conflict and personal finance

Kabul Kids

I’m sure if you’ve read this blog for a while you know I’m a Russophile. I lived in Russia for a few years in the mid-90s and even once I moved to New York I managed to find a Russian wife.  I keep up with Russian news.  We eat Russian food, read Russian books to our kids, and I speak in Russian with my in-laws.  My son speaks and understands Russian as well as English.  Russia and Russian culture are therefore central to my life.

So it should come as no surprise that we have followed the conflict in Georgia closely. That’s not fair … it’s a war, and we’ve followed it as closely as we’ve followed anything in the news.  I won’t go into my own (strong) opinion of who’s right and who’s wrong in the conflict.  I think there are many things to be said to defend the actions of each side, and the three undeniable truths are that (a) Georgia is learning – to its sorrow – that allying with the US isn’t worth anything when push comes to shove and (b) Russia has regained its superpower status, and the tsar’s grip on the empire is secure and (c) we, ordinary people,  suffer when governments play at the game of thrones.

But as I’ve read the accounts, I was struck by something that tears at me again and again when I read the news: how tenuous our hold on our “lives” are.  Not our physical lives – but our lives, a complex mix of family, friends, work, health, happiness, possessions, routines and children.  None of the refugees in Georgia are worried about how happy their job makes them.  None of them are concerned about whether the baby bottles they can obtain contain bisphenol-A.  Nobody is complaining because they prefer Dasani to tap water.  Nobody is unhappy because they don’t have a BMW like their neighbor.  Nobody is thinking about credit card debt.  Their lives have moved from the comfortable routine of birth, school, family, work, death to something more like death, death, death.  It’s almost impossible to comprehend – I guess – if you haven’t experienced it.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it feels like to have your home and all of your possessions destroyed. I have a 3-month old daughter.  We wash our hands before feeding her organic formula with boiled filtered water.  We wash pajamas in special baby detergent.  I count on high speed internet, my collection of business-casual wear and my hot water for showers.  We rely on a certain level of availability of consumer goods and services.  I don’t count on a war exploding in New Jersey or New York – at least I haven’t since a few months after September 11th, 2001.

And in the midst of all of this, I do worry about whether what I do is worthwhile, and makes me happy. And I know that many people will say “don’t worry about what’s happening elsewhere – concentrate on what you can control now.”  It is good advice.  I can worry about my self-esteem while some woman in Georgia (or Rwanda or Iraq or any other conflict-torn nation) worries about how to get clean water for her infant.  I don’t know how else to proceed and maintain any sort of sanity.  A few years ago I had a female colleague who told us horror stories about her escape from Bosnia in the mid-90s during the ethnic cleansing there.  After a while I had to get up and walk away every time she started talking about it.  I knew I appeared uncaring or insensitive, but there’s only so much horror that you can voluntarily absorb.

So I try first to remind myself not to watch the news, but I also try to remind myself how – for the present – we in the “western world” are able to live lives that are enviable past comprehension for so much of the world. I know a lot of that dream is eroding, and that’s cause for concern.  I know a lot of that dream is a false vision of prosperity – even the most wealthy amongst us will never approach the 5% of Americans who have more than 50% of the wealth in America.  But as we watch the Olympics, and the empty tributes to a world united, it’s worth remembering again and again and again that our ability to navel-gaze, like I do constantly, is a gift that only a tiny percentage of the world’s population has ever received.

photo credit: mknobil

11 comments

  • I too am trying to keep away from the news. Not because I don’t care, but because it’s just too much and there’s nothing I can do about it.

    I know as much as I’m ever going to about what wars are like without living in a conflict zone – people die, and nobody is really right, and the causes of the conflict date are old (tens/twenties/hundreds of years old) it’s just all the same.

    It reinforces my understanding that no one can rely on the Americans, and that I’m really, really lucky to be more worried about whether my investments are doing well than whether my home is likely to be hit by airstrikes.

  • You know, Steve, I’m afraid I’m going to take a couple of exceptions here. First, there are a lot of things that I don’t know about the Russia-Georgia conflict, but I suspect that few if any scenarios had Georgia seriously believing that any alliance with the West would protect them from trying to violently settle a civil war/foreign invasion.

    Second, you are certainly correct that our own day to day problems, large as they may seem to us, are trivial to many in the rest of the world. You’re simply restating Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and I for one feel infinitely fortunately that I was born in a country where I didn’t have to worry about the bottom of that hierarchy (though unlike you, growing up I wasn’t especially high up in that hierarchy). But while the days of the US being the single primary economic power may be numbered, we have had at least five such downturns in my lifetime, and as near as I can tell, none of them permanently eroded the collective dreams of our citizens.

