On Focus amidst Frenzy
More Thoughts as Crisis Continues
It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. —Yogi Berra
You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war. —Winston Churchill
"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." —J.R.R. Tolkien
Above: Civilians in the Crosshairs of Crisis | First published here.
A new week brings the same godforsaken war. That which is brutal, unsparing, ruthless, heinous—especially for society’s most vulnerable.
This includes children. The below, ninety-second video depicts how conflict robs them of the very stuff that makes childhood—scratch that, life—so blissful. Though a few years old, it still rings poignantly, devastatingly true:
The conflict in Ukraine possesses the three Cs that rear their ugly head during any bout of savagery: chaos, carnage, and casualties.
The people of Ukraine—led by a man fast forging his own myth—are resisting with their blood and sweat, are fighting with fists and teeth, cocktails and carbines. Though outgunned and outmanned, they have something which cannot be manufactured or mustered: an indomitable esprit de corps.
I view this as both terrific and terrifying—let me explain.
Two things can be true:
You can be ecstatic and inspired that Ukraine is putting up a so prodigious a fight—is redefining what the phrase “courage under fire” means—and you can be anxious about what this means for an embarrassed egomaniac who cares for nothing other than himself, his reputation, his legacy.
Candidly, I am deeply worried that Putin’s lack of progress in Ukraine (read as: being utterly discomfited by the bravery of the Ukrainian people) makes him that much more desperate (i.e. unstable enough to use nuclear weapons). To me, his being on thin ice is remarkably dangerous for the world order and its adherents. After all, Putin is losing on all fronts: psychologically, militarily, reputationally, and financially. A cornered dog often bites; I don’t see this dog (i.e. Putin) responding very well to international, unified condemnation and conspicuous humiliation.
I continue to discuss this crisis because I feel and fear that this consequential war has begun to recede into the back of our collective consciousness—yet another victim of our Never-Ending Now. As I wrote in a previous edition of White Noise:
In many ways, we are all slaves to silicon and semiconductors; to those devices that ping, bing, and buzz at all hours of the day and night.
Hooked on an intermittent dopamine drip of ephemeral news cycles, Cancel Culture casualties, and infinite scrolling, we live in what my friend David Perell has aptly termed the Never-Ending Now.
The constant connectivity of the Never-Ending Now undermines our ability to learn from the enduring lessons of the past. Without these, we face an unknown future neither equipped nor prepared. We resemble chefs without ingredients, skippers without vessels, carpenters without lumber.
Because of this collective simultaneity, I fear that we are fast approaching the world George Orwell forewarned of in 1984:
Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.
When I mentioned this to a close friend of mine, she shared a sage quote with me. It aptly summarizes my thoughts on the Information Age:
We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely. — E. O. Wilson
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (who else?) succinctly articulated why we must heed history and fight the quickening news cycle with his comments on Babyn Yar.1
I, for one, have not and will not remain silent. It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword and God knows that I am much more adroit with the former than the latter.
As such, I tweeted the below thread earlier this week. Judging by the many messages, texts, and conversations it spurred, it seems to have resonated with a great deal of people.
Per the above, unfortunately and importantly, I both fear and feel that this is much larger than Ukraine.
This conflict seems to have accelerated the subliminal brinksmanship and saber-rattling of the past few years. It has brought to the foreground the importance and interconnectedness of events like Obama’s “Red Line” in Syria, China’s subsumption of Hong Kong, America’s abandonment of Afghanistan, and Taiwan’s precarious position.
What comes to mind are the words of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yamamoto is said to have written the below in his diary on December 7, 1941: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” In this case, the sleeping giant is not America, but rather unimaginable societal, cultural, geopolitical, financial metamorphosis.
Though my thoughts remain inchoate on this front, serendipitously a favorite new publication articulates it better than I ever could:
We are living through an era of epochal change. At few times in history have so many currents of civilizational transformation coalesced and crashed into us at once, and at such speed. To say that we are being unmoored by massive technological, economic, environmental, geopolitical, and socio-cultural shifts would be to insufficiently limit our description of what is occurring.
