“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”
This isn’t about politics; This is about people.
In October of 1949, Wasyl and Marie Pawluczkowycz gathered up their first three children and left their homeland, Ukraine. They arrived by ship in New York City. It had become clear in the aftermath of World War II that the Ukraine they had loved would continue to suffer under Soviet rule. They found a way to leave and took it.
Their eldest son, Mychajlo, was 12 years old at the time. He ultimately anglicized his name to Michael and became a naturalized citizen in September of 1958. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. On April 27, 1962, he married my Aunt Kitty.
Uncle Mike was that uncle that most people want to have. He was larger than life with a wide open, bright smile and cadre of ridiculous jokes always at the ready. He proudly kept all 13 letters of his Ukrainian last name. Whenever I would ask him how to spell it he would answer, “Just like it sounds!” and shrug with incredulity.
I am comforted in my ignorance of Ukrainian transliteration as I look at the ship manifest that lists the family. Pawluczkowycz is spelled a couple of different ways even though they are listed one after the other, and, neither is the way the family actually spells it. I always thought my cousins should have gotten extra credit in school just for putting those lonely three vowels in the right places amongst the 10 consonants.
Sunflowers and Shadows
Uncle Mike was strong and stocky but so tender and caring. He spread his protective banner over everyone around him. He sowed kindness, laughter and joy in this comfortable, accepting way. I wanted to be around him. I wanted to absorb his ability to just take life in, however it came to him.
He was also very real. He didn’t always say the right thing. He could be a little rough around the edges. I’m sure he sometimes lost his temper, his perspective and/or his vision. He was a normal human. He was also a beautiful human.
I didn’t know until last week that the national flower of Ukraine is the sunflower. I can’t think of a more apt description of my Uncle Mike: Strong and sturdy, resilient, bright and open, filled with seeds that multiply their beauty wherever they drop.
Sunflowers Under Siege
The more we hear from Ukrainian people enduring the current Russian invasion, the more I understand just how Ukrainian my uncle was. Ukrainians are hardy, bright and beautiful sunflowers, but they are currently in serious threat.
At this writing, more than 660,000 Ukrainians have fled. (For reference, that’s more than the entire population of Seattle.) More than 200,000, (mostly, though not exclusively men,) have stayed to fight. There are more than 75,000 foreign students who were studying in Ukraine, and many, (especially those from Africa and India,) are stranded there. (Yes, even sunflowers have their shadows.) Russia is threatening to use brutal weaponry in a way considered by many to constitute war crimes.
All of those sunflowers. All of those Uncle Mike’s. All in the name of power and control.
The Aggressor Within
So why is a therapist sharing this with you? Aren’t there people suffering under untenable conditions, all over the world, including right around the corner from us? Yup. And that’s why a therapist is sharing this with you.
As human beings, every single one of us has the ability to be an oppressor who thinks only of satisfying self-serving cravings. When we pretend that there is a chasmic distance between ourselves and those who destroy other human beings, we shove those disowned parts of ourselves into the shadows.
When we disown our shadow, we are not whole people. When we are not able to candidly look at the whole truth of our potential, it’s impossible to make well-informed decisions about our choices. We also can’t separate personhood from behavior in our relationships with others. Our unfed souls sneak out behind our backs and steal their food without any regard for who is harmed in the process.
The Uncle Mike Within
As human beings, every single one of us also has the ability to be the sunflower; To be the Uncle Mike – The caring presence that responds to the needs of the whole community, that can warmly accept ourselves and others in the sort of “come as you are party” that makes room for joy, for love, for mutuality and for laughter.
3 Dimensions, Not 2
As the awful events in Ukraine evolve, I want to encourage you to resist thinking in terms of angels and demons. We cannot afford to oversimplify humanness. We are complex. History is complex. If we insist on distilling all of our complexity into convenient soundbites, whether on the international or even intergalactic stage, or in the microcosm of our own thoughts, we miss critically important truths.
How We Bloom
We cannot be afraid of whatever is true inside of us. We don’t have to obey our impulses and more threatening-feeling desires, but we don’t have to cut off from them either. We need the freedom and wisdom that comes from accepting that yes, we really could do that awful thing, and then asking/answering these questions with stark candor:
- “What do I think that action would do for me?”
- “Would it work?”
- “What would it cost me?”
- “What would it cost others?”
“Is there a better way to get the result I’m looking for from that action?”
- “Can I be okay with a modified form of the result that could come from a more considerate choice?”
- “Can I go without that thing altogether because it really isn’t worth the damage?”
I sincerely doubt that Vladimir Putin runs that discernment grid of thought. I’m also going to guess that you, like me, have sometimes failed to run that grid as well. Fortunately most of us have had enough experiences that lead us toward the discernment grid to keep from being tyrants in our world.
To be perfectly candid, I find that life is a whole lot more fun, a whole lot more purposeful and wonder-filled when I chose the Uncle Mike route. I do my best to be firmly planted, to take in and reflect the sunshine, to provide some joy and protection for others, and to release the seeds for other’s future joy as they mature.
Have you ever noticed how phenomenally unhappy Vladimir Putin looks? He’s feeding his ego at the expense of the stability of the world, and it isn’t even bringing him joy.
Does that seem worth it to you?
If you are inclined to help Ukraine directly, please consider looking at the following organizations:
No agency of humans is without flaw. Please vet them and choose accordingly. Don’t let that extra step keep you from dropping seeds where they are needed. Thank you.