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Inspiration from Ukraine

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Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses French lawmakers via video lin, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine March 23, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

By Diane Medved

I write on the cusp of springtime, as cherry trees bursting with pink blossoms and rhododendrons unfolding colorful blooms juxtapose with horrific suffering and strife from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Though the outcome is at this point uncertain, we might still observe some positives that have emerged as byproducts of this pivotal and heart-wrenching moment in history.


But first, a personal note. Like the rest of the world, I watch anxiously, praying for an end to war and lasting, unthreatened sovereignty for Ukrainians. My husband’s paternal family was from Ukraine, and five of his aunts lie buried in its soil, perished when the region was deliberately starved in 1921-22. 


My husband’s grandfather had gone ahead several years before to make a life in the US, establishing himself as a cooper (barrel maker) in Philadelphia. He saved enough to bring his wife, five daughters and son to America, and they began the arduous train journey westward. Unfortunately, they reached the German frontier just as World War I began, and were turned back, facing enforced famine. 


In 1924, with just her 19-year-old son remaining, Sarah Medved once again attempted the journey. While their ship was en route, the US passed the Immigration Act of 1924, setting strict quotas based on national origin. With her ship detained in the harbor, and her husband in sight waving from shore, she feared being turned back again. Imagine her great relief upon hearing the ruling that ships already at sea when the law passed could be admitted.


There’s a miraculous conclusion to that story. About a year later, Michael’s grandmother, who was by then age 49, began to feel ill. She couldn’t keep down food, and became convinced she had an abdominal tumor. Upset and too poor for normal medical care, she finally approached a relative who was a doctor, braced for the worst. He examined her, left the room and when he returned, she asked (in Yiddish) “Tell me the truth.”


“It’s not a tumor,” the doctor replied. “It’s a baby. Mazel tov; you’re pregnant.”


That baby, born when Sarah Medved was age 50, years past her menopause, was my husband’s father David, who, as a child, carried the nickname, “Tumeral,” or “Little Tumor.” My grandson  is named David in his memory.


One can hope for miracles for Ukraine, even in our day. In the meantime, we can take heart from three positive notions revealed by this tense juncture.


1. The Ukrainian war has brought Americans together. Before the Russian invasion, division between political parties and individuals’ viewpoints over leadership and even reactions to Covid proliferated. Family members debated basic health precautions; friendships also fractured over support for candidates and opinions about issues like immigration and abortion.


A raft of books insisted these schisms amounted to no less than a Civil War, and the January, 2022 book The Next Civil War by Stephen Marche claims the discord is “the one thing we can all agree on.” Its cover displays quotes by Pres. Joe Biden, Sean Hannity, Ezra Klein, Sen. Josh Hawley, Thomas Friedman and Rush Limbaugh all asserting Americans are warring with each other over political topics.


Amazon offers more than a dozen other recent titles proffering the same idea—that clashes between worldviews in the US resembles war.


Now that we watch Ukraine in an actual existential war—unsure if it will cease to exist as a nation, the divisions that separated Americans seem far less dire. When President Zelenskyy addressed the US Congress, everyone, regardless of political party, rose in ovation. The shock that in our time, a country can just invade another without provocation—at such great human expense—has brought us to reclaim our fundamental values.


Images of bombed apartment buildings, streets filled with rubble, crying and even dead children kindle somber gratitude that we in the US are not in such a position. Our nation is not in danger of ceasing to exist or losing our independence. Our issues of controversy, while important, are not on that level—we agree on fundamentals but may differ on degree or means to achieve our goals. 


All agree, for example, that immigration needs regulation, but the particulars of who to admit, and how to regulate, may spur dissent. Everyone agrees that abortion is not desirable, but people spar about when and how to administer it. Both topics engender passion—but underlying every discussion are ground rules of free expression in a context that seeks to preserve respect for the other.


2. The US has united with other nations on the world stage. Before the Ukraine war, Americans could debate whether we should “go it alone” or “put America first” by isolating from other nations. Some argued that the rest of the world was anti-American, or had policies that favored their economic interests to our detriment.


Now, however, many of those objections have fallen away, as we see the value of joining with other nations to stop threats to peaceful order. The world—except nations ruled by autocrats and dictators—stands together, volunteering resources for principle on this issue, solidifying alliances to protect everyone’s self-determination. If Ukraine can be invaded without protest or reaction, bullies like Putin are empowered to go further.


We have seen strength in unity, the power of loyalty to countries with whom we share commitment to freedom and autonomy. This has brought confidence that the Ukrainian people will prevail. The United States emerges with greater worldwide respect than when the conflagration began.


3. We have more clearly defined good and evil. Prior to the Ukraine war, those on opposing sides politically cavalierly called opponents “evil.” Rhetoric often included cutting insults, and rude references, even use of the word Nazi. But once we observe evil in real time, slinging verbal abuse at our fellow countrymen loses its appeal. Because Russian aggression in Ukraine is murderous and malevolent, spurred by a greedy confiscation of power, its toll in human suffering brings evil into focus.


We learn that imposing evil ultimately leaves one unprepared and impotent. The effort Putin directs to perpetrating lies and squelching protest backfires as truth escapes. His assumptions that the Ukrainian people and world powers would offer minimal resistance has so far shown his arrogance and vulnerability.


We’ve also learned that saving grace can come from unexpected sources. Prior to Russia’s invasion, President Zelensky was viewed as a comedy-series star turned politician. Though he’d earned a law degree, his rise to the presidency was seen as a case of life imitating art, as his TV character, a high school history teacher, was propelled to the presidency after a lecture against corruption went viral.


Elected Ukraine’s sixth president on a platform of integrity, Pres. Zelenskyy has risen to the challenge. He finessed a July, 2019 telephone call from then-President Donald Trump, who asked him to meet with his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and investigate Hunter Biden (leading to Trump’s first impeachment and subsequent acquittal). He has tried to clear the government of corruption, as well as keep the country on a democratic track.


And while the final outcome remains uncertain, to this point—mid March—Pres. Zelenskyy remains resolute, appearing via live video before governing bodies around the world to shore up solidarity. A song by John Ondrasik (stage name: Five for Fighting), “Can One Man Save the World,” went viral as a Tweet, asking, “Does freedom still have appetite? Is there the will, the goods to fight? Can a single flame light up the night? …Who is this comedian, this steel that is Ukrainian? We die but maybe live again. Can one man save the world?”


Take inspiration that even under the most nightmarish circumstances, millions are strong and responding. Certainly, if those resisting attack and mounting defenses can work together, we in our privileged land can confront the relatively small difficulties we face, and bridge our differences. If we’re smart, we’ll latch onto this moment of mutual support and remember we each have a part to play in saving the world.


Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker and author of seven books, most recently Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage. She can be seen in her Seattle suburb walking (and picking up litter) with her husband, author and radio host Michael Medved, and at least some of their three children and four grandchildren. Reach her at DianeMedved.com.

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