening to Socrates teach and go home to watch Netflix in climate-controlled comfort. But if you live in our era with those niceties, you get a public discourse that would make the philosopher order a double dose of hemlock. Every age is full of contradictions and tradeoffs.
And don't imagine that our generational arrogance is only limited to feelings of superiority. Indeed, we are just as likely to imagine ourselves as the culmination of human history in the worst sense: that we are the end. I do not just mean the tendency of every advanced society to dwell on eschatological concerns whether they are religious or not. Listen to the coverage of climate change for only a brief time and you quickly realize that there are strong religious, apocalyptic overtones. There is something flattering about the idea that not only is this the end, but that we may have had the capacity to bring it about. “Destroyer of worlds” is a pretty badass title.
So attractive is the self-flattery of apocalyptic thinking that Americans, who enjoy wealth, freedom, and security to a degree unimaginable to most of history and to many alive in the world today, are trying to talk ourselves into collapse. Our collective nervous breakdown as reflected in polls on the direction of the country show how little perspective Americans have. According to the poll Marist College conducts for National Public Radio, it has been 13 years since a majority of Americans believed the country was heading in the right direction. In the most recent poll, only 30 percent were optimistic, including just 6 percent of Republicans.
We’re in some tough times, you might say, it’s no wonder people are pessimistic. But compared to when? Compared to whom? Is life that much worse than it was two decades ago when double the number of Americans expressed optimism about the direction of the country? The core reason for our pessimism is our destructive, zero-sum-game politics in which each side believes the other will bring absolute ruin and destruction. Despite all of our advantages and comforts, we have convinced ourselves that our great nation is headed for ruin if the other side is in charge.
A corrective has arrived in the form of the Ukrainian people and their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, as they bravely face the onslaught of real evil. While Americans are falling to pieces over what will be taught in high school history classes, the Ukrainians and their leaders are facing death and subjugation with the kind of resolve and élan that many Americans can’t muster in the face of a botched Starbucks order.
After many years in which the brave people of Ukraine were often led by corrupt, cowardly men, they have found one in Zelensky who matches their national character. Their resolve in the face of real existential threats makes our imaginary disasters of the future look pitiful by comparison. I do not know whether American and the rest of the West can or will come to the Ukrainians’ aid in time to save their country. I pray their deliverance comes. They have already given us a great gift in their display of calm courage, and in the philosophy of their leader.
“I do not want my picture in your offices: the president is not an icon, an idol or a portrait,” Zelensky told members of the government in his 2019 inaugural address. “Hang your kids' photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”
People with real grit don’t live in a world of imaginary catastrophes produced by overgrown egos. They keep their priorities straight because they know real hardship will always come. Until it does, focus on doing good and enjoying what’s beautiful in life.
Vitayemo, druzi moyi.