The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Amid war, acts of justice and kindness are as important as missiles

A woman named Helen tries to keep children entertained as people take shelter in a subway station in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 2. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post). (Heidi Levine/FTWP)

For a soldier sent to the front, or to the victim of a massive heart attack, death can arrive quickly — like a thief stealing everything they value most. For those with chronic illnesses such as cancer or Parkinson’s disease, the reality of mortality is more like a ride on a river, running through a series of higher, more dangerous waterfalls. Eventually, the current gets too strong and the rocks too sharp for a rider to survive.

Almost anything I could say about the topic of death is overshadowed by the intrusive reality of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Fighting proceeds street by street. Ukrainian civilians have been killed by the most lethal methods of modern warfare. This is what happens when a great power lacks a conscience, lacks a soul.

I’d prefer to make a few points about hope. Hope does not guarantee immediate success; it involves acting in a manner worthy of success. It is an element of international affairs dismissed by “realists” who simplistically claim that bad results from American engagement in Iraq somehow discredit the idea of moral inspiration in every other place. Though it is not a substitute for Javelin missiles, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s kindling of hope has been an essential element of his leadership. He has shown an infectious commitment to both national identity and to universal human dignity.

This episode in military history is relevant to our personal morality. Just because a war is unethically conducted does not mean we cannot learn from it. Resistance to an invading power is not possible under the assumption of failure. No one rallies to the banner of despair (except maybe some fighting existentialists, identifiable by their smart berets).

Yes, death does prove that all our permanence is temporary — that all our security, in the end, is false security. But this does nothing to disprove the existence of a God who is the ground of being and the source of morality. And it does not mean that acts of justice and kindness are not important because of the eventual heat death of the universe (which might happen in 1.7×10^106 years).

My friend David Brooks — who throws off three memorable concepts every day before breakfast — talks of the difference between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the things you put in your bio. They are generally crafted to fulfill the demands of the market. I don’t want to dismiss these virtues. Seeking the résumé virtues encourages discipline and mastery.

But when you are lying there on a gurney, waiting for another set of chest scans, I can assure you that most people are not thinking about the résumé virtues. The eulogy virtues are primary and sometimes accusatory. How well did you love? Whom did you serve? When did you show character, and conscience, and compassion, and simple kindness? In your hospital bed, these are the matters that loom largest and cut deepest.

When I surveyed my mostly self-interested life, I did have one source of confidence. I knew that global health was worth every hour, every minute we devote to it. I advocated for PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, in 2003. I pushed as hard as anyone else for PMI — the President’s Malaria Initiative — which has saved the lives of millions of children.

Every meeting I have attended on these issues, every reporting trip to the developing world, every column I have devoted, every speech for the ONE campaign to end extreme poverty that I’ve made at a college or a church, has been part of a sacred mission — the mission of defending human dignity.

If this sounds prideful, I’d remind you that this is exactly the cause that all of you are called to serve — to provide emergency relief within Ukraine and to help millions of migrant families find food and shelter. There are excellent nonprofit organizations — including the International Rescue Committee, Doctors Without Borders, World Vision and many others — meeting these needs and advocating for sufficient government help.

Some of you might be considering working for a global health or development organization. Some of you will consider going into the Peace Corps. Wherever you interact with people from developing countries, you will not only be finding ways to help them; you will find examples of how to be more human. They often provide a master class in living a life of purpose and dignity. In nearly every situation, I was the student, not the teacher; the blessed rather than the blesser.

This ideal of humble altruism is one of the main sources of our power in the world, and it is especially needed in this moment.