Take me down to Paradox City

Let’s make something very clear before I get on my virtual soapbox: I am well aware that I am inches away from hitting the proverbial wall. I have a one-way ticket on the Compassion Fatigue Express which is heading into the abyss faster than a speeding bullet. Remember that scene from “She’s Having a Baby,” when Kevin Bacon suddenly envisions himself strapped into a rapidly accelerating caboose that ends in a mess of screams and fire? Yeah, it’s kind of like that. Next stop? Burnout-ville. Population: Me.

I have a propensity for being slightly overdramatic so all of this should be taken with a wee grain of salt. That being said, lately I’ve been feeling as if I’m running in circles, as if I’m pushing on a door when it says “pull” or rowing a canoe north through rapids that are clearly flowing south. At some point, it just makes you want to sit down and scream in frustration and anger and pain. I listen to stories all day long that would make even the most stoic of characters question their own faith in humanity, that make you wonder how it’s possible for anyone to survive so much hate and destruction. It makes you wonder how some people can face the present with a past that is so heavy and so dark. And, not surprisingly, some days it just proves to be a little too much. Some days you trip on a rock and kind of just lay there for awhile with your face sideways in the mud wondering if you can, or should even bother, getting back up.

Yesterday on the ride back from the camp, I couldn’t stop thinking about what one of my clients had said earlier that afternoon during one of our groups. This client attributed all of the wars, all of the dying and the killings, to an absence of love: “People in Congo have simply forgotten how to love one another,” she said, “It wasn’t always that way, but now neighbors kill neighbors, friends kill friends…even family. There is no love.” There was a heaviness in the way she said it, as if the capacity to love and respect human life was both the simplest and the most complicated, inexplicable things in the world. And at that very moment, and for reasons I will get to in a bit, those two contradictory statements made sense: It is both. It is easy and Impossible, all at the same time. It’s a paradox, just like everything else is here.

My heart is tired in a way I never expected. It’s not the stories or the terror, or the trauma or the pain. It’s not the sense of grief and sadness and immense loss I hear every day at camp. It just isn’t. Instead it’s something more nuanced, shaded a bit from the obvious, something that kind of whacks you up side the head every once and awhile to make you examine who you are or who it is you think you should be. It is the paradox that evil, darkness and despair, exist at the same time as goodness, hope, and light. One cannot survive without the other and we’re all stuck in a tug-of-war as this ying & yang flips back and forth, and back over again. So how do you reconcile the fact that this is maybe the way it has to be? How do you accept that sometimes s**t has to hit the fan before you can get to the core of what really matters?

At that same group in camp yesterday, I listened to story after story of war and gang rape by rogue soldiers, husbands who had been murdered and children who in the panic of fleeing were lost in a sea of people never to be seen again. I hear these stories and I want to scream out and curse God for allowing it all to happen — I want to throw things through glass and crawl out of my own skin because I simply cannot comprehend how any one human being could be so cruel to another. I don’t understand how anyone is meant to survive such a life that has seen so much suffering and so much loss. And yet at the same time I feel as if this has to be the end of all things, I also see unmistakable signs of hope and strength that for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t exist at all. These women share stories in languages I do not speak and with an intensity I don’t even pretend I will ever be able to truly grasp. They speak of things none of us in our wildest nightmares could ever imagine, about things you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. But despite this, I can’t help but seeing strength and healing — it’s visceral, and I don’t need to speak Kiswahili to put the pieces back together.

The process is heartbreakingly lovely and powerful, watching as a near electrical spark pulls people together spreading love and support, and the long-awaited sense of peace. But it also scares me in a way I can’t quite articulate. Sometimes I find myself feeling like I’ve been dropped into some kind of fractured, alternative universe; I have these moments every once in awhile where I just don’t get it. The world abandoned you…how do you still have the will to continue to live, how do you still believe when you of all people, should have no faith left in humanity at all?

My feelings around all of this are equally complicated, and I have a love/hate relationship with my work sometimes when I start to question what it is I’m doing here and what kind of “help” I’m actually offering these people. The red devil on one shoulder tells me that help is a childish notion in the face of this mountain of human damage and utter psychological carnage. While on the other shoulder, the angel in white continues to jump up and down shouting positive affirmations and turning my head to see the faces of healing and peace that I know do actually exist and that I have contributed to. I don’t expect I’ll ever NOT feel conflicted about everything — If and when I do reach that point, I hope that will be the moment I realize it’s time to pack up and leave.

So it’s all a paradox. It’s all good and evil. And as most paradoxes go, it is an endless stream of questions that will never have sufficient answers. The best I will ever get are glimpses into that unknown part of life none of us will ever quite understand.

