Hills of Beans

Image source: Google/Reuters, via the BBC.

“I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” (Rick Blaine, “Casablanca”).

I don’t really feel like writing just now.

I want to write, I feel like I should be writing something, I feel like I should be doing something…but the most important things going on right now are not things I’m qualified to write about. And I don’t really know what I should be doing.

I guess we all try to create meaning in our lives. We find or make things that we consider important. It might be our jobs, it might be our kids, it might be our favourite sports team. We tell ourselves, and others, that these things matter. 

And they do. They do genuinely matter a lot. It’s just that in relative terms they don’t seem to matter that much right now.

Suddenly a lot of the things that seem important are being put in context. I still worry that my kids are watching too much TV, and I worry about how they’re doing at school, and I worry about the impact of the pandemic on their lives…but I’m not worried about them being torn to bloody ribbons by a missile or shrapnel or broken glass. I’m not worried about them having enough food or water. I’m not worried about keeping them alive.

And some of the other things that seem important…just don’t seem quite so pressing any more. The work I do as a scientist just doesn’t seem like a very big deal right now. My career hopes and fears don’t seem like real problems, not when I know there’s people in Ukraine who have far more urgent concerns and may not have homes or families to come back to. When there’s more and more of them being shot or blown to pieces every day.

Even if I lose my job, even when I switch careers, I’ll still be able to find a job; I’ll still have a career of some kind. I’ll still have money coming in at the end of the month. Hell, even if I become unemployed I’ll still be able to get benefits, because there’s still a functioning societal safety net to catch me.

The pandemic already focused people’s minds. There’s been lots of people reconsidering their lives, their careers, their choices. This is a good thing. It’s good if people can step outside the immense and sometimes coercive environments they may have innocently wandered into. 

But we should all remember that at the end of the day, these are luxury problems, because we still have the freedom and the agency to choose things and make proactive changes. It might not feel like it, but we can always walk away and do something else and things won’t be so bad and they probably will be a lot better. 

We’re not having to struggle for our right to exist as a people, while being bombed and missiled and shot at. That freedom to choose that we take for granted is something Ukrainians are having to literally fight for right now.

That glaring awareness is unsettling. I guess it’s why we had a proliferation of armchair epidemiologists at the height of the pandemic, and why now we’re getting a proliferation of armchair geopolitics commentators and military tacticians. People being scared and feeling powerless and trying to create meaning at a distance. I’m guessing a lot more people feel like me, kind of disempowered and wondering what they can do.

You can actually do more than you think. I remember seeing a motivational poster once about a beach full of starfish that are all being baked dry and there’s a boy going along the tideline throwing them back in the water. An old man says to him “Why are you bothering? There’s too many. You can’t possibly make a difference.”, and the boy just picks up another starfish and chucks it back in the water and says “Well, I sure made a difference for that one.”


For advice on what you can do, see this great article from Global Citizen here (thanks to Vladimir Volkov for the heads-up). Contains links for donations, suggestions for how individuals can take action, and provides sources for people wanting to educate themselves about the conflict.

The Ukrainian Institute London has another great collection of links on the same three themes (donations, actions, education).

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