I’m walking down a brick sidewalk in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, which only a few months ago was surrounded and bombarded by Russian troops. As I make my way down the street, my eyes fall on a wad of multi-colored paper that, at first glance, looks like monopoly money—Ukrainian Hryvnias, the local currency.
As I realize what I’m looking at, my nerves fire, initiating an automatic response from my muscles. I’m going to pick up the money, just like I’d do at any other point in my life. But as I begin to reach toward the ground, I freeze. Something isn’t right.
My head turns to see a woman walking up behind me. She wears a traditional dress and headscarf, and to my western eyes, she appears to have stepped out of a time capsule. She says something in Ukrainian that seems to affirm my good luck at finding the money and watches with a confused look on her face as I stand motionless, hovering over the small pile of cash. My body stays still, but a montage begins playing in my mind.
In my imagination, I see the person who dropped the money and my stomach sinks as they reach into their now empty pocket and realize what they’ve lost. I hope they’ll come running back to find the cash, but I know they won’t. Next, my thoughts turn to the woman standing near me. In my mind’s eye, I see her working the days away and laboring to provide for her children. Somehow my brain connects this back to my own life, and a pang of sadness strikes me as I’m reminded of my own mother’s struggle to provide for me and my siblings. Then my mind goes to all those nameless people in this country who’ve lost their homes, jobs or loved ones to this war.
Clearly, this money isn’t for me.
I want to tell the headscarved woman to take the cash, but I know she won’t understand my words. With no ability to communicate, I can only act. I look once more at the money, then at the woman before turning and making my way down the street as quickly as possible. The woman screams out something in Ukrainian and pounces on the cash.
As I hurry back to my office, my head’s still swirling with the stories and faces of all those in need. I’m gripped by the moment, but more so by whatever chemical is streaming through my brain. I feel my emotions build, and tears well up in my eyes. For a moment, I wonder, “what’s wrong with me”? Why am I crying? But lately, this happens often. My eyes fill with tears whenever I’m overwhelmed by any emotion. It isn’t as unpleasant as it sounds. Instead, it’s in these moments—when my emotional cup is overflowing—that I feel the beauty of life more than ever.
As I walk, my neurochemical captor takes me on a mental journey through the trauma, fear and mourning I’ve been surrounded by since I came here.
My memory takes me to a colleague who tries to make small talk with me, but I have no time for it. I’m far too busy for meaningless chit-chat. The next day someone sends me a video of that same colleague. She talks about hiding in her basement for days under constant artillery fire and evacuating her home to discover that every building in her city was destroyed. She lost everything. As I think back to her, I can see the pain in her eyes when she speaks with me, but in my rushed state, it doesn’t register. I’m ashamed of myself, but I’m also determined to be better. I have to slow down and acknowledge the humanity of those around me.
Next, my mental journey takes me to another Ukrainian woman I met. She was so afraid of being buried alive in a bombed building that she consulted a doctor on the most painless way to end her own life. The small blade she now carries serves as an escape hatch if things ever get bad enough. “One little cut right here,” she says as she gestures to a place on her neck near her collar bone. “It will feel like I’m falling asleep as I bleed out.” We commiserate as I tell her about my similar fears and thoughts when I arrived in Ukraine. I wonder how many others have feared this same outcome and reached a similar conclusion. Maybe our crazy thoughts aren’t so crazy after all?
Now my memory goes to the very recent past. I’m having a meal with colleagues, and we’re complaining about some work issues. We’re talking about repairing bombed hospitals in the same way a mechanic talks about replacing an alternator; there’s no emotion in what we say; it’s just business. Then, suddenly, I hear hysterical crying behind me, and I see a young woman who was serving me coffee only a few minutes before. She’s running out the door with her hands over her face, saying something in her mother tongue. My Ukrainian colleagues tell me that she just received word that her uncle died in the war. I go silent and look around the room, wondering how many others are in mourning for their loved ones, for their previous life, or for their country?
As I near my office, I know it’s time to gather myself and get back to work. Still, I can’t help but think that I’ve experienced something important, even profound. It sounds crazy, but before this moment, I didn’t perceive how much the war had affected every Ukrainian I’ve met. Now I see that I’m surrounded by pain, grief and suffering in every moment. But I’m also surrounded with opportunities to lend an ear, be a good friend and be a small source of healing to those around me.
I have to find a way to stay in touch with this empathy I’ve experienced. I have to move slower, be more patient, and ultimately be more human. I know I’ll fail often—the situation is too much for me—but I must improve. And I think I will.