On Children and Ukraine
On February 26th, I awoke and checked my phone for updates on Ukraine. I found a photo that had already been shared around the world: a newborn infant, born in a subway station bomb shelter, slept in her mother’s arms, tiny fingers visible in her mother’s hand. Foreign tabloids took up the story: “HOPE BORN IN DARKNESS,” announced a typical headline in The Sun, which called the scene “heartwarming.”
Cliché is a tabloid’s daily bread, precisely because it lets readers slot the news into preexisting templates; clichés neutralize “news” into “nothing is new under the sun.” Misused, however, a cliché has the opposite effect: It wakes you up. Heartwarming? This infant’s circumstances rend any functioning heart. “Hope born in darkness,” however—that’s a harder one to dismiss.
Across former Christendom, at least, we associate an infant’s birth with the metaphor of light in the darkest hour. How much more powerful is the echo of the Nativity where the baby is born into abject horrors, into everything we strive to shelter babies from. The Christian Savior is one whose lowly and deprived birth in a cold place, under explicit threat that forces us to confront the utter vulnerability of any living thing, tells us we are not forgotten by the power that created us.
This Ukrainian child—Mia—did not come into the world to save us, did she? It is we who were supposed to look after her. Like the babies of Ukraine’s bombed-out maternity hospitals, Mia deserves a nursery, familiar toys, and quiet time each day to rest and grow. Like every child, she deserves a happy start to life, and we have failed to give it to her. This is one dark truth.
But “hope” is one of those words that our viscera understand better than our heads, and there are occasions when it can mean something almost indistinguishable from despair. It can mean an ember hardly discernible within the ashes, that we must almost take on faith is there; almost, I say, because we have some dim glow of proof for it in our continued movement forward. Think not light in darkness so much as fuel in a frozen winter landscape—an engine that keeps turning over, defying all reasoned calculation.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was once a comedian, and I don’t know if he was a good one or not, but his face is of a human who laughs, sympathizes, suffers—a rebuke, legible to our animal intelligence, of everything Vladimir Putin represents. I feel a personal kinship with Zelenskyy because we were babies at the same time; he is 73 days my junior. In the winter of 1978, the biggest crisis in my part of the world was a deadly blizzard; according to a BBC primer on the history of Ukraine, it was a quiet decade in Zalenskyy’s country, too. But as we grew in relative peace, armed conflicts raged. In Nicaragua, in Burma, in Somalia and Ethiopia, people faced the kinds of life-and-death choices that war forces on people. In every generation, the peace-loving majority raises children whom they hope will never have to face such choices. But there is another, harder hope, born in the darkest hour, which asks that if it comes to that—because, historically, it has a way of coming to that—our children will courageously choose the path of right.
Since the invasion began, I have asked myself: “Why can I think of nearly nothing else?” Like most comfortable and educated Americans, I’m accustomed to: 1) consuming a limited amount of media covering the worst troubles on Earth at any given time; 2) moving on with my life too easily; 3) half-heartedly berating myself for not caring more, for being too comfortable, for my failures of imagination. This time is different.
Officially, I have long held that all people are connected in ways both practical and spiritual, obvious and mysterious. I understand cognitively that we are all part of the same fabric, that nothing happens to one without happening to all. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt the weight of this ethos in my moment-to-moment reality the way I do now. Without having to scold myself into any empathy-generating exercises, I walk around with visions of my baby born in a subway bomb shelter; my husband escorting me and our children to a border he cannot cross; my hands holding a rifle to train at tanks sent by the enemies of freedom, truth, and humor.
There is one simple and obvious answer to the question of why this time is different: Geopolitically, it is the most touch-and-go moment of my lifetime. It has been 77 years since World War II ended with the dumbfounding announcement of the nuclear era; it has been nearly 60 since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most living people have no memory of any event that was an existential threat to life on our planet, even if climate change has often been described in such terms.
But the political is always personal. My reaction only makes sense in terms of how my own political consciousness has evolved. In retrospect, that story has been shaped by two major inflection points, junctures where a few proverbial scales fell from my eyes. Both can help me make sense of my present wrestling: with the situation in Ukraine, with what abstractions like “justice,” “freedom,” and “hope” actually mean, and with what I would sacrifice to defend those ideals for my children and the generations to follow.
Stepping Into The Tableau
Generation X and Millennials grew up in a paradoxical time: As a period of unusual consistency stabilized the overall world order, telecommunication developments brought average citizens constant, vivid dispatches from war and disaster zones, increasing the perception of chaos.
CNN debuted the 24-hour news cycle when I was two and a half. My parents were avid news watchers but I don’t remember asking many questions about Beirut, Afghanistan, El Salvador, or any of the other faraway places whose names became so familiar to my ear in my earliest years. The screen was filled daily with images of fractious crowds and minor explosions, but these tableaux were as unreal as cinema, even when they were happening on the island of Ireland, where we spent every summer with family.
I have heard my contemporaries talk about the threat of nuclear war that hung over our heads, but in my recall, it did not feel credible in the eighties. Even before 1989, the fall of the Wall, and the “End of History” essay, a popular narrative had emerged in which the grand experiment of Communism had failed, autocracy at a world-power level had been shown to have passed its “best-by” date, and American leaders should have known it all along, rather than burning global goodwill and marching a generation of young American men to their deaths in the name of Containment. The students of Tiananmen staked their lives on this new paradigm, and even their fate was not enough to subdue the era’s heady optimism.
