Positive Living in Difficult Times

Do Something About it: Surviving a War Together by Acting Responsibly

Tim Yu, BSc
University of Toronto

“In sum, our greatest need in turbulent times is responsibility…we cannot function fully as individuals without taking responsibility seriously. Our democratic system will not function either, if the government and citizens do not fulfill their respective roles of responsibility.” (Wong, 2020)

This statement concludes an article about surviving the pandemic (Wong, 2020), but I believe the same could be said about surviving a war. Since February 24th of this year, the war between Russia and Ukraine has taken a heavy toll on the global community (Caldwell, 2022; Goloborodsky, 2022; Holland et al., 2022). In light of this latest conflict, the theme of this month’s newsletter explores how people can survive and thrive despite unprecedented human suffering. Some may suggest stockpiling weapons and ammunition, while others may contend building a bomb shelter or fleeing from the conflict (WikiHow, 2022). However, as suggested by Wong (2020), instead of just thinking about one’s own survival, the key to surviving a war TOGETHER is by acting responsibly.

What is Responsible Action?

Responsible action can be defined as an individual’s act or omission based on their moral and social obligations. Arslan and Wong (2022) have distinguished between social responsibility, which is moral, prosocial, and civic values and obligations that would benefit society and others as a whole; and personal responsibility, which emphasizes the individual’s self-accountability when making decisions that can impact oneself and others. In the psychology literature, responsible action is an essential component of wisdom (Lloyd, 2010) and self-transcendence (see image below; Wong et al., 2021). Responsible action is also necessary for life intelligence (LQ; Wong, 2017), which leads to existential wellbeing.

Why do we Need to Act Responsibly?

Much of individual and societal suffering could be attributed to the lack of responsible action (Wong, 2004). The following section will list some of the many reasons why responsible action is necessary not only in times of war but also in times of peace.

Responsible Action Contributes to Societal Wellbeing

From the first societies, humans had to cooperate and be responsible to one another in order to survive in the worst disasters and crises. For example, parents must look after their children, and people must share resources and cooperate to fight against external threats. In Wong’s (2020) level-of-commitment analysis of responsibility, this is the most basic form of responsibility because it is something we must do to survive.

On the next level of Wong’s (2020) analysis, people living in a democratic society are responsible for contributing to society by upholding democratic principles, such as voting rights, a fair legal system, social services, and good government. Arguably, personal and social responsibility is necessary within every domain of a democratic society (Shelton & Boltz, 2008; Wong et al., 2016). Conversely, the lack of responsibility leads to nihilism and authoritarian ideology (Fromm, 1942; Peterson, 2018).

Responsible Action Contributes to Relational Wellbeing

Every human interaction has consequences attached to it. Because we have the freedom to make choices, we are responsible for the consequences of our actions (Wong, 2004). It is common knowledge that everyone reaps what they sow. This may be understood as the law of cause and effect, karma, or the principle of reinforcement. This is summed up in the command to ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ a cornerstone of moral philosophy found in most religions and cultures (Puka, n.d.; Wong, 2004). Being responsible to the needs of others helps maintain healthy interpersonal relationships (e.g., Huang et al., 2016; Sheykhjan et al., 2014).

Responsible Action Contributes to Psychological Wellbeing

Meaning in life contributes to psychological wellbeing throughout the lifespan (e.g., George & Park, 2016; Wong, 2012). Responsible action is a fundamental component of Wong’s (2011) PURE model of meaning in life. I agree with Wong that one cannot experience true meaning in life and wellbeing without acting responsibly (Wong & Yu, 2021). Once responsible action is factored into the meaning in life formula it is impossible for individuals such as Hitler to claim that they have lived a meaningful life (Wong et al., 2021).

Self-transcendence, or pursuit of meaning greater than oneself (Frankl, 1946/1985), represented the highest level of responsibility in Wong’s (2020) level-of-commitment analysis because it goes beyond what one needs and ought to do. To be responsible at this level is something that one aspires to do to become a fully functioning person. Responsibility is essential for launching the quest for meaning and self-transcendence (Arslan & Wong, 2022).

