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Living Your Youth During The War

“Youth is not lost – it is boosted. “[1] When I first heard this phrase, I thought that it was definitely coined not by young people. Because only looking from the perspective of the older generation, who are already a bit lost in our language and values, can the idea of lost youth and the idea of calling our experience “cranked up” arise. I could never call the pain which I experienced and which became the background of my current life, with a slang word, moreover – a word of Russian origin. If we compare their younger years with ours, it might seem this is true, but the Ukrainian youth in my environment look at their lives from a slightly different angle. Therefore, I invite you to read my thoughts, thoughts of a girl who is living the equator of her youth during the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Now I will say a terrible thing: in my 25, I have attended my friends’ funerals more often than their weddings. We have a youth that differs from the youth of our parents, a life different from the life of our friends in peaceful countries. And perhaps through their prism it looks like a lost youth. But we have so many things we have to think about, that we are not pondering much over our youth as such.

Today’s youth is in a constant search. We are asking ourselves: why do we believe in God? Shall we will meet later our brothers and brides who gave their lives for our freedom? And this increases the meaningfulness of our prayers and of our faith. We are asking questions, we are looking for our own format, and it’s not about being “boosted.” Youth now is about the search for meaning and about a culture of thinking.

A new paradigm has opened up before us, or rather, we are creating it ourselves. This is probably where the idea of lost youth came from. Yes, in our free time, we weave camouflage nets, assemble first aid kits, and when we meet with friends, we remember the fallen and imagine how wonderful it would be to walk the streets of Lviv with them at least once more. Yes, we will no longer have the fullness of happiness at weddings, because the thought of someone missing from the celebration will always haunt us. But youth has not disappeared.

If we have lost something, it is carelessness. At some point, a curtain woven from illusions about this world fell down in front of us. The curtain, which was supposed to descent slowly, throughout our life spans, is already lying on the stage, and there is no point in lifting it up, because we already know what is behind it. We have faced death, injustice, hatred, violence, cruelty. It happened very abruptly and painfully. However, our youth remains, it’s just that now we have more experience – the experience that we should not have had at all at such a young age.

We often joke with my girl-friends, but everyone really feels it, that we are like old maids compared to our European friends. During my mission with the Heart’s House in Italy[2], I really had a hard time finding a common language with my peers, which had never happened before. I remember one moment: March 2022, we were sitting on the seashore, the sun was setting, there was incredible beauty around, I was surrounded by young Italians talking about some nonsense, about how the pandemic had ruined their lives (ha ha). And at that moment, I just felt like I was going crazy, because my phone was teeming with a completely different reality: the latest news about the POWs, about Bucha, about hell on earth. And no one else around me knows about it and doesn’t want to know, because they have joy as their background, and we have a background of sadness.

It’s strange, but at the same time, I didn’t envy them, I didn’t envy their frankly boring conversations about celebrities or their badly plucked eyebrows. I realized that this pain made me feel something bigger, something greater, something more genuine. It was only when I returned to Ukraine, sitting at memorial services, visiting the graves of my friends, that I began to understand what I had been feeling at that time in Italy. Only by coming to know death can one know life. Realizing that all this will end sooner or later, you start acting now, you stop wasting time on nonsense, you really enjoy the time spent with your friends, because this may be our last meeting. You feel the value of every day, enjoy the sun as if it were shining for the last time, ask yourself what is really important, what God has prepared me for, and why I am still here.

People turn to God when they realize that death is near: in case of incurable diseases or in old age. And we are already here, we are close to death, it has surrounded us from all sides. And we are looking for God in an “accelerated version” of search. Young people are beginning to realize that it is easier to believe in God, easier to understand that He sees further and He has his plan. Those young people who have come to know Him in such pain live it all very deeply and consciously. Old people don’t have much time left for such reflections, and we still have a whole life ahead of us. And we need to somehow live through this pain, give something to someone and trust someone.

So, yes, if youth means living in a world of illusions and nonchalance, then we have lost it. But for me, youth is about the fullness of life, energy and strength. And when, if not now, in the midst of the war, can we experience this?

