In this guest blog Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee reflects on the war in Ukraine, how truth and freedom are interlinked, and how ‘ the silence of the soul is needed amidst the barrage of war.’
War has again come to Europe, an unprovoked, unjust invasion. Violence and brutality—civilians hiding in basements, bodies left in the streets, buildings collapsing from bombarding shells. The slaughter of innocent people, a story of conquest destroying lives for no purpose except fear and domination.
This is not just news, not just television images, reporters in distant cities. When I awoke in the night as the first shells fell, I knew that that was the end of our way of life as we know it—even here, in our small community beside the ocean half a world away, where the only danger is meeting a deer on the road, like the two fawns separated from their mother I stopped for this morning. Watching the darkness build for months this war was inevitable, even as it is catastrophic and no one knows how it will end.
The only clarity is that once again it is darkness against light, against freedom. People are responding with kindness and care, opening their homes to refugees, lost people, strangers with only a bag of possessions as everything else has been left behind, bombed. But the darkness is ever-present, visible in the forms of missiles and tanks, lies and propaganda, fake news and repression.
Since 1946 there have been 285 distinct armed conflicts, from the Korean War to the recent civil war in Syria. Always they bring brutality and death, whether by slaughter with machetes in Rwanda or napalm in Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia killed over one and a half million people, almost four million were killed in the Congo—ethnic cleansing, genocide, civil wars. Now once again mass graves are being dug, this time seen around the world through social media, TikTok, and Telegram. Once again darkness is rising, the visible misuse of power, though this time brought closer to home. We can clearly see the maternity hospital bombed, the pregnant woman with blood on her face soon to die along with her baby.
Here in our quiet town beside the ocean it is all so far away, and yet it is also here; one can feel it in the air, even in the damp fog. Here ghosts are wandering—they do not know distances. Louder than the cry of the sea birds, I can hear the cries of human beings. Something essential is being shattered, not just peace and prosperity, not just dreams of a better life, or even the simple ordinary things like taking the children to school and buying milk from the store. A way of life has been invaded, for no other reason than to destroy its freedom, for no purpose other than power. This is what happens when darkness spreads, when hostages are held in hospitals, doctors and patients at gunpoint, when people lining up for bread become bodies in the street.
Once again the thread of collective violence is being woven into our lives, but this time its shadow, its growing darkness, spreads across the whole world. What does it mean when half our world denies what is happening, with the news of missiles hitting apartments, images of the bodies of civilians censored, falsehoods reported in their place? We may have become immune to the notion of “fake news” as the defense of autocrats, but this suppression of the truth seems to split our world into light and darkness, truth and lies, freedom and oppression. Here there is no subtlety, no grey, but a polarity of intention. This is real divisiveness, not the pantomime of culture wars. This is about real freedom, not the accusations of loss of civil liberty that fill social media.
How many more will have to die until this present cycle ends? And what does it mean for our collective soul, for our collective future? For the mother who has lost her children, for the child who has seen her parent die, it is a tragedy written in blood. And for freedom, for truth? Will its light survive the darkening? Or is truth something we’ve already lost amidst the conspiracy theories and the lies about stolen elections, the loss told again now in human suffering? Can we find our way back? Or will this violence just leave another trail of tears, more anger to be handed down through the generations?
Standing on this shoreline, watching the waves, I am trying see over the horizon, to find the thread that is being woven into our collective destiny, woven with sorrow and hope, woven with the kindness of strangers even as the bombs fall. I watch ordinary people take up arms for their land and freedom, the everyman Volodymyr Zelenskyy become an unlikely hero, the “servant of the people,” in his stand against tyranny. And watch others open their homes to refugees, mostly women and children as the men remain behind to fight. Here I am safe, there are no missiles in these skies, but the darkness is very real, as is the sorrow in my heart.
Those who have looked through the cracks in our present civilization have seen this darkness rising. It became visible in our collective denial of the reality of climate change, which is now confronting us with an accelerating disaster, a catastrophe that which will create an “atlas of human suffering” over the coming decades—caused by corporate greed and exploitation. This darkening was also evident in our response to the pandemic, which began with a sense of community and care, the feeling that we are “all in this together,” but over a short time exposed deep strains of racial and social injustice—how the poor suffered most—and soon created even more divisiveness as social media spread misinformation and conspiracy theories. Darkness strips us of our humanity and turns us against each other, and against the Earth Herself.
This is the toxicity of the landscape into which we are traveling, from which none of us are immune, and why even here, in a small town beside the ocean far from Ukraine, the ghosts of this fight are present. How we respond to this darkness will determine how our world walks this liminal landscape into the future. At least we can see clearly that this is a fight for freedom: the simple freedom from oppression, freedom to be able to choose one’s destiny, to send one’s children to kindergarten without fear of their being bombed. And with this freedom comes truth: there is no freedom if it does not include the freedom to speak the truth without fear—to tell the stories of this war as they are made visible in the images of social media, even to say that it is a war. Truth and freedom walk hand in hand through this desolate landscape.
Wherever we are we can recognize what is happening, see that this is not just a fight in another country but a real fight for freedom everywhere. And we can see the danger that the light can be lost, has already been lost in authoritarian, totalitarian countries. We can see the darkness that is invading and that is also present in those who deny this reality.
And we can allow our hearts to break open, to feel the sorrow of the suffering, both for those fleeing and those left behind. We can hear the poignant music of the cellist playing in the ruins of his hometown, Kharkiv, defiance and beauty amidst the horror. Some of us, especially those in Europe, are able to offer their homes as refuge, or the simple acts of kindness that express our deepest human nature—bringing food and clothes and other resources where they are needed. And we can also stay true to the light through our prayers and practices. The silence of the soul is needed amidst the barrage of the war. Care for each other and an open heart can hold the light that is left and stand against the darkness. And we need this light more than we know, to see our way in the darkening years that are coming, when climate catastrophe batters us, when millions more refugees seek shelter.
The heart can hold the light that is needed to help our world through this time. And now the darkness is no longer hiding, but visible in plain sight. In the chaos of misinformation darkness takes on many forms. It can pretend to protect a way of life, traditional values, though always it seeks to divide and dominate. And in it something essential to our humanity is lost. Love and care for each other, for our community and for the Earth are different from the darkness. They speak a different language, have a different touch. They belong to what is sacred within us, the Greater Love that binds us all together. And this is what holds us in the depths of our soul and the sacred places of the Earth.
Here beside the ocean there are no air-raid sirens, just the roll and tumble of the waves. In the store and the post office even the anxiety of the pandemic seems to have passed. It is springtime and the daffodils I planted in the autumn have become a tapestry of yellow. But a shadow is passing over our world and we need to watch and bear witness.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is a Sufi teacher and the author of many books including ‘Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth.’ His most recent book, Seeding the Future is available as a free pdf.
Photo of Kharkiv cellist Denys Karachevtsev by Oleksandr Osipov