How can we enjoy our lives here in the U.S. when life is hell for Ukrainians?

by Stephen J. Lyons

Two weekends ago, crocuses bloomed in our Midwest garden. Temperatures reached 70 degrees. In the middle of the night, we experienced our first thunderstorm. Any day now, the mourning doves will signal the dawn as they return from Mexico — another signal of spring and renewal. And promise.

On the same day in Ukraine, Russia again violated a cease-fire agreement that would have allowed the trapped citizens of Mariupol to evacuate to other parts of Europe that Russian President Vladimir Putin had not yet invaded. The term “safe evacuation corridor” is an oxymoron for the millions of Ukrainians seeking safe harbor, the biggest displacement of people in Europe since World War II. Civilian deaths have mounted. Cities have begun to resemble the hollowed-out capitals of Europe during WWII.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised that he and his fellow citizens would fight to the death to keep their nation sovereign. He has pleaded with NATO to establish a no-fly zone, but NATO has refused; instead, it has promised more weapons, more sanctions, more refugee aid and the possibility of a boycott of Russian oil.

At my local gym, the owner has turned on the two televisions with the sound muted. On the left is CNN and on the right Fox News. Sometimes he will turn the television on the right to One America News. He told me he likes to consume the contrast in coverage. As so many of us do, he leans politically toward the cynical, laughing when the United Nations condemns Russia for its unprovoked and brutal invasion. “That will show them,” he crowed.

It is hard for me to argue with him as to the irrelevancy of the U.N. as we watch queues of people crowd into railway stations struggling to maintain calm as they flee to other parts of Europe perhaps never again to live a comfortable life in Ukraine. I mentioned to him — “there but for fortune” — but he is too young to get the reference to the Phil Ochs song by the same name.

A friend showed up at the gym after more than a two-week absence. “Where have you been?” I asked, thinking that like so many people in the Midwest, he had fled to Florida to escape the winter. “I’ve been home watching the invasion,” he said — glued to breaking news and getting his news from CNN and Fox News. Consuming the contrast.

At this year’s State of the Union address in Washington, small blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags were distributed to members of Congress to wave for the cameras. The Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, sat next to first lady Jill Biden, and at one point they hugged. The Daily Mail breathlessly reported: “First lady stuns in blue. … She had an embroidered appliqué of a sunflower, the national flower of Ukraine, sewn into the sleeve of her dress, the White House said.”

Good optics. Zelenskyy, who remains in Kyiv despite having a price on his head, told CNN: “It’s very serious; it’s not a movie.” Yet we are consuming the invasion and the effects on a terrified citizenry as if it all were a binge-worthy Netflix series.

CNN’s Clarissa Ward reported: “These people have been under bombardment for seven straight days and are only just leaving their homes, and they’re leaving them reluctantly. And they’re leaving them with the knowledge that they might not be able to go back to them. And you can see many of these people are elderly.”

Almost every day, my wife tends to her 98-year-old mother in her assisted living apartment. Her shoulders are frozen, and she increasingly needs help with the simplest of daily activities.  Taking her to the doctor can be a daylong ordeal. Evacuating her during a war would be a nightmare. There but for fortune.

As hard as it is to witness the horrendous battle for Ukraine, life in this part of Middle America continues with few disruptions. People will grumble about the price of gas, inflation and mask mandates, but our lives are essentially the same since the invasion. When I consider this, I feel conflicted in much the same way as when a relative or friend dies. The world goes on as if nothing has happened? How can there be laughter at a time like this? Shouldn’t there be silence?

A friend sent me a poem by the late Jack Gilbert titled “A Brief for the Defense.” The words address the age-old conundrum: How do we keep smiling in the face of sorrow? How can we enjoy ourselves in the midst of so much suffering?

Gilbert writes:

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,

but not delight. Not enjoyment. …

We must admit there will be music despite everything.


Perhaps, in due time. But not right now, not when the dirge of another war cries its mournful chant. Not now.

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of five books of essays and journalism. His newest book is “West of East.”