    As for false prosperity, we are the people are parents warned us about. We created false prosperity by leveraging our lifestyles up to pennies on the dollar, believing that first tech stocks, then real estate, had a God-given right to 40 percent annual appreciation. The fact that the system didn’t protect us from our own base impulses doesn’t excuse those impulses. And you know something, we can get ourselves grounded and on the right path once again.

  • More than anything else in all the world is being happy with what you have and thankful every day that you have it.

    For months after having my son I couldn’t watch a movie or read a book where someone died. I cried when commercials were especially sentimental. My heart was so full from having my son that I couldn’t stand the reminder that people grow up to kill one another as adults.

    I’ve balanced back out again, but my respect for life is still enormous. I, like you, cannot listen to stories or even watch the news because it is too much.

    But I’m not blind to what Americans are doing. I understand that one day we will pay for what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan. I appreciate every day that I have and am thankful, but I do not forget that one day we will get what we deserve. Everything comes around eventually.

  • I take the opposite view, I think, from you and Plonkee. I watch the news because I think there *is* something I can do. In fact, there is something we can all do. We vote. We pay taxes. We make charitable contributions. But most importantly, we can listen, and we can be aware. Pain and misery in the world is not just created by conflict and violence. It is also created by ignorance and silence.

    Psychic numbing served us well when we were hunter-gatherers living in small insulated communities. But it’s a different world now. I think we can evolve further to find a balance between paralysis and overstimulation, and I think you have touched on a part of it – being able to put our own worries/cares into a greater context.

    Perhaps my locus of control is too internal. Or maybe I’m just overly idealistic and unrealistic. But I think I’d rather that type of delusion than another.

  • @deepali:
    It’s not so much that I disagree with you, just that I don’t need to watch the news to do those things. Well, if I’m voting maybe, but it will be one of many issues that I’m considering when I choose from a >2 but still limited number of candidates.

    I do wonder sometimes whether I’m washing my hands of things too much. But I still don’t keep up with the news.

  • I know what you mean. I don’t follow the Russian news as much as you, but when I heard about the airport being bombed I had very similar thoughts as this post. I actually heard the story as I was driving home from work past the airport – and I tried to imagine what it would be like to suddenly lose everything we take for granted.

    We are VERY lucky to live in America right now. I wish there was more we could do to help people directly.

    Pres. Bush was live on NBC last night from Beijing and he said he was talking to the Russian pres about how this is unacceptable. I hope they resolve it soon.

  • treadmill workouts

    i Think war is just a ply between the big guys. Hey let’s play a game of chess – i will declare war and you bombard a city. Who cares about those old people that doens;t have a home now . This stuff is better than Risk

  • I didn’t listen the Pres. Bush on NBC. I wonder if he realizes that war in Iraq and Afganistan are unacceptable as well, as Russian president told him a long time ago. I am sure our president took it to heart.

  • @Treadmill Workouts: You are correct that often time wars are started by the highest levels of two governments, but the casualties are felt by the very bottom, including innocent civilians caught between two factions. I think that is the saddest part of this, and any other conflict, even those that are necessary for self-preservation or to stop tyranny.

  • @Bubelah:
    Excellent point. Every nation only does what it thinks it can get away with, but for countries that think they are superpowers (like the USA, Russia, China etc), that’s a lot of stuff. Not everything, but a lot.

    Anyway, I’m much more interested in what’s going on in South Ossetia and about breakaway states in general but I think that’s just because I like unusual places.

  • Well, I think some distinction needs to be made between “news” and “the news”. I don’t watch TV news. But I stay up to date with alternative media. I can wholeheartedly agree with not watching CNN 24/7. Half the stuff on there isn’t “news”. But you have to “keep up” with something to actually be aware of what’s happening. Unless you are omniscient. 🙂

    @ Plonkee – I agree. Superpowers tend to try to get away with a lot. And often succeed, with little backlash. As someone who comes from two former British colonies (3 if the US counts) and who works with Africa, I have personal experience with that.

    @ Bubelah – I agree, it is easier to tell someone else when they are in the wrong, than to admit to similar wrongs yourself. Though I do think this isn’t comparable to Iraq/Afghanistan, but to Kuwait. Which was sanctioned… I think the global community bears culpability for some things.