Responsible Action Contributes to Spiritual Wellbeing

In the spiritual dimension, we are all accountable towards a Being, which has been described as “spiritual responsibility” (Wong, 2019a). Most religions incorporate some form of spiritual responsibility into their teaching (Smith, 2021). In the past, people found meaning in their lives by living according to rules and commandments prescribed by a divine Being. Even in secular society, that Being might be nature or the cosmos. An individual flourishes when they live according to the laws of nature (Wong, 2019b). Spiritual responsibility leads to spiritual wellbeing.

Responsible Action Prevent Unnecessary Suffering

Acting responsibly also prevents individuals and society from suffering unnecessarily, leading to a greater sense of wellbeing. For example, in terms of physical wellbeing, an individual that drives irresponsibly (e.g., driving while drunk) may end up with serious injuries. In terms of existential wellbeing (Ownsworth & Nash, 2015), irresponsibly behaviour towards oneself, family, friends, society, or environment increases the chances of experiencing regrets, which may lead to an existential crisis at the last stage of life (Ware, 2012; Yalom, 2008).

In short, responsible action is essential for psychological, relational, societal, and spiritual wellbeing, which benefits humanity as a whole.

What Does Responsible Action Look Like in the Russian-Ukraine Conflict?

Compared with the failed policies of appeasement (Del-Negro, 2020) and the turning away of Jewish refugees (e.g., MS St. Louis; Abedi, 2018) at the start of the Second World War, there are encouraging signs that the global community is taking responsible action in this latest conflict:

1. Many people around the world are contributing to humanitarian efforts such as financial donations and secondhand goods (BBC News, 2022).

2. Countries with ties to Russia are condemning Russian actions (Yahoo News, 2022), imposing sanctions on Russian officials and industries (Jones, 2022).

3. Organizations around the world are excluding Russians in their events (Tomanaga, 2022).

4. Countries around the world are welcoming Ukrainian refugees (Sachdeva, 2022).

Acting responsibly in light of this conflict undoubtedly has provided many people with meaning and purpose in their life. However, as history once again reminds us, responsible action also requires love. By love, I mean not a patriotic or nationalistic love for only one’s country or people, but the love that encompasses all of humanity. Perhaps this was what Maslow (1971) had in mind when he spoke of “b-love.”

We must incorporate this type of love in our actions, first because many people in Russia do not support the invasion (NDTV, 2022), and we have a moral duty to support them. Here is one of the several thousand anti-war protesters arrested by the Russian police in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Other than anti-war protests throughout Russia, there have been more dramatic acts of resistance, such as the disruption of a Russian state television broadcast by a protester, shown in the image below (Reuters, 2022).

But we must also show love even towards the Russian people who do support the invasion because if we do not, then we may become as misguided as they are. During the Second World War, many Japanese Americans were detained in internment camps because of their ethnicity (see below; National Archives, 2022). More atrocious was the mass rape of millions of German women at the end of the war (Preskar, 2021).

Thirdly, as humans, we all make mistakes. If we killed others because of their mistakes, then they have the same right to kill us for ours. The world cannot function like that. As Mahatma Gandhi noted, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” In the case of Russia and Ukraine, not only blind, but dead.

Therefore, it is no wonder that religious figures such as Christ taught us not only to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Mk. 12:31), but also to love our enemies (Mt. 5:44) and to forgive others (Mt. 18:21-22). This requires us to realize how we have made mistakes in the past (Mt 4:3) and require forgiveness ourselves (Mk. 11:25). In short, our goal as responsible global citizens is to not to punish the Russian aggressors as severely as possible; rather, we should show them the wrongness of their actions, so they have a chance of redemption.

In sum, to survive both in times of war and peace, the freedom that we experience as human beings needs to be coupled with a deep sense of responsibility towards oneself, all of humanity, and a Higher Power.


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