Such a time as this
A Ukrainian poet helps Nicole Law find light even in ‘the darkest of days’.
In this era of hyper-connection, constantly plugged into our devices, we witness the triumphs and losses of people with whom we have no direct connection, through the powerful mediums which transmit visual and verbal information across the globe.
The day Russia invaded Ukraine, we watched in horror as tanks rolled across the borders. We read Twitter feeds detailing the losses on both sides of the war. We watched Youtube videos of journalists documenting the chaos at the front lines. We listened to the cries of distress as millions of Ukrainians crowded train stations in the hope of sending their wives and children onward to safety in the Western part of the country. The desensitized modern man and woman could not bear to look away.
We are no stranger to destruction and violence – they bleed into every society.
Yet the collective horror we experienced reminded me that though we may seem numb, we are in fact fully human and capable of feeling empathy for the needs of others.
Poetry poured forth as Ukrainians and the world at large made sense of the tragedy that was unfolding. One poem which came my way is by Ilya Kaminsky, a Ukrainian-born poet. In his work Author’s Prayer, which was published in 2004, he speaks of the light that continues to shine amidst the darkness.
If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,
I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender.
If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man
who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture.
Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking “What year is it?”
I can dance in my sleep and laugh
in front of the mirror.
Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,
I will praise your madness, and
in a language not mine, speak
of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say
is a kind of petition, and the darkest
days must I praise.
Kaminsky reminds us that even in confusion and chaos there is inherent power to holding on to the ‘music that wakes us’, the humanity which continues to exist within each person. He sees his own ongoing existence as a gift, a responsibility. Simply for being alive, he must ‘speak for the dead’ and take risks in life which they can no longer take, by ‘walk(ing) on the edge’ or running like a blind man through rooms full of furniture. He must speak out and write because an empty page would be ‘the white flag of surrender’, failing to face the challenge of life which he still enjoys.
War can appear to divorce the person from his humanity. The focus becomes the intention to overpower and to subdue. Killing someone to conquer them is surely a pyrrhic victory, for once they are gone, who do you have to engage with?
Yet it is such a time as this that the world responds with a wave of kindness and generosity.
Donations are pouring into Ukraine. Prayers are being said for its people. Kindhearted souls are driving long distances to the border to receive those fleeing from their homes. While there are many instances which illustrate the baser aspects of humanity, the present times we live in are also an example of the best of humanity.
There is a sense of solidarity as countries condemn the invasion at the United Nations assembly. There is a collective urge to do something of consequence to assist the people of Ukraine. This flurry of activity points to the enduring strength of the human spirit, to know that, as Kaminsky puts it, there is light even in the blackest night: “and the darkest days must I praise.”
The past few years have been challenging for many, with the effects of the pandemic, the economic slowdown and rising geopolitical tensions. Yet, something that has emerged is the inherent humanity that exists in each of us. The part of us that looks toward the pain and suffering of the other and responds in kindness. The part of us that moves beyond our own immediate needs to make sacrifices for the greater good. The part of us that refuses to be numb but to feel the latent discomfort. The part of us that sees the other as very much like ourselves.
There is still that part of humanity which has not been completely lost.
At such a time as this, we are reclaiming and rediscovering what it means to be human and to live with each other. We take the punches and blows as a human family – a body made up of many parts. When we sustain an injury to one part, we act to address the pain. A body that bears pain but also joy. A body that is wounded but also heals. A body that shrinks but also expands.
When we start to glimpse our common humanity, we find the thread which links us to each other and we feel called to respond to the needs of those we are connected to. Let such a time as this lead us to reconnect with our own sense of humanity.
The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is enacted at various scales and in various contexts across the world. It holds up a mirror for us all to reflect more deeply on what we can do to bring peace where there is strife and healing where there is pain. It challenges us not to look away from the face of suffering but to allow the gaze of those afflicted to penetrate our hearts, stirring us to act on behalf of the ailing body of humanity. The world needs you and me and together we can bring light at such a time as this.
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