In order to change the system, we need to change first.
On Thursday morning those of us in Europe woke up into what felt like a very different world, but was in fact the very same one as always. What has suddenly become the waking nightmare of Ukrainian people, has been the daily life of so many others around the globe for the past couple of years or even longer, but for me it has never been this close to home.
Since Slovenia has only been independent for 32 years, I grew up on stories of the former Yugoslavian regime, both the good and the bad; I grew up in the shadow of the Balkan wars and atrocities that followed in the 90s and I grew up on my grandparents’ stories of the horrors of WW2. When I was younger, I was always morbidly fascinated by the dark parts of human nature and I wanted to understand what could drive so many people to commit such violent acts, because I could see them done out of fear or survival, but I could never understand the fanatical, ideological part of it. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see myself dying for an ideal, a political system or even in defence of my country. Sure, it sounds awfully romantic and heroic, but this is life we are talking about here and we only get one of those. I could, however, easily picture myself picking up arms or committing atrocious things to protect my loved ones and give them a chance at a better life. The older I get, the more I realise that the two are one and the same and that it all comes down to belief and a sense of entitlement.
Even right now there are several wars and violent political struggles in progress across the world and yet we are only talking about one, because it’s happening in the West. It’s an anomaly that shouldn’t exist in our time, not in Europe, the bastion of civilisation and human rights, where everything is good and perfect and fair. Not in Europe, where we like to hide our imperialism and blatant exploitation behind outsourcing of heavy manufacturing industry and selective condemnation of foreign political entities. We like to slap them on the wrist with UN meetings, economic sanctions and strong words when they do something bad, all while our allies are doing the same and we profit from it – but that’s alright, because their buzzword is freedom and they look like us.
I guess some of you are starting to feel a bit offended by now and that is great. Does it feel bad when you start to feel the stirrings of the collective guilt that is rightfully ours to bear? Because our very cosy Western lives are built on the continued systemic oppression of others; our current economic system demands that there is a loser taking the brunt of progress and all that free market choice somewhere and even the rise of our nations and the prosperity we enjoy today were built on pain and suffering to start with. Yes, we all come from different backgrounds, socioeconomic situations and our countries have had different histories, but there is a reason the West is currently at the top of the food chain and that is not because it was nice. Or in other words as the younger generations in the USA would put it: check your privilege, bitch.
If you have read my posts about sustainability before, you’ll know that I’m not big on the individual environmental guilt and carrying the world on your shoulders, because as individuals there is very little we can do to combat climate change if the big companies continue to pollute the world and the governments refuse to act. I feel the same way about feeling guilty for your privilege, because there is no need to make it your whole life and add more stress to what are, for most of us, already very stressful modern lives. Just because other people have bigger problems, it doesn’t mean that yours are trivial and don’t count at all.
However, it is important to acknowledge your privilege and really feel the depth of injustice and cruelty it is built on, which brings, or should bring, guilt. Guilt for being a part of the system and enabling it, guilt for liking the life you live at the expense of others and the survivor’s guilt for being born into it and the powerlessness of not being able to stop it. But guilt is good, because it’s an indicator that something is going against your values and that it feels unethical, so you’ll be motivated to correct it in order to feel better. Guilt is also good because it helps with self-awareness and gratitude for what we have, because when we don’t feel grateful, we get greedy.
Unfortunately, non sociopathic modern humans are not meant to live in constant conflict with themselves, so we adjust. We get used to the guilt and bury it, because if we didn’t, I guarantee you it would’ve crippled us long ago and we would’ve fixed all the injustices already or died out. In fact, we are so good at adapting, that we can get used to almost anything. The worse things get, the more we adapt, because it’s a survival mechanism. It’s at the core of every bad relationship where one partner is abusing another, but they are unable to leave, because they’re constantly finding excuses for their abuser and gaslighting themselves. ‘It’s not so bad, they just had a bad day./ I shouldn’t have done that, because it sets them off./ Things could always be worse./ If I could just make myself better, they’d like me again.’ We all know it doesn’t work that way, but still we’ve collectively gaslighted ourselves through 2 World Wars, neo-liberalism, catastrophic pollution in the name of progress and the continued capitalist idea of meritocracy, where you’ll make it if you only work hard enough, which necessarily means that people who didn’t make it are just lazy undeserving idiots and breeds an unconscious sense of division and entitlement.