Vast new ideational, epistemological, and arguably even theological frameworks for how to understand and interact with reality have emerged and are now spreading across the world.
Overwhelmed, and with no contemporary experience with which to easily contextualize and comprehend what is happening, our natural tendency is to ignore it, to dismiss, excuse, and normalize. Today is much like yesterday, this week much like last week. The economy continues to grow. Besides, we think, change is normal; political games and cultural fads come and go, life will remain much the same. But in our bones many of us can feel the rumbling of the earthquake, and intuit the terrible truth: we are experiencing a tectonic upheaval, a rending, uprooting, cataclysmic shift from one era of history to another. And in such times there will, inevitably, be blood.
The world is being forcibly reconfigured by at least three concurrent revolutions: a geopolitical revolution driven by the rise of China; an ideological revolution consuming the Western world; and a technological revolution exacerbating both of the former…
It would be naïve to assume that any liberal democracy (or any society) can long survive with all of its conceptual foundations gutted. Either it will collapse into civil conflict, or those foundations will be replaced brick by brick by the New Faith, until it is transformed into an unrecognizable edifice that is neither liberal nor democratic. Nowhere is this process more advanced than in the presumed leader of the “liberal” order, the United States, a country already riven with vicious political polarization, deep economic inequalities, revivified racial hatreds, and no direct experience of authoritarian or totalitarian ideologies to provide any inhibition to their spread…
No matter where we live in the world, then, it would be wise for us all to think carefully about the global chaos that is only beginning to consume us all. What is happening? Why is it happening? Where are we headed?
In the face of such holistic sea change, what are we to do?
Regardless of the geopolitical backdrop (or any backdrop, for that matter), it can be liberating to think, know, internalize that we are obligated to do far fewer things than we think. By this, I do not mean dereliction of any duty, but rather a sharp, unmitigated focus on those things that we can control. We would do well to heed the timeless lessons of Stoicism. As Epictetus wrote in his Enchiriodion:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.
Put simply, we must hold fast and do well.
To paraphrase Mother Teresa, it is not how much we do, but how much love we put into the doing.
It is not how much we give, but rather how much love we put in the giving.
Small things are made large when done with great love.
For, the moment that we do anything good, we give it to God. And the moment we give it to God, it becomes infinite. To God there is nothing small; when you move and act in faith, all things are possible.
On this note, I don’t think it a coincidence that such ruin—and its accompanying cinders and ashes—is occurring right as Christians around the world celebrate Ash Wednesday (i.e. March 2, 2022).
Though ashes are a result and sign of death, they are also a powerful symbol of rebirth. After every forest fire, ashes generate nutrient-rich soil that gives life to new trees and greenery.
In a similar way, we might take the raw materials of our lives—the splinters and beams, the dust and detritus, the temptation and transgression—and build something beautiful to counteract this widespread chaos.
On that note, I leave you with the below prayer as we begin the season of Lent:
May you be found by God when your path is obscured by the ashes of your life.
When the contentment of the present is disturbed and broken by the failures of the past, may the God of beginning again become known to you.
When the ashes of what once was threaten to cover you, may the God of New Fire fan into flame the hidden embers that lie within. May this rekindled energy light the way for others who walk with you.
May the God of New Fire bless you.
As ever, Слава Украине.
Per my about page, White Noise is a work of experimentation. I view it as a sort of thinking aloud, a stress testing of my nascent ideas. Through it, I hope to sharpen my opinions against the whetstone of other people’s feedback, commentary, and input.
If you want to discuss any of the ideas or musings mentioned above or have any books, papers, or links that you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of White Noise, please reach out to me by replying to this email or following me on Twitter.
With sincere gratitude,
Babyn Yar is a ravine in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and a site of massacres carried out by Nazi Germany's forces during its campaign against the Soviet Union in World War II. The massacre was the largest mass killing under the auspices of the Nazi regime and its collaborators during its campaign against the Soviet Union, and it has been called "the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust" to that particular date.