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Stories of heroism abound

Do you ever wonder how you would act in a perilous situation? Do you ever think about whether you’d have the courage to stand up to a bully, a bully with a gun.

The situation in Ukraine prompts such questions. This week I heard many of the stories you did. Every story demonstrated courage, patriotism, resilience. In Ukrainian cities, townspeople were removing street signs to confuse and confound Russian invaders. Elderly men and women who’d never used firearms were accepting rifles and being taught how to shoot them.

Fleeing women and children were traveling hundreds of miles, often by foot, to reach safe haven, protecting their children from the bullies with guns. Leaving behind husbands, brothers, fathers — home and hearth.

In a crowded underground bunker near Kyiv, a wispy-haired, Ukrainian child named Amelia, wearing a sweater covered with stars, stood on a table to sing, in her native language, “Let It Go” from the Disney movie “Frozen.” The lyrics include this phrase: “It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through. Let it go. Let it go.”

In the same week but in another venue, far less frightening than a windowless, concrete, space packed with tired, frightened people, a conservative American journalist (Bret Stephens, New York Times, Tuesday, March 8, 2022.) wrote, “To save Democracy abroad we have to show it can work at home.”

Now there’s a challenge. Is it too late? Perhaps it involves following the lead of James Clear in the best-selling book “Atomic Habits,” in which he advocates for making small changes that ultimately lead to big gains. Can we at least start talking about the possibilities? Let’s get in “good trouble” (John Lewis, January 2020).

I think the elders in our midst who have fought for Democracy might be our best teachers. But wait, most of them are no longer alive. I think children like Amelia might urge us forward with song and a smile. Is it not for them we want to model our own courage, patriotism, resilience?

It will be a struggle for us. Despite how we might like to depict ourselves historically, our record is not all unblemished. “In the course of conquering the frontier, both in the South and the West, Americans enslaved Blacks and virtually extinguished Native American life“ (Robert E. Kaplan, 2017, “How to Take Back Patriotism”).

We did, however, demonstrate the capacity to “save civilization in two world wars and the cold war.” But then, of course, there was Vietnam. See, this is just not going to be easy.

It’s the hard work of listening to each other and doing those things that connect and embolden. The people who are paying for Airbnb rentals in Ukraine that they will never use have the idea. The man who filled his minivan and drove 1,000 miles to bring supplies to the people of Ukraine — oh, wait, he was British, not American. But he had the idea.

Maybe we start by rereading the Constitution, carrying it around with us — maybe we also carry the amazing little book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder. Yes. Start there.

Sharon Johnson is an Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.