We can turn what is happening to us into something that will become our strength, not our weakness. It is important how we are living this experience. I chose for myself the following direction – my brother died for me, so I now live for him. This does not mean that I repeat his path or copy his actions. I try to live my life in such a way that it contains at least a little bit of Artem’s thirst for adventure, learning new things, life for the sake of life, and not material enrichment or other incomprehensible whims of our time. This is what gives me strength: the thought that every day someone gives up their beautiful lives for me. Each new death engraves in me the truth that everything will be only as much good as much effort I take.

Sometimes I like to think that we are special. Today’s youth is the most talented generation of all generations because they have been living Ukrainian life for at least 30 years, which no other generation has had before. These are young people who have shown their faith in such great values as freedom, identity, democracy, and the free world with their own blood. They were able to do this in symphony with many countries of the world. For a thousand years, no one could do this. Moreover, our generation has become the subject of this movement. We are the generation that will go through all this themselves and give impetus to the development of the Ukrainian nation – a free, democratic nation with moral and religious values that will be useful not only for our country but for the whole world. This is the fruit of many individuals in the Ukrainian world who have been fighting for these values for centuries with no guarantee or prospect of winning from that fight. And we are the generation that has a perspective, and because of that, we represent a great power.

Since I was six years old, I have been a member of the National Scout Organization of Ukraine, Plast. My identity, my mission, and my understanding of the country I live in and the enemies that exist were minted there.

When we grow up big, / Brave soldiers, / We will defend Ukraine / From the enemy’s hand”

these are the words from the hymn of the Plast novices (6-12 years old), which I sang every week for six years. And then, in the youth unit (12-18 years old), I took a Plast vow with the words:

Work and failures, all poverty and misfortune

I will accept as a task of the Great Game,

I will fight with life as with labor in the field,

I’ll carefully bypass treacherous ravines.

And with my wings I’ll fly under the clouds

And quickly examine all my land,

I will measure the thorny paths of Ukraine,

I will lead my country to happiness.

You must admit that when you put such lines in your head, it is difficult to suddenly lose faith or allow yourself not to appreciate what you have. My generation was raised on the stories of grandmothers who survived concentration camps and prisons, as well as life in the worldview underground. Having been trained in Plast, the Leadership Academy, Mohylianka[3], and Ukrainian Catholic University, and now having gained our own experience of war, we simply cannot give up. We are well aware that after the Victory, we will have a lifelong journey to rebuild the Ukraine our ancestors dreamed of. The only thing scary is to live in a peaceful world with our pain.

The human race is capable of surviving many trials. And tribulation does not mean the end of life or its diminution. God gave humans such power that they can, through tribulation, bring new hope and new life to others. And this is what we are experiencing now.

In the book by Rev Andriy Zelinsky “Semen’s Stars,” which I strongly recommend to everyone, I was struck by the following phrase: “Do not be afraid of big dreams. They are like luxurious sails that will carry you through life.” This is what I sincerely wish to all readers – to learn to dream again, no matter what age you are, no matter what horrors you have experienced. Let your dreams become an action that will help make every day worth living.

[1] The slogan of the video dedicated to the International Youth Day in 2022, produced by the network of youth spaces TORI! and UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund in Ukraine.

[2] In 1990 – Fr. Thierry de Roussy founded the international Catholic charity movement “Houses of the Heart” to provide compassion and comfort to the poor, lonely, sick, and disadvantaged, with special care for children. In 2000 the Church recognizes the “Houses of the Heart” as a private congregation of the faithful.  In 2005 the movement receives consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. In 2013 – there are 35 communities in 23 countries, 176 volunteers of 20 nationalities. The Heart House offers young people a missionary volunteer service that lasts from 14 months to 2 years in one of 23 countries on 5 continents.

[3] Kyiv Mohyla University. Together with the Ukrainian Catholic University, considered the two most progressive universities in Ukraine.

Translated by Halyna Pastushuk