Penny Smith

Guest Columnist - Smith

On rainy days when I was a child my brother and I would construct elaborate forts in our living room and populate them with the various weapons, soldiers and cowboys that resided in our shared toy chest. We evolved a deliberate system, picking from Fort Apache sets and Lincoln Logs and whatever other building elements existed at the time. So, too, we alternated choices for the figures that would defend those structures. It took us hours to ponder acquisitions and build our defenses.

And, perhaps because we were children, we destroyed what we had built in a monumental battle. It took minutes to topple everything it had taken hours to make. Never did we have an argument in the construction stage; frequently, we tossed cheating accusations at each other when we engaged in our miniature war. One obvious lesson from our labors was that it is much easier to tear something down than to build something up.

That lesson is now on international display in Ukraine. Consider the years it took to build a house, acquire the stuff that converts that house into a home, and compile a memory bank of events and celebrations. One rocket fired from miles away can reduce it to rubble in an instant. Human actors leveled green spaces, hospitals, schools, churches and museums. It has taken barely any time at all to smash what it took decades and, in some cases, centuries to put in place. Who will be responsible for replacing those bricks? For healing a generation of children whose lives have been disrupted so cavalierly? For finding men and women to repopulate the place?

Current events in Ukraine are a tragedy, precipitated by human choices. The same creatures who created a Chartres Cathedral, a Sistine Chapel ceiling, a COVID vaccine and Broadway musical theatre can also create the conditions that give us Mariupol, the toppling of the World Trade Center or a Jan. 6 coup attempt.

I think one reason we have so definitively strayed into the shadowland of animus is that it’s easier to destroy things than to create them. It takes real work to develop a friendship, particularly with someone who is not a member of your tribe. It takes no work at all to call someone nasty names, demonize them as “the other,” and banish them from your life. If you look at our legislative bodies, within states and at the federal level, we don’t see many successful efforts to address very real challenges. Rather we see a great deal of chest thumping and truthiness designed to bring something down.

We apparently relish the misfortune of others. Cable television is awash with shows designed to demean contestants. We cheer when people are voted off the island or reduced to tears. Rather than do the hard work of building up, of coming together, of finding common cause, we retreat to the easy work of tearing down.

I don’t know who will put the pieces of Ukraine back together again or if that is even possible. I likewise don’t know who will put the pieces of my own country back together or even if that is possible. And, with a nod toward approaching Earth Day, I surely don’t know who will be able to stop us from destroying our planet, perhaps quickly with a misbegotten nuclear catastrophe or a little less speedily with human-caused climate change of radical proportions.

What I do know is that the lesson of rainy day building up and tearing down holds true. That is probably not a good thing for any of us.

Penny Smith lives in Dillsboro.