Last Saturday, Kira Rudyk, a member of Ukrainian parliament and leader of the Voice Party, had simple, humdrum plans for the day: She was going to plant tulips and daffodils in her backyard.
But days before, Russia invaded her country. So instead she spent her weekend learning to fire a rifle and preparing for further attacks on Kyiv.
“We are not going anywhere,” Rudyk said in a tweet that went viral. “This is our city, our land, our soil. We will fight for it. So next week I can plant my flowers. Here.”
It was a stark reminder of how easy it is for us to take for granted ― and even squander ― the mundane aspects of life.
Now, as Russian President Vladimir Putin ratchets up the pressure on the civilian population in Ukraine, many of us in other countries feel a sense of unease about our lives going on as normal. It’s disconcerting to go to dinner or make plans with friends while you know so many other lives are in total upheaval. Guilt ― or vicarious trauma ― is a natural part of witnessing the pain of others while not directly being impacted by it, said Akua K. Boateng, a psychotherapist in Philadelphia.
“These feelings parallel survivor’s guilt and/or remorse that manifested with COVID within the past two years,” she told HuffPost. “Having guilt surface during this time is a sign of self-compassion and deep empathy for those in our world.”
Our sense of guilt and hopelessness has been hyper-activated during these trying 2020s, with the pandemic, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Black Lives Matter movement rightfully demanding our attention.
When you consider all that’s happening in the word, it often feels like there’s a futility and pointlessness to day-to-day life.
Sitting with this disillusionment feels appropriate. Having the audacity to enjoy life in a moment like this can feel morally wrong.
“It also brings up weighty personal values questions like, am I being complacent? When someone’s rights are being violated, do you do nothing or do you take action?” said Jennifer Chappell Marsh, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego, California.
Chappell tells her patients worried about Ukraine to give themselves permission to feel competing feelings: “It’s OK to feel grateful for what you have and grief for others at the same time. These feelings can coexist.”
It’s equally OK to be suffering in your own way right now, over something completely unrelated to the crisis in Ukraine.
Earlier this week, psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb shared a conversation she had with a patient about the war. “I really shouldn’t feel so depressed,” the patient said. “I mean, people are dying in Ukraine but I’m lucky to be safe.”
Gottlieb responded, “Can there be a war *and* you feel depressed?”
It wasn’t something her patient had even considered.
“There is so much suffering in the world, whether it’s because of war or COVID or the many other tragedies we face,” the psychotherapist wrote on Twitter. “But please don’t minimize your pain because you don’t think it’s valid compared to something else.”
To get by, we have to become skilled at holding and connecting with many, sometimes conflicting realities, said Sarah Spencer Northey, a marriage and family therapist based in Washington, D.C.
This means that you can feel heartbreak for people caught in a war halfway around the world, and also be suffering from a comparatively minor problem of your own, like a breakup. You can also be over-the-moon-happy for a friend who just got engaged.
“The two or three don’t cancel each other out,” Northey told HuffPost. “In the breakup scenario, you may need to make the wise decision that though you care about suffering across the world, you first need to take care of yourself and heal from your own personal heartache.”
This doesn’t mean closing your eyes to what’s happening, she said: “It just means you should live with this awareness and find where you are called to act in the life that you’ve been given.”
In the week since Russia invaded, many have shared a quote card by writer and illustrator Mari Andrew that captures so much of this experience. It says, “Someone has always clinked a cocktail glass in one hemisphere as someone loses a home in another while someone falls in love in the same apartment building where someone grieves. The fact that suffering, mundanity and beauty coincide is unbearable and remarkable.”
Andrews wrote the short piece in response to the Australian wildfires in early 2020, as she watched so much of a faraway country burn.
“I wanted to remind myself how the world has always been this way: grief and beauty occurring simultaneously,” she told HuffPost. “It’s so confusing for our brains to grasp, but it helps to understand our context in history, how this is nothing new.”
“We have much greater access to news now, but there have always been horrors and wonders at the same time.”
In some ways, embracing “normal” life is a revolutionary act in wartime.
There’s a quiet power in embracing our “normal” lives, since normalcy is exactly what the people of Ukraine are fighting for right now, as Rudyk, the Ukrainian politician, so aptly exemplified.
“We can’t eradicate the unethical behaviors of a country, individual, or government solely by attacking or calling out unethical behaviors,” said therapist Rachel Kazez, a Chicago therapist and founder of the therapy program All Along.
“We also must maintain and create enough beauty, effort, normalcy and goodwill,” Kazez said. “Doing so reminds bad actors that there’s a life that’s more appealing than the one they’re engaging in. We normalize good to crowd out the bad.”
Elisabeth LaMotte, a therapist in Washington, D.C., told HuffPost that she has reminded clients concerned about Ukraine that guilt is often anger in disguise and directed inward.
“It often frees up tremendous energy to connect with the anger and use it as the powerful source of energy that productive anger can be,” said LaMotte.
Channeling that angst into something productive may mean protesting or leaving flowers at the Ukrainian embassy. It could mean getting involved at immigrant advocacy groups like Kind Works or RAICES or donating and sending humanitarian supplies to the Ukrainian people.
It may mean posting on social media to spread awareness and updates, but keep in mind that no one is going to think you’re ill informed or an uncaring monster if you don’t have something interesting to say about the roots of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the threat of nuclear war or the concept of no-fly zones. As HuffPost reporter Rowaida Abdelaziz remarked earlier this week, “It’s OK to not tweet about a conflict you don’t know much about. It is also OK — in fact encouraged! — to read reliable sources in order to learn more about said conflict. (And still not have to tweet about it!)”
And although this is very much a livestreamed war ― there are myriad videos shot by Ukrainians documenting the horrors of the invasion, or showing the unimaginable courage of the Ukrainian people ― it’s important to step away from the screen and catch a breath sometimes. It’s not selfish to attend to your own mental health.
“Ingesting media stories and visual recounts of trauma can lead to vicarious and or re-traumatization of your own system,” Boateng said. “Make use of any coping strategies that keep you healthy.”
Gaining a better understanding of the world and doing what you can to help is productive. Wallowing in your particular despair isn’t.
In times like these ― when you’re so far away from a crisis, but also affected by and fixated on it ― there’s a John Keats quote that Andrew finds heartening.
“I must choose between despair and Energy ― I choose the latter,” the English poet wrote in a letter.
Right now, Andrew said she’s trying to choose energy, which very much includes tending to the people she loves and caring for her body and its nervous system.
“It’s horrific that people in Ukraine suddenly can’t enjoy a simple weekend at home, but refusing to enjoy mine in solidarity doesn’t seem nearly as helpful as giving what I can and helping what I can ― small actions that show I care about their lives as well as my own,” the illustrator said.
“Refusing to enjoy or at least take care of ourselves is just giving into that horrible hopelessness.”