I grew up in the Cold War. I know it looks like ancient politics now. But it was real for us.
We knew the world could be destroyed by nuclear weapons. That undercurrent ran beneath daily life. Two countries with tons of nukes hated each other. I lived in one of them. It’s not that we thought about it every day. But some months or years the tension would cycle up. By the time I was in high school, the prospect of nuclear war seemed very real. Even scarier was the thought of a land invasion.
I grew up in an international city. My 6th grade classroom was like the United Nations. From childhood, I was interested in other cultures. I felt called to work in diplomatic relations, so when I got into college, that’s what I pursued. In the early 80s it was a given that I would learn Russian language and study Soviet politics.
I attended a lot of workshops and conferences with guest visitors from the Soviet Union. Nobody knew who they could trust. Everyone was sizing each other up. I thought I knew how to be diplomatic and ask the right questions. I remember getting very uncomfortable when my fellow American students would go into inflammatory mode when interviewing a Soviet visitor.
I traveled to the USSR as a college student. I thought I would get to know the culture better, see behind the Iron Curtain so to speak. But we were kept under such controlled circumstances that it was hard to meet anyone except people approved by the Party. The few others we met were the ones who interacted with foreigners under the radar, and it was all about money. Before long we were buying items for them in hard currency stores where they weren’t allowed to buy things, using money they made on the black market. None of it seemed real. Everything I learned was one form of disinformation or another.
It wasn’t till the Cold War had ended that I had the privilege to go back to Russia and teach at a university. I lived with a family and shared every part of life with them. Spent time enjoying life with my neighbors. Played with neighborhood kids.
During those years, I got to know my university students and loved their personalities, laughed with them, encouraged them, dreamed their dreams. Ended up in the hospital when I got bit by a rabid dog, and became internationally vocal about healthcare needs in the new Russian Republic. Helped college students start and lead a series of community round table conversations on issues at the intersection of their new constitutional rights and the struggles of daily life. And traveled to places that had only just opened to Americans.
I lived on a local wage and found daily life challenging. I had to take a second job teaching English. I was grateful my local family fed me. I was not in the same situation as my Russian friends, because I had health insurance, a US passport, and an open one-way ticket to New York. But when it came to daily life, it was hard and I was often alone.
That made me all the more grateful for the friendships that came into my life. Those were precious people I’ll never forget. I felt like I had known them forever. They meant the world to me. In those years, they became my friends, family, neighbors. They were my life.
I rejoiced when they rejoiced, I cried when they cried. Missed my train one night so I could stay with a distraught family whose daughter had disappeared. (She eventually came home and was okay, but had gotten some bad news that was difficult to handle.) Spent hours on the phone trying to find a medical organization that could give medicine to a friend who was going blind. (I was not successful.)
I remember one night in Russia, sitting in someone’s living room with a group of my closest friends. I looked from person to person, how well I knew them, and how much each person meant to me, just for who they were. I didn’t see nationality. Just saw my friends.
And I realized, dear God, at any time in my growing up years, my country might have launched a weapon that would have killed them, the very people sitting in this room, my friends who had become so important to me.
It wasn’t an international relations textbook anymore. It wasn’t the evening news. Nor was it a conference with visiting dignitaries and heated arguments.
It was as simple as the room we were sitting in. These were my friends. Through my tears I thanked God no one had launched a nuke. Not because I was afraid to die. Not because I didn’t respect security measures and the difficult decisions government leaders have to make. But more because I couldn’t imagine a world that wouldn’t have my friends in it.
I have no desire to make a political observation in all of this. That wasn’t what came to my mind at that time. It was more this: Friends are precious. And real. Take care of them. Appreciate and value them.
Ideologies are shortcuts that help us avoid the messy, valuable work of getting to know real people. Don’t miss that.
Be open to realize that people who are different from you could just as easily become a close friend. Before you judge someone or dismiss them, consider what your world might be like if that person were a good friend.
Most people don’t want to blow up the world. They’re trying to get through the day just like you are. They love the people they’re close to just like you do.
Can you see that real person through all the rhetoric, through all the hype?
Can you see the world through the eyes of someone you don’t know, someone who could just as easily be your friend?