Counting Your Blessings ( even when it feels wrong to do so)
It was a morning of blessed sunshine. Being a Friday, when I often gift myself a slower day, I stayed in bed a little longer, cup of steaming tea in hand, to watch the sunlight dance in rectangles on the floor. I expected, when I finally stepped outside, to be met by the bracing air of the day before. At this time of year there is usually an easy tradeoff; crisp blue skies means cold air, or milder air but you pay in grey. But this was the welcome combination of a cloudless vista and a distinct lack of brace. The kind of day you willingly turn your face towards. It felt like another assertion of the imminence of spring, though with even more capital letters.
The birds were singing louder in response, and I caught the sound, intermittently and for the first time this year, of our resident woodpecker. It was hard not to delight in it all.
And this was despite the fact that not especially far way, the first European war for many decades was now in full swing. Like many other people I had listened, discouraged and despairing, over my marmalade on toast, to the grave announcements of the BBC correspondents, reporting on the invasion of the Ukraine that was then just two days old. It was full scale, an attack on three fronts, the nonsensical actions of a man who- the commentators were telling us- was drunk on too many years in power and the desire to write his own history for Russia. Ordinary Ukrainians, who until only a few weeks ago lived lives much the same as our own, were now fleeing their own homes for a destination entirely unknown or hiding in a network of underground bunkers. Someone reported that many of the children carried colouring books into the hideouts, which somehow felt both acutely and simply heartbreaking. Reports on the ground, from friends of friends, were of missiles going past their apartment blocks, of the sounds of bombs close enough to make the building shake, of husbands waving their wives and children off with a single suitcase each, whilst they stayed behind to take up arms. It was, it is, unfathomably and unequivocally awful. And in all likelihood, it will only get worse. It already has.
That life here remained ordinary enough to delight in felt decidedly strange, almost wrong. With all of that happening, how could I turn my face to the sun and smile? It felt audacious.
Fortune is a roll of the dice. Some of our lives we get to direct, but very often the fundamentals are happenstance. We don't get to choose them. And for the most part, we do not know what is coming. The line between bounty and tragedy is a paper thin one and all too easily leapt. A heartbeat is all that is needed for life, any life, to change wholeheartedly. Another time or another place and it could just as easily be us, all of a sudden facing unimaginable suffering.
There is a saying in Greece, wisely said by the older generation to the younger, that goes something like; 'where you are, I once was, and where I am, you will be’. It strikes me that along the same lines, ‘where anyone is, we could so easily be’. And the fact of it makes empathy both possible and necessary. But so too the need to count our blessings when we have them.
When others are suffering, it can feel feel acutely disrespectful to do anything other than mourn in sympathy and undoubtedly compassion should be our very first inclination. But then what? A friend of mine, whose book was launched Thursday, spoke of her discomfort at celebrating anything on a day that will now forever be inked in history books as the beginning of a European war. And I wholeheartedly understood her sentiments. Shared them even. Should I too have been cancelling the birthday dinner I was hosting for a friend? How entitled to happiness are we, when there is so much suffering. The question somehow felt fundamental.
The well being industry suggests, wittingly or unwittingly, that happiness is our birthright, and by default something is lacking in the world or ourselves if we don’t feel it. But Buddhist philosophy has a different premise. The first of the Noble Truths, which was the very first teaching of the Buddha when he became enlightened, is that Life is Suffering. Many would agree, but many also accuse Buddhism of being depressing as a result. But to my mind it is anything but.
The very existence of difficulty in the world, the fact of tragedy and the inevitability that we will all suffer- perhaps not at the hands of war, god forbid- but certainly at the hand of fate, makes us duty bound to help those in difficulty but also to acknowledge and appreciate the times when we are not. Caveated of course by due respect, quietly if necessary, but acknowledge them all the same. Because nothing, aside from impermanence, is ever guaranteed. Good moments, when they happen, are inevitably transient and so precious. One of the most remarkable qualities of the Ukrainians, alongside their immense and impressive bravery, has been the humour that they have managed to find in the worst of all circumstances. And already there are stories emerging of the kindness of strangers accompanying children across the borders and the rallying of strangers for their common cause. Throughout history, human beings have been defined not just by their capacity for inflicting horror, but equally and often more powerfully, their immense capacity for hope. In the context of the worlds suffering, happiness almost feels like a necessary act of defiance.
At the moment we might feel lucky. And there is no doubt we should be doing everything we can to help. But this is also a reminder that no one is immune to life vagrancies and the only thing we can count on is change. The fact and the inevitability of suffering makes it all the more important, imperative even, to honour its lack when that- by twist of only fate- is our luck.
Even if it that just means lifting your face to a sunbeam, on an unusually mild, late winters day.
WAYS TO HELP:
If you feel that you are in a position to and would like to help the people of Ukraine, in even a small way, I have gathered some organisations that you can give directly to.
The Red Cross has started an urgent appeal for the Ukraine. I am usually loathe to give to bigger organisations but the Red Cross are tried and tested in a crisis and always have an incredible presence on the ground.
To support charities that are on the ground, the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain has started this appeal, which is giving directly to the charities themselves. It feels like a way to help quite immediately.
I feel quite strongly that we should be accepting Ukrainian refugees into our country. If you do too, then sign this petition to help push the UK government to do more. The welcoming of family members is a start but not nearly enough. And the suggestion that others might be able to apply as fruit pickers is quite frankly insulting.
I read in the Sunday Times this weekend that a number of schools are offering scholarships to Ukrainian refugees. If your child goes to a private school, it might be worth a letter to the Head to ask if they might consider doing the same. I have a template if anyone wants it.
Finally, this link is constantly being updated as the situation changes in the Ukraine and has a host of ways to help