His gesture was reluctant, as if he was practicing it for the first time and was unsure that it could belong to him. By it he beckoned me to him, and I approached the window where he stood looking out at me. He had things to tell me, he said. He wanted to talk, he said. I came the following day as I had promised and he led me into his home, which was nothing more than a series of brick walls arranged neatly by the seashore. He stooped in the corner over a small fire and boiled the coffee he had been steeping for days. He sat me down in an old car seat, quite low to the ground – one of only two chairs that constituted his entire furniture collection. I waited. Above me, in the absence of a roof, was the open sky. It was grey and damp, framed by the tops of the empty walls and suddenly obstructed by the loom of the man, a mere silhouette handing me a cup of thick, gritty coffee as his voice lowered to a twitching whisper and he began divulging his scattered and dubious stories.
His name was Ahmed. I listened to his words in the place where his home once stood and his family once lived. He told me of the war and of his family’s departure, how they live now in another camp and he remains amidst the rubble, slowly rebuilding what was lost. He told me of the violent devices he had built and the conspiracies he had schemed, of the training he had received from unnamed factions in far-off places. His eyes shifted constantly, and his tongue darted from his mouth between each expulsion of the secrets I could not discern to be truth. I listened to the words of a frightened man and I remained distinctly aware of my disadvantage, sitting as I was beneath him, and I was also afraid.
Fear is familiar to us all. We fear abandonment, failure, each other. We fear our dreams and our potential. We fear illness and violence. We fear death. For those who have brushed up against it the fear of death can be constant. Even for those who have never experienced it directly, those for whom it remains an abstraction, the fear of death can be a steady presence. It follows us each time we walk out the door, get into a car, or look into our own aging eyes. The inevitability of death is a quiet thought in the backs of many of our minds, and for some a blatant fact less easily ignored. But for all of us, it is real.
I remember my grandmother’s accounts of the nightmares she endured before dying. I remember the grimace that came over her face and the cool dampness of her forehead where I pressed my lips in the moments following her last breath. I remember holding my father’s sobbing frame moments later. I remember his grief. I remember the weight of the coffin, which I shared with my cousins. I remember crying after we let her into the hearse.
I have only been afraid for my own life on a few occasions, but I have never been so close to dying that I can claim to have felt its touch. Of physical death, I have only a distant perspective, but of spiritual, emotional, and relational deaths, I am more familiar, and in all of these, I discover my fear. The death of a relationship reveals my fear that I am unworthy of love. The death of faith reveals my fear that I am alone. And the death of my dreams reveals my fear that my life is without purpose. In all of these things, I discover that my fear of death is not a fear of the unknown but of separation; separation from my body and my mind, separation from the people I have cared about, separation from my beliefs about God and myself, separation from life, and ultimately from love. I fear death because I am afraid to lose that which is most valuable to me. I am afraid to exist in the absence of love.
With each moment, in every circumstance, we are asked to choose between love and fear. Despite our feelings of despair, or hatred, or helplessness, we are never so limited in our circumstances that fear is our only option. The choice to love might not always deliver us from suffering, it might not result in euphoria, but it will elevate us, if only enough to endure the next moment. It will lead us closer to becoming who it is that we really are. I have not experienced what others have experienced. I have never been diagnosed with a terminal illness, nor lived through a war, nor grown up in an abusive home. I cannot claim that I would have the strength to choose love in the midst of such hardships, but I do know that there are those who have, and my belief in them becomes a belief in myself, and in all of us.
I remember a hateful thought. I look at it now and turn it over in my mind. It is unattractive and shameful and it happened within me. When I consider it for what it is, I can see that it was born of fear. I can see how afraid I was in that moment to look at the hate I bore for myself, which would have then led me to look at the thing that I hated within myself, which would have, I worried, led me to confirm my deepest fear: that I am undeserving of love. I made the unconscious choice in that moment to be afraid, and thus allowed a hateful thought to rest in my mind where love could have penetrated every layer of fear, to the very beginning of fear, and assured me of my value. I feel remorse for this thought, and regret. I see its complete lack of truth. And now, knowing that such hate existed within me in that moment, I am asked again to choose between love and fear.
When we experience an absence of love within ourselves, we might find clarity by questioning what it is that we are afraid of. Similarly, when we experience the absence of love in another, we would do well to look at them with compassion and see them not as hateful but as frightened. We can then attempt to show them the love that exists within ourselves in the hope that they will be reminded of the love that exists within themselves, the love that is fully capable of guiding them out of their fear and into their truth.
In every state of brokenness there is some fear preventing us from healing. For every wrong action that haunts us, there is some fear preventing us from experiencing redemption. And for every failed dream there is some fear that prevents us from returning to our purpose. We stand poised in tremulous wonder, either moved by love toward life or deceived by the fear that holds us in death. So many times, we have forgotten. So many times we have allowed fear to dissemble our true selves and have then resigned ourselves to despair, and the deaths of our spirits. But despair is merely a symptom of amnesia, and when we remember who we really are, we can then behave more truthfully. We can see fear for the shadow that it is and watch it vanish by even the faintest light.
In the weeks before her death, my grandmother’s fear surprised me. My memories of her had been of her constant warmth, and her joy, and her care. I remember her hugs and her kiss on my cheek. I remember the love she had for her family and for my grandfather. The confusion we witnessed in her last days was disheartening, as were her accounts of the dreams she had where some devil pursued her and she fled and did not know if she would escape. She was afraid of death. She neared it trembling. But her fear did nothing to separate her from love. It was mere amnesia. In her last moments, we surrounded her bed. Her breath became sparse and hollow and we counted the weighted seconds between them, until they did not return. My grandfather, with solemnity and grace, stated that she was gone and someone there began to sing. I was not afraid. My grandmother had returned to love and we, in a single voice, echoed her remembrance.
I met Ahmed in Lebanon, in the ruins of a Palestinian refugee camp called Nahr el Bared. In the two months that I spent wandering its muddied streets, I learned only a small part of what had happened there. I talked with the men and women who had been expelled from the camp in 2007, and returned several months later to find the frail remnants of what had once been their homes. For four months the Lebanese army had shelled the camp, eventually destroying virtually every shop and house belonging to its 45,000 residents, all with the claimed intent of capturing a group of 400 out-lawed men. Ahmed had little to say of them. He sat in the chair above me, smoking cigarettes and refilling my coffee. We had become a little more comfortable with each other but his vaunted claims continued to unnerve me. I could see his fear. I could feel its hatred. And I have to believe that even for a man like Ahmed, who has allegedly done terrible things, and has evidently had terrible things done to him, the choice to love remains constantly available.
To read more about my experience in Nahr el Bared from 2008, visit my website: www.colinvandenberg.com