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Respecting Our Own Ignorance...

...before (okay, instead of) sounding off.

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At this moment in our country, all things Ukraine are beautiful, brave, tough, and worthy; all things Russia are mean and ugly; and everyone is bracing for World War III.

No one questions that Russia’s brutality against Ukraine was unprovoked, that it’s a tragedy, that everyone is genuinely shocked. But everyone’s painfully aware that one wrong move could trigger a worldwide catastrophe on a scale that we can’t even imagine.

You would think this would sober us enough to really think before sounding off online. But unfortunately, the onslaught of sophomoric social media posts has only ramped up, and these posts do nothing for the general good.The people behind those posts don’t care about what they don’t know. They just care about hitting the sassy, fuck you nerve in the zeitgeist, and getting a million likes for it.

A friend of mine, composer/lyricist Katya Stanislavskaya, (from Odessa, Ukraine), has this to say about our general ignorance right now, and its impact on her life: If you plan to make or repost callous / flippant memes about the war in Ukraine, please unfriend me or whatever. I want to be able to communicate with all my sensitive and knowledgeable friends without stumbling over hurtful bullshit. Same goes for unchecked information. No one wants to hear your justification why it’s cute/funny to have a crush on Zelensky (you didn’t know who he was 2 weeks ago). Or why this is just like the Red Scare. Or how Kyiv rhymes with “heave” (it doesn’t.)”

That last part is about a meme I fell for, but good. The one about how to pronounce “Kyiv,” and that pronouncing it correctly (the way Ukrainians pronounce it, not the way Russians pronounce it) is one way we can support Ukraine. Man, when I write that down it looks so ridiculous. Shortly after thanking whoever posted it, I found the same meme on Katya’s Facebook page with a big red X over it, and the word “WRONG.”

I laughed at how gullible I’d been. The human desire to take action against horrific injustice is something we can and should cultivate, but Kyiv is not being mispronounced. It’s being bombed.

We need to respect the range of our own ignorance.

A blind woman knows she’s blind, and so uses a white cane and/or a seeing eye dog to get around. This helps everyone, herself included. But the percentage of social media posts are more like a blind woman entering a china shop and waving her cane in the air back and forth for fun. Whatever breaks, breaks.

Here’s how ignorant I am: Up until now, everything ‘over there’ (all cold weather and vodka, KGB and gulags) was “Slavic” to me.

Because of Grandma Google, though, I got a tiny whiff of the density and richness of that side of the world. I looked at the map and felt like a child (in the best way), identifying the names: Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Moldova. (I looked for Czechoslovakia and learned there was a split in 1993. How did I miss that? I was almost forty.) So there’s Czechia and Slovakia. And there’s Croatia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and Kosovo. And despite the fact I had no idea where it was, Kosovo even came up in one of my songs.

And there’s Ukraine.

All those countries — all countries — have their own billion trillion stories, their peculiar beauty, and their signature darknesses. Go deep into the land and the language, into the food and the water supply, into the spilt blood and the boundaries and the “Why” of all those things — and the picture becomes so complex that eventually you will have to stop trying to understand. You will have to stop in place, and let a great silence hold it all for you.

We are taking our first steps into World War III, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. Don’t pretend otherwise. Don’t fall for glib Facebook memes. And remember, too, that as the world takes sides, there are countless Russians who think this war is madness.

As things unfold, we must develop an unshakable balance within, no matter how we do it, if we expect to get through to the other side. We will have to learn to sit with fear, with impotence, with conflicting views — and somehow find compassion for every single human being in the face of it all.

None of us were taught to do this. From childhood, we were taught to memorize wars, and dates, and names of battles and capitals. We were praised for knowing this stuff.

We were reprimanded for not knowing it.

But I say let’s bow our heads to our own ignorance. Let’s bring all our Not Knowing into the light. Let’s proceed with deep respect for our ignorance, for its innocent danger, its capacity for unintended, unwarranted damage…especially on social media, but in all forms of speech and action. Of course, let’s educate ourselves — but we can’t pretend like a few months of furious reading will make that much of a difference.

We’ll never know everything. In truth, we hardly know anything. But that’s okay. In fact, to the extent that we’re aware of that, the names of faraway people and places are safer in our mouths.

When we’re not so busy trying to look cool on social media, we can sit with this burning world, hold its crumbling hand. We can be ignorant, empty, we can Not Know; and the world can speak into that empty space what it needs us to know.

We can pause long enough for the world to tell us what it needs.

We don’t have to know anything. We just have to love the world enough to shut up and listen.


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