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.