On Courage, the X Factor, and Sunflowers

“We are all potential heroes waiting for a moment in life to perform a heroic deed.” ~The Banality of Heroism

“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” ~Arthur Ashe

“You should put sunflower seeds in your pockets so that they will grow on Ukrainian land after you die.” ~Anonymous woman in Ukraine, confronting Russian soldiers

It seems like every hour there’s a new one.

The Ghost of Kiev…

The sunflower seed lady…

The Battle of Snake Island…

The highway driver who rolls his window down and offers to tow a broken-down Russian tank … back to Russia

…followed by the farmer who actually uses his tractor to tow (and run off with) a Russian military vehicle…

The guy who looks like your neighbor that – with a lit cigarette between his teeth – ever so delicately carries a live land mine across the road and off into a muddy field…

I could go on, as you know.

Example after example after example of Ukrainian courage. Sometimes cheeky. Sometimes somber.

Always inspiring.

Are the stories all true? That’s not clear. The so-called Ghost of Kyiv, a fighter pilot who shot down six Russian fighters single-handedly in the opening day of the Russian invasion, may be one person or several. I saw unconfirmed accounts that it was a woman named Tatiana.

“I hope it’s true,” a friend texted.

“Doesn’t matter if it is. Does it?” I texted back.

“No.” he responded.

Because the impact – the effect – of the story takes hold, and breathes and walks and talks for itself.

That mythos – the beliefs and stories that undergird and define this moment in history – may be intangible. But it is very, very real.

It’s the X Factor.

You could call it spiritual infrastructure. The mental struts that support a peoples’ identity and willingness to carry on.

It’s that spiritual infrastructure that has stayed standing. At the moment, Russian forces are trying to bomb that, too.

And for good reason.

Heroic narratives inspire others to action, gives them hope that they can make a difference, leading to their action, which leads to more stories of heroism… A continuous loop that feeds the will to fight.

And, as we’ve heard from so many battle-tested military experts, an opponent with superior will can ultimately defeat an adversary with vastly greater resources.

This mythos – this story of courage and determination – isn’t something that can be easily snuffed out, either. Even if Ukraine ultimately “loses” the kinetic war, that mythos will survive.

There’s a story that when Napoleon prepared to attack Venice, its leaders decided that above all else, they wanted to preserve their city. And so, Venice surrendered without firing a single shot. In doing so, they preserved the physical structures of Venice.

But they completely destroyed its mythos. And so, Venice was simply … absorbed. The people didn’t resist.

Because that wasn’t part of their story.

Had Ukraine greeted Russians with sunflowers (rather than sunflower seeds to put into their pockets) that may have been its fate, too.

Instead, Ukrainians have created an insurmountable heroic narrative that – even if the military of Ukraine is broken – will be the fuel the people’s fire for independence needs to burn on.

Taking a country is different from keeping it.

Every story of a cigarette-smoking jeans-wearing guy off the street picking up and carrying away a live land mine feeds the collective belief “You cannot break us down.”

We’ve heard it in the words of Ukraine’s president – “I need ammunition, not a ride,” in the words of Ukrainian solders, “Russian warship: go !@#$ yourself.”

We’ve seen it in the tens – some say hundreds – of thousands of people volunteering for the Ukrainian defense, in university students taking to the chemistry lab to make top-notch Molotov cocktails, in women and children weaving camouflage nets for soldiers.

We’ve seen the will to fight, of course – but more importantly, we’ve witnessed a level of self-sacrifice that is so often lacking in western visions of democracy. Bravery belonging in a movie script showing up in our social media feeds… recorded seconds ago from across the globe.

That’s power that doesn’t require a fuse. It’s also power that can be used in every democracy, in every state, in every culture.

For too long we’ve stood, slack-jawed, watching authoritarians ascend and democracies falter – making excuses even as democratic institutions in our own states are declining.

But the Ukrainian people’s level of dedication has inspired and galvanized a previously paralyzed world.

I’m seeing it galvanize people here in the U.S.

Maybe because watching Ukrainians who are outgunned and outmanned, but still willing to fight for their democracy in muddy fields with their bare hands…

Makes us wonder why we are not willing to fight for ours in antiseptic, climate controlled courthouses, statehouses, and election boards.

Their heroism is feeding into our vision of what we should be.

What we can be.

There is a lot to learn from this conflict and the human response to it. There are many things you can do to help Ukraine, and I’ve included some options in the actions below. But because my goal here is to talk about how you – how we – can better our nation (specifically from a political standpoint), I want you to consider something that may be hard to confront.

We have allowed the spiritual infrastructure to simply rot away in huge swaths of our own country.

