Like most of us, my stomach is in knots over what is happening in Ukraine. Woven together are chords of fear, threads of indignation, and skeins of disbelief that Russia would wantonly breach international law, violate a neighboring country’s sovereignty, and make the choice to inflict no end of bloodshed on its newly created adversary – and on itself. It is distracting, disturbing and disheartening.
Like many of us, I can get caught up in the media trying to figure out Putin’s motivation, or suss out his endgame or get embroiled in the historical and geopolitical complexities of it all. And trying to project where it all might lead. These are important issues, to be sure, and need to be sorted through. On one level, the invasion is bringing the world closer to a dangerous brink which, if crossed, might upend life even more than covid or climate change or polarization, or the many other issues that keep us on edge. And on another level, which can be intensely personal, the invasion brings many of us closer to despair.
Which most of us want to avoid.
I can’t do much, if anything, to change the course of current events. I can, however, do a lot to disrupt the trajectory to despair.
From every angle, Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is a brazen expression of his ego, which, when inflated, has a need to dominate. Fear, indignation and disbelief are the ego’s response to this willful attempt of domination. When ego meets ego, there is a standoff – at least for awhile. But if the attempt is overpowering and unrelenting on one end, the other ego can collapse – which then sinks into despair.
When hideous acts of aggression are on display, my ego goes into overdrive. It is exhausting. And despair may be just around the corner.
Our spiritual ancestors have outlined another way: in the face of an out of control ego, draw on the presence and strength of the soul, which is where creativity and love are born, and from which faith emerges. Instead of seeing the world through the lens of the ego, seek to view the world through the eyes of the soul. It is often hard to reach the soul, especially when the ego feels as though it is under continuous assault.
Years ago, I did a fair amount of white-water canoeing. One of the things I learned early on is to avoid hydraulics, which occur when the river is moving against itself at the same time, creating big waves. Canoes invariably capsize in a hydraulic – and the temptation, when caught in one – is to try and get on top of the churning waves. There are no end of stories of people drowning in efforts to do so. The learned wisdom is, instead of trying to climb up, to go down where there are deeper currents which can bring one out of the hydraulic to calmer waters.
In many ways, learning the dynamics of white-water hydraulics is the journey from the ego to the soul.
When I was in seminary in the early 1970s, attorney and author William Stringfellow came to give a public lecture. He told the story of hiding the Berrigan brothers, both Catholic priests, who had been on the run from the FBI after having spilled blood on draft board files as a protest of the Vietnam War. The FBI finally caught up to them at Stringfellow’s house on Block Island, just off the coast of Rhode Island. The agents were angry and aggressive, because these two priests had eluded them for two years. Stringfellow watched the arrest, and remarked that Daniel Berrigan, the olderand smaller brother, was unruffled by FBI agents who roughed him up. “It was as though they couldn’t do anything to him”, Stringfellow said. Dan Berrigan had been able to find the gentle currents, as a result of years of spiritual practice. He had made the journey from the ego to the soul. His relative serenity further infuriated the agents.
The soul isn’t going to stop the war. But the soul will help us endure it, and withstand the many tugs on the ego to respond with aggression, if not hate. The soul can lower the anxiety, not just in ourselves, but if enough people draw on the strength of the soul, it can ebb the anxiety and fear in the world. And redirect the path to despair.
The soul is the repository of hope. Hope can be an invisible weapon, which we now desperately need, especially since so many people – especially Ukrainians taking shelter in subway stations, are finding hope in short supply. As writer and social activist Jim Wallis has said, “hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watch the evidence change.”
Engage the soul. Resist the fulminations of the ego. Reclaim hope. And maybe, just maybe, we will see the evidence change.