My son Lawrence told me about a time he was working the church nursery and one of his charges—we’ll call him Toddler A—pooped his pants. Not wanting to take the blame for stinking up the room, Toddler A cajoled and bullied another kid—we’ll call him Toddler B—into admitting that he (Toddler B) was the one who had pooped his pants. In shame and mortification, Toddler B was carried to the changing table. There he was vindicated. But the room still stank, and Toddler A still had a load of poop in his britches. Toddler A had kicked the can down the road, but he soon found himself on the changing table.
A skilled rhetorician like Toddler A is able to use language to create and enforce alternate realities in order to manipulate social dynamics or otherwise get what he wants—or what he thinks he wants. But rhetoric isn’t what creates big-R Reality. As I remarked in an earlier edition of this letter, ultimate reality always snaps back on the false realities we create for ourselves. You can call it karma if you like; I call it the coming of the Kingdom of God, where Reality is all there is.
Vladimir Putin has created hellish realities for the people of Ukraine and Russia, in large part through his skills as a liar and propagandist. Some of his lies—about the de-nazification of Ukraine, for instance, or the idea that Ukrainians would welcome Russian soldiers as liberators—are as transparent as the lies of Toddler A. But backed up by state violence and state-controlled media and a demonstrated willingness to kill, steal, torture, and destroy without remorse, Putin’s lies have so far proven more effectual than Toddler A’s.
The lie behind all of Putin’s lies is that in human relations, only power matters. The strong may do as they please, and the weak must submit. This is a pretty convincing lie; it is not hard to marshal evidence in its defense.
What does it mean to be “realistic” in a world where reality is so utterly distorted? Three weeks ago, as Russian troops and tanks amassed on the Ukrainian border, the “realistic” course of action for President Zelensky and the Ukrainians would have been to cut and run. But they didn’t. “Ya tut,” said Zelensky. “I am here.” Since the invasion began, the Ukrainians have been telling a different story than the one Putin had scripted for them.
In The Guardian, Yuval Noah Harari wrote,
Nations are ultimately built on stories. Each passing day adds more stories that Ukrainians will tell not only in the dark days ahead, but in the decades and generations to come. The president who refused to flee the capital, telling the US that he needs ammunition, not a ride; the soldiers from Snake Island who [defied a Russian warship in vulgar terms]; the civilians who tried to stop Russian tanks by sitting in their path. This is the stuff nations are built from. In the long run, these stories count for more than tanks….
The stories of Ukrainian bravery give resolve not only to the Ukrainians, but to the whole world. They give courage to the governments of European nations, to the US administration, and even to the oppressed citizens of Russia.
I am not suggesting that the Ukrainians will be able to hold off the Russian invaders. By the time you read this, Kyiv may have fallen. Rather, I am suggesting that the Ukrainians are telling a story that starts to bring us back into alignment with reality. There is more to being human than exerting power. Supply-and-demand, cause-and-effect, and self-interest aren’t the only laws that apply. Courage and self-sacrifice matter too. Those aren’t just sentiments. They are making a difference on the ground. By resisting, the Ukrainians have demonstrated that the Russian soldiers aren’t ten feet tall and bullet-proof. The will of Putin, as it turns out, is not an irresistible force. Putin’s enemies have noticed.
It’s hard to imagine things ending well for Zelensky. Nevertheless, he’s not the one being unrealistic here. Putin, that master of Realpolitik, is the unrealistic one. Having believed his own lies, he finds himself in a hellscape of his own devising. Putin’s lies have taken him a long way, but they have run into a truer story about what it means to be a human being, and I suspect they aren’t going to take him a lot farther. Leaders who have things under control don’t blow up maternity hospitals. No doubt he’ll conquer Ukraine. But holding Ukraine will be another matter altogether. Putin finds himself in the position of the dog who caught the car.
There’s no point in my conjecturing about the future of geopolitics. I mostly want to point out that there are stories that distort reality, and there are stories that align us with reality. The false stories can create all kinds of chaos. But a truer story can be surprisingly powerful, shaking people out of cynicism and fear disguised as realism.