Heart of Darkness

Simon Smart on reading stories from the war in Ukraine, and both the darkness and the goodness of human nature.

I’ve been avoiding reading stories about Ukraine. It just feels like there’s too much bad news going around to be absorbed in any healthy manner. But yesterday I allowed myself to read a bunch of stories from The New York Times about women and children fleeing their homes in the face of the Russian onslaught, and overnight, becoming refugees.

I was right to be wary. These were disturbing accounts of narrow escapes from bombed out apartment complexes, children’s eyes being shielded from streets scattered with bodies, civilians being gunned down as they sought escape and desperate queuing at border posts begging the mercy of foreign soldiers. Photographs of the utter destruction of towns like Bucha and Mariupol and the chaos of deliberate bombing of hospitals and schools spoke to an astonishing lack of regard for life.

Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov speaks of the artful cruelty of human beings: “if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness,” Ivan believes. We are uncomfortable hearing about the dark heart of humankind, let alone our own dark hearts. We moderns prefer to focus on human goodness. But both aspects of our natures are real and to be reckoned with.

The Ukrainian stories also included bravery and sacrifice and kindness, and lovely moments of warm welcomes into Polish homes. Strangers becoming friends through adversity. They were heartening in a flowers-emerging-from-the-ashes kind of way.

The desolation of the Ukrainian towns and the wrenching apart of communities and families is hard to comprehend. Sometimes darkness seems impenetrable.

Some people might think it naive to cry out to God in moments like this. But where else could we truly turn for the kind of healing and restoration required, both within and without?