Friday, April 22, 2011

Feeling the fear

One of the writers I follow challenged me to write about what I’m most afraid of. I read his challenge, packed a backpack and left my island retreat for a mountain village in Bosnia for a few days. I needed to think it over.

My first evening there, I recognized one of my best friends--an elderly Catholic priest from New York who I’ve known since I was 18. I didn’t know he’d be there. He didn’t know I was coming. For the next week, I enjoyed the companionship of someone totally present, an expert at holding space and deeply listening. I am grateful.

I read him my list of what I’m most afraid of. I told him I was afraid to return to Liberia because of the threats I continue to receive from an ex-partner. I shared my fear of being raped and tortured, or that I’d get in a car accident in a country--like Liberia--where there’s no adequate emergency room, no decent hospital.

Then I opened my heart a little more, and told my friend that I was afraid that I could never do enough to fix the problems around me. How no matter what I did for the Co-op, I couldn’t protect them from everything I wanted to or guarantee their future. How it felt like, with all my ideas, I wasn't doing enough. How I mourned the loss of a project whose failure is beyond my control.

“It’s not your job to fix things,” he pointed out, “it’s your job to show up with love.”

Sure, I’m afraid of the list I just wrote out, the list that terrifies me and keeps me awake some nights, feeling exposed and vulnerable for choosing to live in West Africa, for choosing the work that I do.

But what I’m really afraid of is getting my heart broken.

By “heartbroken,” I mean really rock-bottom broken--the kind of heartbreak where you sob without sound, where you don’t notice time passing as you stare at the ceiling or out a window, where you’re inconsolable until you take time out to rest, retreat and revision--like what I’m doing now.

We’ve all had our hearts broken by people, but what about when our hearts are cracked open because of how we choose to experience life? Because we live close to the edge, and risked it, and it didn’t work? Because we saw poverty or loneliness and tried to soothe it with our hands and our heart, but maybe it didn’t like us or didn’t want to talk to us, or what we did seemed to make no difference?

That kind of heartbreak scares the shit out of me.

Every time it happens, I feel like I have to make this the last time, like there’s no way I can go back to that edge and risk my dreams becoming real again--not if this heartbreak is where they sometimes lead. I feel like I can’t possibly embody this kind of grief at the disparities and injustices I see.

For those of us who work in “aid,” or “development” or whatever you want to call it, we’re used to navigating this kind of heartbreak. Mothers in our projects die because they didn’t get to the doctor in time when a complication comes up and they're giving birth. Girls drop out of school and turn to commercial sex work to help their family put food on the table. You offer an opportunity, a chance for change, to someone and they never show up again.

Sure, it’s easier to roll up the car window and turn on the air conditioning. You can try not to look outside. But our hearts tell us to look anyway.

Our hearts tell us they can bear being broken.


  1. Thanks, Elie, for coming out of the anonymous country and bravely putting your name to the heartbreak. It's familiar to so many, but it's like we're sleeper cells and have forgotten how to recognize each other...

    I find myself standing once again at a fork in the road, wondering whether to play it safe or do something even more ridiculous. Ugh.

    Keep it coming. Certainly keep writing.

  2. @Andrew: Thank you for your eloquence and encouragement. I am also at a decision point, and leaning towards the brave and brazen...

  3. Hi Elie, thanks for sharing how you feel. The risk that is taken every time we open our hearts up to love. You have chosen to help many.

    I looked and found my children that I left many years ago. Loving so much can sometimes end in sadness.

    Yet never to have loved, lost and looked again would have been tragic. Thank you xoxo Sue

  4. Beautifully articulated, Elie. Brava.


  5. Dear Elie,
    What good fruit from your week of reflection and what courage now to speak of it!! You say it clearly and unflinchingly -- which can only be done after much soul work on your part. May God give you the wisdom and the courage to keep loving, for it is the only way to true life.

  6. Hi Elie,

    I just stumbled upon your blog, and I wanted to say how much I appreciate this post, particularly these lines:

    "Because we saw poverty or loneliness and tried to soothe it with our hands and our heart, but maybe it didn’t like us or didn’t want to talk to us, or what we did seemed to make no difference?"

    You have described it exactly perfectly. This resonates so much with my own experience. Thank you for writing!

    I'll be following Expat Backup. I have very similar interests, and I'm glad to find someone blogging about these things.



Thank you for sharing your thoughts and comments! They help to inform my posts and are very much appreciated.