Amidst the complicated and painful layers of what we see unfolding in Ukraine—the horrific violence, the heartening global support, the outrageous injustice and racism, the perplexing questions about the part we play from thousands of miles way—I find myself preoccupied by the notion of heroism in times of tragedy.
Scouring through news reports, I paused with a grin when I saw an article about President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. If I’m being honest, I had already been giggling to myself because of the way his name kept bringing to mind Wayne Szalinski, the nerdy dad hero played by Rick Moranis in my all-time favorite childhood movie, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” I’d also found it so endearing that President Zelenskyy was previously a comic and actor who became well-known for his star role on a satirical TV show, where he played a high school teacher who accidentally became the Ukrainian president. You can't make this stuff up! But I was most delighted when I read that he had also been the voice of the Ukrainian “Paddington Bear” AND did a stint on “Dancing with the Stars.” That’s not really the resume of someone who would become a heroic symbol of courage, fortitude, and leadership on the world’s geo-political stage…and yet, perhaps against all odds, President Zelenskyy is rising to the occasion with valor.
Listen…I am THE LAST person who needs to be commenting on what’s happening in Ukraine. I am CLEARLY not an expert, and there is so much about the conflict I do not understand. It's just, I can’t stop thinking about the arc of President Zelenskyy’s story, and the way he has risen to meet the challenges before him with so much courage, and to worldwide acclaim…just a pretty normal guy who was once on a TV show.
Over the last ten years I’ve gotten to know a lot of families who have a child with cancer. One of the most persistent and surprising frustrations I hear from parents is the way they are heroized by their friends and family. “You’re so strong / brave / amazing for how you’re handling this!” “I don’t know how you do it—I don’t think I could be so strong!” It turns out, phrases like this are not always helpful. At first, I couldn’t understand why. I mean…they’re compliments, right? How can words of praise become so irksome? My hunch is, these well-intended affirmations actually create more separation than connection, and I wonder if they leave parents feeling even more alone. How do you honestly receive a sweeping compliment about your strength and bravery and steadfast faithfulness as a parent when you’ve just finished 45 minutes of scream-crying in your car? How can you take up the mantel of "hero" when you’re just hanging on by your fingernails?
Do I believe that we all possess a measure of strength and resolve and fortitude that would shock the hell out of us if we ever had to leverage it fully during our own time of tragedy?
Do I believe that we would look at ourselves in that moment of reckoning and say, “Wow…I really AM a hero!”?
No, reader...I do not.
We’d probably recognize that we were just slogging our way through because we had no other choice. We'd probably say, "Yeah, I'm not sure how I'm doing this, either."
All of this makes me wonder how we might reconsider the way we affirm those who are suffering. Because the truth is, TV star or not, President Zelenskyy knows he needs a lot more than good ratings, or headlines praising his bravery. Like any normal person facing a crisis, he needs people who will step into the challenge with him.
I am working toward a better vocabulary to meet a suffering person where they are. When I see a parent who is mustering every ounce of their courage to face another day—another moment—in the grind of childhood cancer, and the impulse rises in me to offer praise for their courage and bravery like a sparkling trophy, I’m trying to remember to simply say, “This all sounds so hard…and I’m with you.”