As bombs fall on Ukraine, take a moment to appreciate the blessings of peace and that they are not free.
One recent glorious morning in tranquil South Dakota, as Russia rained more death and destruction on Ukrainian cities and hamlets, I awoke to a perfect day, my wife peacefully checking her email beside me and turning to smile, and our cat trying to tunnel under the covers to a remembered warm spot.
That’s what the sacred everyday glories of peace are all about and why significant acts of “disturbing the peace” are almost universally crimes, including Russia’s ruthless invasion of Ukraine, which, worse, is arguably also “a crime against humanity.” And the raging injustice of unpeacefulness is exactly what virtually all 4 million-plus Ukrainian refugees are talking about these terrifying days self-exiled as they are in foreign lands far from their normal lives.
They inevitably tell war reporters trying to explain the senseless invasion’s utter destruction and human misery that they simply want to “go home.”
The timeless comforts of home
Indeed. In peacetime, “home” is where one finds the myriad seemingly trivial domestic comforts and rhythms and joys that are the architecture and sustenance of day-to-day happy human life. It is what Thomas Jefferson alluded to in his timeless phrase “the pursuit of happiness” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
But such cherished moments of familial contentment, as I experienced on that recent morning here in rural American farm country, are now just taunting memories and longings throughout much of Ukraine and its new refugee diaspora.
I was actually thinking of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as I awoke that recent morning in my beloved cocoon of peace and privilege and quietude, and I felt a pang of compassion for the innocents being terrified and abused and slaughtered thousands of miles away. And I felt a surge of rage against Russia, which, in a fit of bald imperialism a few weeks ago, had launched its unprovoked and brutal, even criminal, invasion of its peaceful neighbor.
It’s important to remind ourselves what is lost in war, besides lives and treasure. We lose the essential gift of tranquility, which allows us to conserve our energy for fully experiencing joy and also enduring the inevitable conflicts and problems of private life.
So, I’m a little ashamed to say how perfect a day it was that day when I awoke thinking of Ukraine. But it was, and it makes me more fully appreciate the important blessings of peace in America, as everywhere.
The day the white pelicans came
It was the day snow-white pelicans by countless hundreds glided down in their tightly synchronized formations to land on our wide creek on both sides of the railroad trestle that spans it. Their grand arrival was a fortuitous sign, considering the impressive creatures often don’t arrive at all in spring or just a handful.
I later enjoyed a lovely breakfast in view of the creek and learned the latest on Ukraine and the rest of the world by watching CNN news on television and reading news articles from the Washington Post and New York Times on my phone. These are simple, constructive pleasures that help center me and are thus important in my own pursuit of happiness.
During the day, I watched the pelicans with great pleasure from inside our artificially heated home as they bobbed in the frigid, choppy waves scared up by a blustery spring wind. They’re rascals, though, those beautiful water birds. Crass opportunists.
For reasons that escape me, many sleek, black, diving cormorants—they ride so low in the water they look like half-submerged submarines with curved periscopes up—chose to share the creek with the pelicans that day, and every day since. They did this despite the pelicans continuously trying—and often succeeding—to steal the fish cormorants snagged in the depths and carried to the surface in their beaks.
Sometimes, as a gang of pelicans swiftly surrounded a surfacing cormorant, their white wings flapping aggressively, the threatened bird would execute an emergency dive just as the pelicans closed in—popping up 20 or so yards away, as if to say, “nah nah nah NAH nah!”.
All day the sky was filled with flocks of pelicans and cormorants and loons and coots and ducks, zooming past, hither and yon, many landing on our creek only to soon take off again en route to some unknown place. And, as every year, zooming swallows began to take up residence under the rail trestle, where they build their sturdy mudpack nurseries.
Where are they going? And why?
“Where are they going all the time?” I asked my wife, meaning all the birds. “What are they looking for—mates, food, exercise? Or are they just being tourists and checking out the local scenery?”
Silly, I know, but I always wonder what animals are thinking, because their actions often seem so random. I’m certain they know where they’re going, but I want to know, too.
Just as I want to know why Russia so badly covets restoration of its once-mighty, now rump Soviet Union that it’s willing to inflict such wanton misery and destruction, including employing rape as a weapon of war, on the independent, sovereign people of Ukraine, many, many of whom have relatives and dear friends in Russia.
As a result, Ukrainians today have no idea when they will return to their normal, mostly tranquil previous lives. They have no idea even if they will remain an independent nation if Russia finishes what it so cynically, callously started.
After the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden said that Russian President Vladimir Putin in his unjustified war “is not only attacking Ukraine, he is attacking the very foundations of global peace and security.”
“If we do not stand up to Putin’s Russia,” Biden declared, “it will only inflict further chaos and aggression on the world.”
So, the arguably worst crime is not just murderously attacking a neighbor unprovoked, unilaterally changing another’s borders or ignoring moral and international law.
It’s assaulting something even more sacred: peace of place and mind, the essential, fundamental virtues of happy lives.
In Ukraine, even if pelicans or other beloved birds did arrive this spring, who could enjoy them fully with such malevolence in the air?