On Friday morning, the second day of Vladimir Putin’s bloody, unconscionable war on Ukraine, I sat at my desk and wept. The scale of the crisis, which Jeremy Cliffe described as a turning point in history, is difficult to comprehend. What was unimaginable for many two weeks ago is now reality. It was the video of the Ukrainian soldiers defending Snake Island, hesitating for a moment before telling the Russian ship demanding their surrender to “go fuck yourself”, that made me cry, but once I started I couldn’t stop. This has been a terrible week in history.
Countless other people watching from afar will have spent at least some of this weekend in tears or in a state of shock. This is a cataclysmic event, not only creating hundreds of thousands of refugees and causing hundreds of tragic deaths — it is disrupting the world order as we know it. Even aside from pain at seeing horror inflicted upon fellow human beings, people are rightly terrified of what will happen if the war spreads beyond Ukraine’s borders.
All of this hardly needs saying. Yet a troubling side-effect is that our emotional responses seem to have become a story of their own. On Friday, as Putin’s tanks rolled mercilessly through people’s homelands — where they experienced their greatest joys and worst disappointments — the Huffington Post published an about “how to ease the vicarious trauma” for those of us watching through our phones, including distraction techniques such as videos of people decorating cakes. NPR ran a handy guide to how to take care of yourself during a difficult news cycle. On social media users have posted about their inability to tolerate reports from Ukraine due to being an “empath”, or their need to disengage because the news is too painful. These posts have proliferated to the extent that the format is now a meme: “As an empath, I’m getting the sense that the situation in Ukraine might be bad.”
It seems nothing is immune to the pernicious individualism that grips online culture. There is always self-obsession, there is always one-upmanship, but it is in times of crisis that the collective “main character syndrome” of Twitter and Instagram becomes actively abhorrent. After George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in 2020 and protests broke out worldwide, social media quickly transitioned from a place to mobilise and arrange action to a place to post infographics you had barely glanced at to mollify your guilt. In the present crisis, the American actress AnnaLynne McCord posted a performance of a poem on Thursday in which she wished that she had been Vladimir Putin’s mother. There is a feverish compulsiveness to the way in which we make the story about ourselves and gaze at our navels online, even at times when reality demands that we shift our attention elsewhere.
Of course we have to get on with our lives. Of course we have to do what we can to prevent ourselves spiralling into sustained, intolerable distress. We live in a world of push notifications and questionably reliable information and yes, that’s difficult sometimes. Uncertainty and powerlessness are difficult to reckon with. But if you need to log off, just log off. If you need to take a break from the news, just take a break. Talk to your friends and family and ask for comfort. Don’t post about it as your cross to bear, as a personal journey, as an empath’s struggle or a reason to buy another scented candle. There is nothing “vicarious” about the war in Ukraine. This is not your problem, it’s humanity’s.
Even in an age when we intone repeatedly that it’s “OK not to be OK”, social media has made us pathologically averse to discomfort. The urge to release our negative emotions, to have them validated and forgiven and healed by strangers on the internet, is so strong that we are out of touch with how to simply tolerate them. It is deeply contradictory to say that it’s fine to feel sad and also that you must immediately take action to assuage it.
This is not a time for denial or self-preservation, it’s a time to have our eyes wide open. What happens if, next time we feel unbearably upset about the atrocities in Ukraine, we hold on to that feeling for a moment and see where it takes us?