Big Planet, Small World
There is an unattributed quote that made the rounds on social media awhile back that goes like this: “I am washing my face before bed while a country is on fire. It feels dumb to wash my face, and dumb not to. It has never been this way, and it has always been this way. 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.”
This juxtaposition of the beautiful and terrible, the mundane and devastating, is often where we find ourselves when we look up from inside the confines of our own small patch of the world and broaden our lenses out across borders and continents and oceans on this tremendously large planet we live on. Because it’s a big planet, but a small world, and the devastation of the war in Ukraine and our modern-day experience of it shows us how both of these can be true at the same time. In this context, how do we build a world community? What can help us see the world--this large planet and the 7.9 billion people on it--in terms of a community, a small world? How do we reconcile it when, as the quote says, someone clinks a cocktail glass in one hemisphere as someone loses a home in another?
How do we feel, what do we do, when we are safe in our homes while Ukrainians are suffering tremendous loss and devastation halfway around the globe?
In our technological age, war is more visible and present than ever, and so are the similarities between ourselves and the people suffering the horrors of war. Before the invasion of Ukraine, some of the refugees we see on TV news fleeing their homes might have had dentist appointments… playdates… library books due--just like us. Big planet, small world. Yet despite the horrifying images constantly scrolling across our TV screens and our social media feeds, it’s not difficult to distance ourselves from faraway events that may not affect our day-to-day lives. Another recent quote from author Roxane Gay touches on the disconcerting nature of world events that are simultaneously near and far, present in our living rooms and news feeds, but only until we change the channel or scroll to the next thing. Roxane says: “It is surreal, what modernity offers. There’s a war happening. People are in danger. The people of Yemen have been dealing with similar encroachments for years. There is Palestine and the impossible
conditions Palestinians are living with. There are brutal conflicts taking place all around the world. We learn about them and care about them to one degree or another, while going about our lives, largely unaffected. It’s a bit surreal.”
War has certainly shaped the lives of members of my family in the generations before me. Both of my grandfathers served in World War II–my paternal grandfather in the Army and my maternal grandfather as a Navy pilot patrolling the coasts of the US and Cuba in PBY flying boats. My dad was eligible to be drafted to Vietnam, but he had an educational deferment and, later, an inner-ear syndrome, which kept him from going over. However, despite these lived experiences of war, no one in my family was ever in the kind of danger that Ukrainians are in now.
In the community I lived in growing up and the one I live in now, outdoor warning sirens are tested on the first Saturday of every month. When I was growing up, my mom, a Baby Boomer and daughter of the Navy pilot, called these air-raid sirens. I don’t remember asking her about that, at a time in my life when I certainly didn’t understand what air raids, or air strikes, were. I wouldn’t have been old enough to remember hearing those sirens until the early- to mid-1980s, and some perfunctory Googling tells me that the civil defense air-raid system in the U.S. was dismantled in the 1970s--most cities no longer have an operable air-raid siren system. The outdoor warning sirens I hear tested today are for dangerous weather conditions, like a tornado. I have only read about air strikes in books and seen footage and fictional depictions on TV. I have never experienced one like the people of Ukraine are experiencing now.
So, back to my question: what does world community mean in this modern age, when people around the planet--Ukrainian war refugees, starving Yemeni children, injured Palestinian protestors--can be in our living rooms with us? How do we respond to the troubles of this big planet with the values of the small-world community? Unfortunately, I don’t have any easy answers. Sometimes, all we can do is bear witness… not turn away from the suffering of our world community… pray… and take a stand with the power of our votes, our privilege, and our pocketbooks.