Worse yet, despite everything we know about the state of the world and the consequences of our way of life today, we still refuse to face it and allow ourselves to justify it somehow, and we cannot even blame it on lack of information or government propaganda anymore. We’ve adapted so far that we are now desensitized to wars and violence through movies, computer games, sensational graphic news, murder podcasts etc. and suffering is a consumable emotion, not something to be avoided everywhere at all cost. We are so hardened that we think of exploitation and humane work conditions as economic factors and wars and genocides in foreign countries are a game of strategy and a political fascination to be discussed over a beer. Far from the mind means far from the heart, so it really takes special circumstances to reach us now.
So when we got the news that Ukraine, which is only one country away from me, was under attack on Thursday, I got to observe the reactions of the people at work around me. Some of us were shell shocked and immediately anxious, while others just saw it as the inevitable fact of life, just another of the games that the big world powers like to play. Sure we were all worried about the possibility of World War 3 and horrified at the loss of lives, but not all of us felt it as deeply and not all of us got scared. For me it got progressively worse during the day when more information started coming in through the news outlets and it was the first time that I’ve felt the visceral terror that something like war could ever be in my future. Because it wasn’t supposed to be, not in my generation and not here. Slovenia is still pretty far away and I don’t think it will and fervently hope it won’t come to that, but it was the first time that it became a real possibility, not an abstract concept.
As the day progressed, almost everyone got a bit scared, even the atmosphere outside on the street was more subdued than normal. It sat uncomfortably in the pit of my stomach and it still does, which I think is true for most of the Western world right now and we are once again holding our breath as one. So now that we are feeling scared, threatened, insecure and worried about our future, I think it’s time to take that feeling, bottle it and save it inside you, because it has been too long since we’ve felt it and the pandemic was not the same. I know it’s hard, but personally I’d rather let the world hurt my heart again and again than let it harden to a point where it’s all scar tissue and nothing gets through anymore, because that is when we start to lose our humanity.
This time it’s scary and hurtful and the war is not even here, as nothing except my perception of my life has changed. Like all of us I’ve felt outrage, desperation, compassion and sorrow towards and on behalf of people from war zones before, but now it’s surreal and I don’t ever want to experience the real depth of it. So it’s time for all of us to really feel that solidarity we so like to talk about, the one that never goes beyond ‘thoughts and prayers’, symbolic profile pictures and minor donations. Take this fear and get angry; angry at the world for being as it is right now, at the injustice of it all, at the leaders and the decisions that have brought us to this point, at all the inaction, denial and avoidance of the truth. We were supposed to catch a break after this plague, but instead we are on a fast track to apocalypse. So use this feeling of fear, rage and impotence and go vote, protest, sign petitions, get active and educate yourself and start caring about the world issues, not just your own. But above all, bring it out in the coming weeks, months and years when this will no longer be a hot topic and remember it every time when refugee policies, social reforms, human rights, equality and potential wars for economic gains or thinly veiled imperialist reasons are discussed, because the people affected could easily be you. The people in active war zones farther from home have been feeling this for years and they’ve lost everything, but their wars are willfully ignored or even fuelled, just because they are not here and our shared humanity has a very low range.
We always say that we should remember history so that it will never happen again, yet we are standing on the brink of it, again and again. I don’t want to discuss politics here and I don’t care which side you are on in whichever conflict, but it always takes two to tango, so don’t you dare write them off as simple situations. I also don’t have the right answer and I don’t know which system would work or whether the current one could be salvaged in a good way somehow, but I know that we are the system. In order to change the system, we need to change first and true empathy is where it starts. Because no matter which side you’re on or what you believe, nothing is ever fair or right about a war.
“She says: When are we going to meet? I say: After a year and a war. She says: When does the war end? I say: When we meet.”M. Darwish
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