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A Paradise Built in Hell, Why Living in Lviv Makes Me So Happy

By Manoel Chavanne

The center of Lviv, Ukraine

I have been in Lviv for over 9 months now and I regularly have friends and family members ask me how I am doing and I invariably reply “I've never been better”. This could appear to be a surprising response coming from someone who's lived in more than a dozen countries in North, South and Central America, the Middle-East, Western and Southern Europe as well as Asia before ending up in Ukraine last year. Why is it that after more than two decades living abroad I am undeniably happier here in Ukraine than I've ever been before? Why is it that living in a country at war is making me feel this way? Sure, Lviv is a gorgeous city, its inhabitants are extremely welcoming, grateful and friendly and the food is absolutely delicious but there's more to it and today's book is about explaining just that. As it may not be clear given this introduction let me confirm that this article isn't about me, I'm just a data point of 1 that I'm using as an example I know well to explain a much bigger point Rebecca Solnit brilliantly made in her book “A Paradise Built in Hell, The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster”.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

Rebecca Solnit is an award-winning American author who's published more than twenty books on a wide range of topics. Solnit is a famous thinker and activist having been involved in countless human rights campaigns since the 1980s.

In this book Solnit covers an important counter-intuitive point, the main idea being that the closer you are to the epicenter of a catastrophe the more solidarity, mutual-aid, altruism and selflessness you will encounter. To demonstrate this fact she analyzed several disasters such as the massive earthquakes of San Francisco in 1906 and Mexico City in 1985, the Halifax explosion in Canada in 1917, hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and the infamous terrorist attack of September 11th 2001 in New York City.

San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake

Her findings are the exact opposite of the media narrative or typical Hollywood blockbuster where it's basically always everyone for himself, absolute chaos, violence and survivors being nasty to each other. In her thoroughly documented essay Solnit found countless examples of humans actually helping complete strangers, keeping their calm and being extremely resourceful and well organized. For example, during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 a significant chunk of the city was destroyed but certain homes remained virtually unscathed. A resident of one of these homes who's water was still running offered strangers to come have showers at his place, one after the other people would bathe in an unknown person's apartment, leave and go back to doing whatever they could to assist those in need. Also in the aftermath of that earthquake Mrs. Anna Amelia Holshouser “stitched together blankets, carpets, and sheets to make a tent that sheltered twenty-two people” in addition to starting a soup kitchen from scratch. At the beginning she only had one tin cup to drink and one plate to share. Soon, nearby people noticed and started to help her, gathering stoves from destroyed buildings (fire was forbidden indoors due to gas leaks) bringing salvaged cooking utensils and putting up humorous signs such as “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland”. In just a few days the Mizpah Cafe, as it was affectionately called, grew into a well organized utopia of people working for free, feeding and housing strangers for free and building a strong sense of community while doing it.

Another point Solnit touches on is the fact that when facing terrible situations one thing that keeps gloominess and depression at bay while giving us courage, joy and the will to continue is action. By doing something, anything, humans get a sense of meaning, of belonging and participating in a greater cause. This is expertly confirmed by the author's analysis of the September 11th terrorist attack in New York City where tens of thousands of volunteers rushed to ground zero, some skilled professionals such as rescue workers, medics or iron workers and many more without any of these skills but an overwhelming desire to be useful and help. This ties back quite neatly with what I have been experiencing during my time in this wonderful city. I am perfectly aware that no matter how many hours of volunteer work I do here I am not going to single-handedly change the course of the war but by being here and doing my part I am at peace with myself.

Lviv Volunteer Kitchen, a wonderful place to meet fellow volunteers

Last but not least by doing something for a greater cause you believe in you will undoubtedly be surrounded by like-minded individuals who share your beliefs and who are also giving their most previous resource, time. This will enable you to create exceptional bonds leading you to feel an intense sense of community and belonging. In the largest and longest ever study conducted on happiness Harvard researchers have concluded that the single most important factor to live a happy life is good connections. Furthermore, numerous studies such as this one and this one found that having a sense of meaning increases life expectancy, improves physical and mental health as well as strengthen personal relationships. The latter obviously creating a positive feedback loop with my earlier point. Therefore, by volunteering in a country at war we nurture lifelong friendships, the advancement of a rightful cause and live a happy, healthy and longer life, what's not to like?

All of this being said getting invaded by the largest country in the world isn't the same as an earthquake, a hurricane or a terrorist attack but the point made by Solnit throughout this book seems to apply here in Lviv, especially among the volunteer community at the various volunteering sites of this extraordinary city. If your goal is to live a happy, healthy and long life, forget about money, fame or materialism and focus instead on making effective connections and doing something meaningful. So what are you waiting for? Put the phone/tablet/computer down and go do something useful and make connections doing it!


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