I’m really scared of war. I feel guilty being so concerned about my future when people are suffering right now in other places. What can I do to feel better?
Scared in Swatara
First off, you should be scared of war. It’s terrifying. It’s senseless, destructive, unpredictable. It can end your life, take your loved ones, drive you from your home, starve you, and decimate the earth. It can take everything you’ve ever cared about and known. You’ve spent your whole life learning history as more or less an endless list of conflicts and grievances, punctuated occasionally by a cool invention or a really interesting book. For our whole lives we’ve had, often live, audio and visual reference points for the tolls of war.
If you weren’t scared of war, you’d either be stupid or too selfish to empathize with its victims. But here you are, an ocean and a continent away from the terror taking place. At this moment, you’re probably safe, probably warm, probably fed, and you’re scared. You feel guilty because the part of that emotion that you’re focused on is your own drive for self-preservation rather than the empathy that you necessarily felt which sparked it.
A lot of people have been talking about the disparity between our collective attention on the war in Ukraine and wars fought literally anywhere but Europe, and that’s a fair criticism. Way back in my youthful co-ed days, I would rattle the ears off of anyone who would listen talking about Darfur and demanding to know why some genocides matter more than others. They don’t. It all matters, and it all deserves our combined effort to resolve the violence.
I’m betting, Swatara, that you have a big heart, and the reason you may have your eyes glued to your phone more lately than you have throughout the Tigray War, for instance, is not a lack of compassion for the people of Ethiopia so much as it’s an awareness of the fact that with Ukraine, we’re walking on a global tightrope where escalation can result in massive conflict between all of the best-armed nuclear nations of the earth, and there is no amount of ocean and continent that will separate us from that reality. We are all connected, but such an event would take that premise far beyond theory.
So here’s what you can do about it. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. Allow yourself to stay up to date on what’s going on, but limit how often and for how long you take that information in. Try reading a fairly measured news source instead of watching it. My go-to is AP. If you are going to watch or listen, consider a source that isn’t using misleading rhetoric and nervous system-hijacking sound effects to exacerbate your state of fear. (I’m saying stay the fuck away from cable news.) Give NPR or PBS a shot.
Talk to people about how you’re feeling. One of the most maddening things about events like this is the weird silences and the surreal feeling of being out in public and seeing everyone behave as if everything is normal when we’re all teeming with anxiety. It isn’t normal. If you’re a parent, you’re probably especially aware of the balancing act required to acknowledge children’s fears, to comfort them without being dismissive, to inform them without inducing panic, to not freak out in the grocery store because no one is freaking out. If people want to downplay it to make themselves feel better or because they don’t want to alarm the people around them, that’s their prerogative, and we should respect that, but that shouldn’t stop you from taking the time to confide in your close circle about the feelings you’re having.
Do what you can to help. You’d be amazed at what you can do from so far away and how much it might help you to move your attention away from yourself. You can:
Donate money to organizations in Ukraine. Just do a little research to make sure the source is reputable and will be maximizing the impact of their donations.
Keep the muscles of democracy engaged by writing to your representatives about your positions so that they are actually empowered to represent you when they craft policy.
Show up to a protest. You will feel solidarity with the other people there, and documentation of these protests not only buoys the spirits of those in the trenches but also shows war criminals just how strongly the tide of public opinion is against them.
Give blood. While it will likely stay local, your blood can help save a life and ameliorate a critical global blood shortage.
Do what you can to prepare. A lot of why you feel so scared is likely that you are staring into a vast unknown. If something bad happens, you may have no idea if or how you’ll survive. If you have a plan, you’re eliminating a huge part of that mystery. You won’t be thinking, “What would we do?” You’ll be thinking, “At least if we’re in an emergency, we have our immediate needs met and can move forward calmly from there.” You probably aren’t in imminent danger, but emergency preparedness looks pretty similar across most disaster types, so what you do for your fear today might help you in a hurricane next summer.
Whether your pipes freeze from a winter storm, you lose power from a solar flare, your community suffers an attack, or your economy gets “taken to its knees” as is happening in Russia, you’re going to have the same basic needs. First and foremost, you need access to clean water. You should also always have a first aid kit, some light, some warmth, some food, and ideally a way to charge your cell phone or switch out the battery. You should also know some first aid. The Red Cross offers classes virtually and in person. From there, just think about where you live, what emergencies you’re most likely to encounter, and what you need for your household to be ok for a little while under those circumstances. You can even make it fun and learn some skills if you want. Cooking, canning, and sewing are great hobbies even in totally chill times, and they can help you live a more sustainable lifestyle.
If you contact your local FEMA, they should be able to provide you with specifics, which will also help you with logistics like evacuation routes. Being less than ten miles upriver from hometown horror, Three Mile Island*, this is probably a subject that has crossed your mind before. We may have learned through the pandemic that emergency preparedness is one area that has been woefully bereft of funding and support, but it does in fact exist. Utilizing your local resources and taking the subject seriously will actually help you to feel better while giving them the community engagement they need for success.
*If your primary anxiety involves anything nuclear, some Googling might actually help you a little. I will not pretend that a nuclear disaster isn’t the high water mark for human destruction, but it’s also probably different than you imagine if you aren’t at the epicenter of an event.
Don’t let anyone make you feel silly for taking some basic practical steps toward emergency preparation. It’s easier to laugh at someone for being a Chicken Little than it is to admit that in a few generations, most of us have lost basically all the skills required to survive alongside our environment. I’d liken it to the subsect of atheists who can be a little smug and rude to those who look for something in the great mystery of being. It feels so much safer telling yourself you’re sure it is never going to bother you. The reality is that certainty about almost anything tends to lend itself to both carelessness and incuriosity. Slapping a period on it usually means you learn far less than people who dance with life’s question marks.
Lastly, most importantly, try to practice mindfulness. Are you ok right now? Are you with a loved one or snuggling a pet or eating something delicious or getting into bed or just waking up or escaping into Love is Blind or waiting in line somewhere so stupid and boring? Good! Notice that. Feel that. Try to be where you are and not where your brain (which I am guessing is almost always wrong at predictions) keeps trying to drag you. Feel love. Try to cultivate some peace inside yourself and let it grow for the world outside to mirror.
I hope that some of that might help you, Scared. If it doesn’t, you should just know, I’m scared, too. But I’m here right now in this moment, same as you.