Gary Horton | Wisdom from the Crucible of the War

Gary Horton

If we don’t stop to consider and appreciate the wonder of “ordinary life” surrounding us, we’re missing the whole point of it all. Life, I hope, is about giving and receiving joy, happiness, pleasure and love.  

Last week I touched on materialism, quoting Tracy Chapman’s “Mountain of Things,” discussing our human mega-urge to acquire stuff and yet more stuff. And Christmas is stuff’s greatest celebration! Today, with 14 billion humans on this small planet, most clamoring for more and better stuff … we have big demands on Mother Earth that are causing tons of unwanted turmoil as a horrific side effect. One, being our present wars and conflicts over oil and rare minerals … and another, being our own detachment from life’s joy itself.  

Many know I’m friends with the Viktor Naumenko family from Irpin, Ukraine. Irpin was bombed, overrun, pillaged, raped and murdered by resource-greedy Russia during their initial invasion of Ukraine. The wife and daughter literally ran for their lives through shelling to escape to Spain. Ukrainians eventually repelled Russian barbarians from Kiev and surrounding areas and eventually the mom, Juliya, and her daughter returned home to Viktor and their three sons. 

This woman, living to this very moment through a hot war, with too many cold nights huddled in a basement during air attacks, wrote me about that column (yes, The Signal is read in Ukraine) and our self-destructive conditioned tendencies to chase “stuff.” 

Wrote Juliya: 

“You reminded me of a conversation with my childhood friend, who remains a deeply unhappy woman trapped in the worldwide marketing race for human brains and wallets.  

“My friend got married quite late in life and always looked down on me and my large family, reproaching me for my short-sightedness and supposed stupidity of giving up my career for family. It is not lost on me that I stepped away from a promising career, but … if I was given a chance to live my life anew, I would not change anything in general, and certainly would not give up the birth of any of my children. 

“By the time my friend finally married, my toddlers were already school children. I asked her if she was planning to have kids. ‘Of course,’ she replied, ‘But after I get a secondary education to provide for the child properly.’ This seemed illogical, because her husband had excellent incomes and she could easily afford to devote two years to home and baby care  

“After finishing her advanced education, my friend decided to again delay with the child, as she believed that she needed a bigger house for kids. After the large house was realized, plans for a child again had to be postponed for five more years, as she then became convinced their car was not cool enough or large enough, and now they needed two cars, not one. When the fleet of cars was accomplished, it turned out that the renovation of the house wasn’t sufficiently modern to expand the family, and plans with a child were postponed for another seven years! 

“By this time, my eldest son was already 16 years old. My friend finally grew up and decided to deal with the issue of childbirth. But alas, every attempt was crowned with a fiasco and failure. The doctors blamed old ovaries. Every woman’s biological clock is different, the body cannot wait forever. Her opportunity for children had passed while accumulating all the ‘stuff’ she deemed sufficient for a child of their status. 

“Then things turned from sad to tragic. Her long-suffering husband, who really dreamed of children and waited in every way for his beloved to realize all his plans with purchases of ‘important things’ for the nest, filed for divorce and married a woman with two children from a previous marriage. Soon they had children together and he was very happy. And although during the divorce, the husband voluntarily gave his wife almost all the property, now she is sitting on all these many things — apartments, cars, and expensive toys, left without the most important thing … purpose.  

“She visits on holidays and sometimes, when we have a drink, she admits how all this stereotypical tinsel could confuse her and how she regrets her stupidity. Her time for the truly important things was forever lost. 

“This is just one of so many sad stories about the fact that most often, the valuable things are not material things at all. 

“Today, the hunt for people’s minds and wallets is even tougher and more aggressive than ever in my life. I sincerely feel sorry for today’s young people, because they are the most vulnerable category of consumers who are convinced to chase after all these brands, all these new products forever hitting all media, all the time. We drown in the illusion of our own importance derived from things – a human weakness, which marketers ever more expertly exploit.  

“However, we still have the right to choose … if we have life balance and the willpower to maintain our intellectual independence.” 

This wisdom, from a woman who nearly lost her and her family’s life and all their material possessions, is profound. After spending weeks in basements and subways as their town was shelled and her neighborhood went up in bombs and flames, Juliya’s crucible experience shines light on what’s truly valuable and important.  

And no surprise: Life’s joy certainly isn’t about chasing after all the latest stuff. Rather, family, friends, peace and calm. 

Written with Juliya Naumenko.

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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