As Boris Yeltsin took the reins in Moscow, it was a hell of a time to be 14. What was left to fight against, fight for? “Nevermind,” our avatar sang, and though Kurt Cobain’s suicide left no doubt as to the authenticity of his despair, for many of his fans the posture of nihilism was indulgent, even enjoyable. We seemed to be tapping into a pure ore of adolescence, an unalloyed version of eye-rolling and ironic distance that had been perhaps intuited and anticipated by previous generations, but never fully realized. That’s the mythology, at any rate. I was not particularly disaffected—more accurately, I was a nerd—but my political conscience seems to have been typical among my peer group: dazed, confused, or otherwise dormant.
I was sheltered by my quiescent times. Then, at 22, I joined a Christmas pilgrimage to the West Bank. The trip was less than two weeks long, but more significant to my formation than the four years in college I’d just completed.
The thought that the ammunition and tanks keeping Palestinians as second-class citizens were funded by my own nation filled me with shame, and I could not believe I had failed even to consider the reasons for anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. Months later, as the Second Intifada unfolded, I watched US coverage with disbelief. To listen to US political and media figures tell it, Israelis had the only legitimate grievances, and Palestinians all the culpability.
The way people lived in Israel reminded me of my own upbringing: comfortable, modern homes; a retail-oriented lifestyle; the distance families tend to maintain from one another when everyone has means. This only magnified my sense of injustice.It seemed to me that we Americans only valued the lives of people whose lifestyles resembled our own. We could comprehend the living nightmare of a bomb killing children in a Sbarro. Those children could be ours. But when a child’s existence had been spent under an occupying force, that child’s life—and therefore, that child’s death—didn’t compute. The very pervasiveness of the Palestinians’ oppression, in other words, seemed to be the reason our citizens and media would not, or could not, engage with it.
Pulling at this thread, I saw my previous picture of other political questions unravel. In the aftermath of September 11, as stunned Americans engaged in a short-lived swell of united patriotism, I stood outside the circle. As despicable as the attacks on civilians were, it angered me that—as I perceived it—Americans could only be jarred by American suffering, despite our complicity in such large-scale suffering abroad. In my compatriots’ shock at becoming a terrorist target, I saw my own blinkered years assuming that our actions overseas were surely for the best.
Something to Lose
My purpose here is to look back at where I’ve been to better understand where I am. As individuals in a democracy, we know that our singular trajectories, fevers and coolings-off, tendencies and whims, are directly connected to the path our nation follows, culturally and politically. My animating political beliefs in the early 2000s seem now to have been both correct and overcorrecting—a partial picture. The shame I felt at American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of a piece with leftist critiques of other U.S. interventions, directly or indirectly, in countries from Chile to Iran. No one looking to lay responsibility for brutal suffering at the feet of American leadership is at a loss.
Nonetheless, other thoughts have predominated since my second inflection point involving the 2016 election, Trumpism, and the events and soul-searching that followed. It’s commonplace to point out that across the world, democracy is increasingly precarious—a majority of Americans believe our own democracy is no exception—and yet, expressing gratitude, admiration, or reverence for rule by the people and its underpinning ideals is hardly in fashion. In fact, those most likely to talk about very real threats of late to democracy are those least likely to celebrate the miracle of its very existence.
The past six years have awoken many Americans, me included, to the nightmare of history–and to its promise. I have comprehended, at an embarrassingly late stage of development, that the best ideas are not some dusty inheritance but more akin to the redwoods: living, breathing givers of air and shelter that we take for granted, or let wither, at our peril.
When I look toward Kyiv aghast, I have the thought that this is the very reaction I blamed Westerners for when I was a young adult visiting Israel and the West Bank. You only care because you see yourself in them. Because their lifestyle is recognizable to you, comfortable. Because they, like you, have something to lose.
This is probably true. But the Ukrainians are also, in this fight, the underdog. And democracy always is.
Comfort versus Courage
During Covid, my husband and I home-schooled our children. Teaching kids at home, you think a lot about what you value. What you want them to know,as they walk into their future. We gravitated to the message: History is here, it is now.
This approach built on a mantra we’ve had in our house for some years—only half-jokingly. “Don’t get too comfortable.” It pokes fun at our too-small house, our all-weather constitutionals, our willingness to use public transport en famille. But it expresses our belief that safety should not be taken for granted, as history is just a news cycle away. I want my children to know that a peaceful democracy is beautiful, but also a bit of a deception. It looks robust until it isn’t. We need to be ready to do whatever it takes to defend it. If we get too comfortable, it weakens.
I went to the West Bank when I had no partner, children, house,or job. There is a great sense of abandon at that stage in life, with its possibility of renewal—its conviction that things can and should be taken apart and reconfigured, that a better everything is possible.
As you get older and amass all those things, you invest more in stability, but stability can make you more craven. Ukraine’s new reality has suggested something else: you must remember what you have to lose, and imagine what you are preserving, for your children and their children. In that understanding lies whatever inner stores of courage will be found.
Those on the streets of Kyiv or Kharkiv today who are acquitting themselves with honor are able to do so because of that dark-ember kind of hope. They are not just hoping that Ukraine will win, that Zelenskyy will survive, that the war will end soon, as much as they want all those things. Ukrainians fighting the Russian army with whatever they can muster know how dark the picture is. Their refusal to surrender speaks to an understanding that there are absolutes in this world, and that something of value might be saved despite the most dire situation. In their lives, it has come to that.
Only as I was working on this essay did I happen upon a quote from Zelensky’s 2019 inaugural address in which he told lawmakers, “I do not want my picture in your offices: the President is not an icon, an idol, or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”
This is not heartwarming. This is hope.
Marie Glancy O'Shea is a writer and editor who has covered travel, culture, and finance for many outlets in the United States and Europe, including America Magazine, The Columbia Journalism Review, and CNN.com. She was previously an editor at Youth Communication, an award-winning, New York-based publisher of true stories by and for teens.