Ukraine-Russia War Explained: How to Care

Merel Visse and Bob Stake discuss the art of caring from a medical and health humanities perspective

March 2022 – On February 24, 2022, Russian troops invaded neighboring Ukraine in an escalation widely condemned by governments across the globe.

We’ve asked Drew University faculty experts to help put the crisis into perspective.

Here, Merel Visse, associate professor and director of the Caspersen School of Graduate StudiesMedical and Health Humanities program, and Bob Stake, a program fellow, discuss the medical humanities perspective.

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Visse speaking at a Drew event

Can you put this situation into perspective from a standpoint of caring?

Human experience and care are central to the health and medical humanities. We call for an “involved knowing.” In the field, we focus on what it means to live through the experience. We draw from poetry, narratives, and the arts to gain and share that living through times of loss, stress, hardship, well-being, and joy, whether as a patient, a family member, a social worker, a nurse, or as a doctor.

We connect these experiences with policies and thoughts about institutions like justice and notions of caring democracies. We create spaces for all people to listen to one another, to step out collaboratively, and to reflect on happenings we do not understand and cannot grasp. 

Ukrainians and Russians know well the price of war. Some of the great works of literature were written about it. What is it like to live through war, fleeing, suffering? Wondering about this is a moral appeal to us all. What does it mean to survive instead of live, to be ripped away from embrace and shelter? We all respond differently to existential threats. Some protest and fight, others seek protection. We can little imagine the Ukrainians deciding to stay, those deciding to fight, and those deciding to depart from family and homes, just as we cannot adequately understand the chronically and terminally ill.

How do we care the “right way” in a situation like this?

Joan Tronto, a leading political scientist in the field of care ethics, perceives care as a complex step-by-step process.

It begins with understanding what the people involved in the conflict need (caring about). Meeting needs is not simple. It first requires that we better recognize those needs.

Then some of us need to take responsibility and realize that something has to be done (caring for).

Then the real work begins. Who should do the actual work (caregiving)? It’s not always the ones who recognized the original need of care who end up taking responsibility.

Then, how do we assess the acts of caregiving (responsiveness)?

One last and particularly relevant phase is “caring with”—hearing the sweeping polity of citizens, part of the caring democracy, finding the pillars of trust in one another and in social and political institutions, solidarity, and equity. 

These are not shipments of munitions or clothes or funds, nor houses for shelter. But care starts with caring about, reflecting on our role and responsibility by learning and analyzing what led us here in the first place.

So, what can we do from afar and how can we learn from this?

How can we reduce the hurt and violence? We can empathize, but need to go beyond that.

We need collective and politically-inspired care for Ukrainians; for soldiers; and for the tumult of Russians protesting in the streets, taking risks to share their voice by protesting the fighting. We need a paradigm of care, an “ethos that hears the moan of indifference,” as we wrote in A Paradigm of Care. We need to learn and understand what led to this situation, historically, genealogically, culturally. We will come to realize that we of the West have been part of the problem. 

Hans-Georg Gadamer, a German philosopher, argued that meaningful understanding can only occur when there is openness toward each other, but also toward each other’s personal and political narratives of tradition. There are many traditions that impacted the views of involved stakeholders. No matter how radical, we need to take those views into consideration, including the ones we disagree with and prefer to reject.

One question we ask ourselves in the humanities field is how to create a space for dialogue and understanding in situations with crushing tension—a space where assumptions and judgments can be postponed, at least for a while, to learn how to better discern the underlying problems. To us, it requires not only cognitive knowledge, but aesthetic sensibility and moral feeling, collective empathy and imaginative vision, along with many other types of intelligence and awareness that flow from life’s experience and care.

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