Consider that one of the GOP’s strongest assets is its mythos. Unbeatable in red districts. Untouchable in rural America. Against “insurmountable” odds, some Democrats say – Why would you even try when you’re going to lose? It’s a waste of resources!

Because you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

Because everything is impossible until it’s not, and ceding territory year after year is a doomed strategy.

And because refusing to expend even a little effort tells the people living there – whether voters of a district, or a county, or an entire state –– that we don’t think they matter. And that absolutely destroys their willingness to fight against anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) forces.

That has to change. (I’m working on some pretty exciting solutions. I’m looking forward to sharing them with you in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.)

Ukraine has taught us a lot about democracy in the last week. They’ve demonstrated in heartbreaking, breathtaking ways just how precious it is.

Now it’s our job to act on what we’ve learned.

None of us knows what the future holds for Ukraine. I have my hopes. I have my fears.

But in the war of the mind, and the heart, and the soul …

Well. They’ve won that war. Decisively.

Slava Ukraini!

(Glory to Ukraine!)

Actions for the Week of March 1, 2022:

Reminder: President Biden’s State of the Union Address Tonight 9PM Eastern

The State of The Union is the annual message delivered by the president of the United States to the U.S. Congress near the beginning of each calendar year on the current condition of the nation. You can watch it live on The White House Youtube channel or on most TV networks.

Ways to Help Ukraine:

Call Your Local Elected Officials & Refugee Assistance Orgs

First, call your alderperson, mayor, city/county council person – whatever your local official is. Tell them that they need to be vocal about accepting Ukrainian refugees. Tell them that you expect them to welcome Ukrainians – and Afghans too! – as part of your community’s commitment to freedom. Ask whether they have drafted and passed Resolutions supporting Ukraine, and what they are personally doing to support Ukrainian refugees and resettlement. They need to lead from the front here.

Next, call up your closest Refugee Assistance Organization. You can find a map with organizations (and volunteer opportunities) closest to you. https://rcusa.org/get-involved/volunteer/

They will need help in the coming days, and there are tons of ways to pitch in. If you’d like to donate, they’ll certainly be taking monetary donations and perhaps goods in kind. Please call ahead, however, because with the influx of Afghan refugees and the outpouring of support for them, many resettlement organizations were overwhelmed with physical donations. That’s a good problem to have, but it’s still making it hard for them to get what they need to help people quickly.

Direct Donations to Ukraine’s Military

It may seem odd to crowdfund for a country’s military, but that’s where we are. Even with Western support, Ukraine’s army and volunteers are massively outgunned by Russia. The National Bank of Ukraine has created an account where you can directly donate to the country’s military.

Support World Central Kitchen:

José Andrés, the beloved chef who has become famous for feeding people during crisis as the founder of World Central Kitchen, is on the scene providing “thousands of meals in Poland, Romania and even inside Ukraine.” Donations can be made here: https://donate.wck.org/give/236738/#!/donation/checkout

Support Ukrainian Journalists:

Journalists with the Kyiv Independent and Kyiv Post have done extraordinary work covering the war. The Independent has started a GoFundMe asking for support (https://www.gofundme.com/f/kyivindependent-launch), and the Kyiv Post offers subscriptions for $45 a year.

Host a Stay or Donate to Stays at AirBnB

AirBnB is encouraging available hosts to house refugees from Ukraine. It waives all service fees, so every dollar you donate helps people find a place to stay when they need it most. Your contribution can help a refugee family find a place to stay when they first arrive, or a relief-worker get some rest after a long day. https://www.airbnb.org/get-involved

Your turn!

What are your thoughts? There are many ways to help out. Please comment below with trusted organizations that people can support.

Sunday, 3/6, 7:30pm-9pm (and 3/13) Games for Change (Sunday Social & Postcard Writing)

A very fun idea! Come join Games for change on Zoom as we play a game, socialize with volunteers from across the country and write postcards (and occasional text banking) to support our Roadmap for Progress candidates running for local and state offices! Several times a month our candidates come for a Q & A so that our volunteers can meet them and go volunteer with confidence! We provide the address packets and information sheets on our endorsed candidate(s); you provide postcards and stamps. Check the upcoming schedule of guests and games and sign up here: https://www.mobilize.us/buildbridges4am/event/410622

WHEW! GO TEAM!

P.S.: Why don’t you make someone’s day and send this pep talk to a friend or two? I bet they need it.

If you’d like to sign up to get this pep talk and action list in your in-box each week, you can do that here. Welcome, friend!

P.P.S.: If you want to help support this work you can do so via Patreon at
https://www.patreon.com/smalldeedsdone or via paypal at https://www.paypal.me/smalldeeds
My deepest gratitude in advance.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. I read and respond to every email! We’re in this together. Don’t you forget it.

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