War Diaries, September 17, 2022

There was more time then, and folk were fewer, so that most men were distinguished. (Farmer Giles of Ham —Tolkien)



It’s a busy week. The children have returned to school. The mornings are noticeably cooler, the leaves are turning to crimson and yellow, and no one could be happier than I to know that soon both fireplaces will emerge from their summer slumber, robust as ever. The season for bundling up is upon us. Gloves, hats, boots, slipper socks, hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps, winter birthdays and Christmas stockings stuffed with delight. 


Some of our residents are working at the sewing factory. It’s hard work, but they are protected by European labour laws, which is a relief to know they’re not subject to the exploitation typical in such an industry. Paul has become acquainted with the owner of the shop and he likes her, which is another reason for relief. For those who can work and save their money, it’s all the more beneficial to them once the war is over.


I am of two minds about the whole affair but must yield to the desires of those in residence. I am not opposed to hard work, but I am always on the lookout for exploitive tendencies subtly disguised as “fair trade.” It’s not unusual for immigrants across the globe to agree to more than the local would agree to in hopes of a chance to belong and in their desire to feel protected.   


Human dignity. To be treated ethically. What does that mean? It’s a slippery concept. Immanuel Kant considered value to be relative because the value of something depends on the observer of such a value judged.  According to Thomas E. Hill, Jr. (Emeritus Kenan Professor of Philosophy at the U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a specialist in ethics, political philosophy, history of ethics and the work of Immanuel Kant) “…All persons, regardless of rank or social class, have an equal intrinsic worth or dignity….This moral law requires respect for human dignity because all human persons, good or bad, must, from the standpoint of practice, be presumed to have the capacities and predispositions of rational autonomy. 


Paul waited at school with one of the mothers yesterday for a psychiatrist’s arrival, whom he had been scheduled to meet regarding her son who is having difficulty adjusting to this new environment. M. was born prematurely with an aftereffect of developmental complications. 


The doctor showed no emotion or compassion toward the boy or his mother. From a majority of doctors today, anywhere in the world, this is not a requirement, nor is it something one can any longer expect. So that this doctor was without emotion is not unusual. What was unusual however is that he breeched the line of human dignity. Had Paul not been there as advocate to this mother and child, they would have both walked away distraught. As it was, they were all fairly agitated when they left the school.


After much inquiry, Paul finally got out of the doctor exactly what the medicine was called. At first the doctor resisted, saying she, referring to the mother, could look it up online. No. Paul insisted this was not an acceptable practice of medicine. He reminded the doctor that he was the doctor and he needed to tell them what the name of the medicine was and if it had potential side effects of any kind. The doctor was not keen on Paul but did finally give him the information about the medicine. He also became a bit friendlier and said to try it for a week and see how it worked. When the mother asked, “Supposing he doesn’t like it?” To which the doctor decried, “How would you know if he doesn’t like it. He can’t talk.”


Let me be very clear here. There is no reason whatsoever to believe this doctor has any prejudice against Ukrainians. This is actually not about Ukrainians but about us as a human civilization. 


Perhaps he didn’t cross a line at all. Perhaps it comes down to plain old empathy. The kind of stuff you learn when you learn to wash your hands and brush your teeth. To share your toys and to care when someone else is crying or hurt or sad. 


One of the women I’ve met online since the war started is Karen, who sent me a book title yesterday, The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy is Essential in Everyday Life by Brian Goldman, M.D. She talks about how the chapter titled Teach Me, which, in part, tells of the Roots of Empathy program offered to classes of Grade 4 children in Toronto. Then she goes on to say how it has helped “some children who are malnourished in the loving compassion department, how they see the world differently.” In the forward of the book itself, Dr. Goldman describes how he took his practice outside of the hospital and travelled the world to understand why some people are more inclined toward empathy than others. Definitely a book I plan to order.


I could not have predicted the ways in which I have changed since living with those who have lost everything; in particular, a sharpened sensitivity to the impact of our words and our actions. For this I will be forever grateful. If you are awake, you will recognise your teachers. And each and every one of the Ukrainians living here in refuge is a teacher. 


So, I notice stories about the doctor. I’m on the lookout for the subtleties of human indignity in ways that I would not have been inclined before.


We live in a world where we are more and more desensitized. Thousands and thousands of images we’re asked to absorb every day. Sound bites. Stories of tragedy and global economic collapse create an atmosphere of panic. No wonder we must teach empathy in our classrooms, read out loud the definition of human dignity. And put it at the top of the lunch menu: Compassion, for those who are malnourished in this department.


On Saturdays, I talk to our son, Zack, who lives in Denver. He said to me today. “You know Mom, what’s the first thing a teenager does when he feels like he doesn’t belong? He causes trouble to get noticed.” We were talking about how vulnerable the teen years are and how imperative it is to create a space of belonging for them. To belong is a cornerstone for happiness. I don’t always get it right in this situation. Sometimes I lose my temper because I’m one of those personalities prone to such.  My nephew Jordan, who lives with us, frequently reminds me to “respond, not react,” but I don’t get that right either.  But I don’t think it’s about always getting it right. What I do know is that I am willing to go the distance with another person. I’m willing to live with a mess until the mess clears up, and I’m willing to commit to a brighter future for all of us. My loyal friends and me.