I happened upon one of those flashes yesterday, coming back from the camp. It was intimate and strange, and I am pretty sure I am the only one noticed as I sat there trying to sort out all of these thoughts in my head about good, evil, healing, love, and otherwise. In a cosmic twist of chance, at precisely the same wrinkle in time I sat there thinking about all of this, we passed a familiar face on the road. A man. In a truck. For a moment we caught each other’s eyes and smiled sad, knowing smiles. As the Land Cruiser slowed down to pass, I watched our hands go up in a stalled wave, frozen in some kind of silent understanding or acknowledgement about what it means to be present in this world. We sat there like that, me staring out the back of the Cruiser and him standing by his truck, for a long time, long after we had we had pulled away, watching one another as we became smaller and smaller dots on the horizon. All I could do was cry.

Never let me go

I wrote an entire post last Wednesday about death that in the end I didn’t publish because I just didn’t finish it in time to go to camp the next morning. I had been to the funeral of a colleague’s husband that day and had spent a good portion of the six hours I was at the service contemplating how we all pay respect to our dead. As I sat there, hundreds of people streamed in and out of the family home to give their final send-off to a man I barely knew. The Pentecostal choir stood in the shade and sang hauntingly beautiful African hymns for hours, while the men sat under the awnings praying and bowing their heads solemnly in respect. The women, all dressed in beautiful shades of chitenje sat separately, some on the front porch and others in the house, as the widow lay next to the coffin of her dead husband, wailing with grief and emotion. All the preaching was in Chichewa and I found my mind drifting from observation to observation as the day went on.

What I thought about the most was how up front dying is in this country. Death does not tread lightly here in the seemingly idealistic landscapes of Southeastern Africa. It is frequent and obtuse. It is ugly and sudden. It is often the abrupt end of conditions or diseases otherwise treatable or preventable in the “developed world”. And sometimes, death is just the cruel result of accidental circumstances – the harsh reality of living in a place where being in the wrong place at the wrong time is more commonplace than it is exceptional. How easy it is for us to forget the latter; how blasé we have all become about the truly precious gift of life…

On Thursday morning, in a sad and awful twist of irony, after all these contemplations of what mourning and death are in this country, and after boldly faffing around on my computer and spouting out judgment calls I had no business making about what dying really “means” here, the universe put me back in my place. It sat me right down opened a scary, dark door and demanded that I look at the face of death without any mask or any cover. Tell me then, it said as it ripped the illusionary veil of ignorance from my face, what exactly is it that you see?

I see a sharp, blind-sided road with seven-foot embankments on both sides, that directly bi-sects a primary school. I see a crowd of people off to the left, and more off to the right. I see a pick-up truck stopped in the middle of this scene, it’s driver on the phone, his face pale with shock and agony. I see a mother with a baby tied to her back sink down on her knees and scream a sound more guttural than anything I have ever heard in my life. And I see the little body of a child that one could have mistaken for being peacefully curled up and fast asleep were it not for the bright red pool slowly spreading out from under her precious little body onto the dirt road below.

Death is a condition of life no matter where any of us are from. But it hovers low and close here, and strikes unrepentantly when we all least expect it. It’s like that everywhere, I suppose, but somehow here it feels different – rawer, and more callously guileless in some way, as if to purposely keep everyone on their toes lest we all forget that it is fate, rather than freewill, that pushes us along in this life.

I have never been one for religion or prayer, but that day, as I held the hand of the driver as he cried and tenderly touched the small, cool hands of this little girl, I closed my eyes and prayed. I prayed for hope, and for light, and for healing. But mostly I prayed that somewhere, somehow, there would be a chance for forgiveness – that the family would find it in their hearts to forgive this man for a terrible accident, and that in turn, this man would be able to forgive himself for an awful and tragically unavoidable twist of fate.

I have no better understanding of death now than I did 5 days ago. If anything, I understand it less. It seems grossly unfair and heartbreakingly arbitrary, as if the mere act of opening your eyes in the morning and walking out the front door is like playing an inevitable game of Russian roulette with your life. Maybe it just seems worse coming from a place where we put all of these medical, safety, and emergency infrastructures in place to ostensibly “protect” us from ourselves. Maybe all that really does in the end is leave us horribly unprepared when it all desperately unravels.

So go home, everyone, and look at your life. And more than anything appreciate who it is you have in this life with you because all of it is as fragile as porcelain and so irrefutably precious. At the end of all things, the people you love in this life are the only true measure of anything that really matters. Never, ever, let them go.