This animated map of Europe has been passed around on Facebook by several dozen people I follow. It’s really an amazing document (the over-the-top music notwithstanding), showing how the borders of nations changed over the span of 1000 years. It reveals the blithe relationship between what is “a culture” and “a political border”. When I saw it the first time, I recalled a story I heard Sasha Hemon tell at one of his readings, about a village in Western Ukraine where the residents changed passports three times over the span of a half century but never left their homes.
Interestingly, most of the people who’ve been passing this map around in my feeds are diaspora Lithuanians (I follow quite a few, as I’m one myself). Typically, many of them comment alongside this map: “Hey, we were so badass in the day!” Yes, for a good portion of European history, Lithuania was a large state. It’s something that Lithuanians are particularly proud of, often to an embarrassing fault. I was taught, while styding Lithuanian history on the South Side of Chicago, in a building across the street from a steel cutting plant, to feel very proud of the size of 15th Century Lithuania, even to believe that the expansion of the nation validated me and my culture in some way.
It’s short-sighted to feel nationalistic pride while looking at a map of ever-shifting borders. The lesson is lost to those people: the map reveals that our nations and borders are impermanent. When you were large once, you will later be small; later still, you will disappear completely. The reason for this is that nations, cultures and borders are human inventions, subject to reversal, erasure, eradication, etc.
To go further: ethnicity is a construct. Yes, we cling, often desperately, to ethnic identity, especially when we are blown across the world by a conflict that shatters and destroys borders. But we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to see the border for what it is: a construct in an ever-changing, constanly shifting political landscape. We were no more badass in the day than anyone else because everyone is subject to the same forces.
To get Zen about it: the Earth is impermanent. So is the sun. The Empire State Building will disappear. This is inevitable. If we cling to the impermanent, we raise our level of suffering, because we start desiring things that are impossible. Why can’t this last forever? Why can’t we be large again? Why can’t our enemies be small and suffer worse than we are suffering? The paradox presents itself. Desire for constructs brings us suffering. Instead of looking at a map and seeing things as they are, we see our own desires and amplify them. We’d feel really great if we got what’s impossible to get. And so, we doom ourselves to misery.