Last week, while my husband was away all week, our three-year-old came down with a high fever right around dinner time. I dosed him up with tylenol, prayed it wasn’t dengue fever (which is showing up here in Port Vila right now with alarming frequency) and put him to bed with me.
Six hours later he sat up in the dark and vomited everywhere. His fever was through the roof. I sat on the tiles that nightwith him in my arms. He was shaking and I was feeding him tiny sips of juice and listening to the tropical deluge pound down outside.
And, then, there was an earthquake.
In that moment I thought back to a essay called Banishing Love’s Twin that I wrote seven years ago now, right after I got married. I wrestled with these issues around love and fear then. I still struggle with them now, although I do dare to hope that I’ve made some progress.
Everyone alive wrestles with this dynamic duo of love and fear, I think. But I have found that living overseas compels me to confront these issues more than I may otherwise have to. So I thought you fellow #lifeoverseasers might get something out of this piece, too.
(And for those of you who are wondering, Alex probably did not have dengue it turns out, “just” a 3-day stomach flu).
Last week, right after my boss had asked me whether I’d be willing to go to Pakistan this summer if need be and I’d said yes, the latest Humanitarian Policy Group report on providing aid in insecure environments crossed my desk.
It made for sobering reading.
The relative rates of attacks upon aid workers has increased more than 60 percent in the last three years, with a particular upswing in kidnapping, which has increased by more than 350 percent. The most dangerous location for aid workers remains the road, with vehicle-based attacks by far the most common context for violence. And the 2008 fatality rate for international aid workers exceeded that of U.N. peacekeepers.
On the bright side — if you can call it that — this massive spike in violence appears to be mostly driven by incidents in just a handful of countries. Namely Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Chad, Iraq and . . . Pakistan.
For me, this has brought forth yet again something that has been coming to mind much more frequently since meeting my fiancée and getting married in one delicious year-long whirlwind. Michael has brought much happiness into my life during the last 18 months. But right alongside love has come something else. Something I had not expected.
Not fear for myself. I am the director of training for a California-based nonprofit that provides psychological support to aid workers. You run certain risks when you travel to Kenya or to South Africa, not to mention to Santa Monica on the Los Angeles freeways. When people ask me about that aspect of my work I sometimes laugh and quote Nevil Shute: “To put your life in danger from time to time breeds a saneness in dealing with day-to-day trivialities.”
Still, I know it’s possible — likely even — that I only have the luxury of this flippancy because so far I have escaped without being on the wrong end of a carjacking, kidnapping or serious accident. At some deeper level I probably still believe that it won’t happen to me.
The problem with that (or one of them, anyway) is that I seem to be incapable of applying that same casual tolerance to risks Michael runs. When it comes to him, I have no comforting illusion of invulnerability. After my stints as a young forensic psychologist working in a prison and with the police, and what I’ve seen since of trauma and aid work, I know full well that it could happen to him. And when I really think about it, this terrifies me in a way I’ve never felt before.
I’ve never thought of myself as someone who’s particularly prone to catastrophizing — taking a passing fear and following it doggedly until it dead-ends in a worst-case scenario. But lately I’ve found myself wandering down those grim, imaginary rabbit trails more and more often. The other day I was stopped at a red light when a car coming the other way lost control, skidded across the intersection, jumped the curb and took the top off a fire hydrant. As water sheeted 20 feet into the air it took only two seconds for my brain to leapfrog from: “Is that woman okay?” to “What if someone had been standing on that corner?” to “What if that someone had been Mike?”
I don’t even need that sort of drama to push me down these mental paths. While Mike was away completing a humanitarian project evaluation in Papua New Guinea last month, I found myself at odd moments toying with the idea of him being mugged and knifed in Port Moresby. While driving to the airport to pick him up, I thought of plane crashes. It’s as if, without really wanting to, my mind is trying these thoughts on for size, pushing me to answer the questions that automatically follow.
What would you do then, huh? How would you cope?
Perhaps I keep circling in this direction because I just don’t know how I would come back from a blow like that.
Logically, I know people do. If one of these awful scenarios were to unfold, I know there’s a high likelihood I would eventually recover to be a walking, talking, functioning member of society. I would probably be able to smile and mean it. At some point, I would likely even be happy again. But when it comes to this topic and these musings, logic fails completely to breathe life into my imagination. While I can picture the possibility of pain all too well, I can’t really see how I’d get past it.
As I’ve started to track these depressing mental calisthenics during the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed something else too. A fragment of a single Bible verse is usually trailing quietly on the heels of the bleak visions, towing its own set of questions in its wake.
Perfect love casts out fear.
I’d never thought much about this verse before, except to wonder why it was fear that is driven out and not hatred or apathy. After all, I’ve heard it said that the true opposite of love isn’t the passionate intensity of hate at all but the emptiness of indifference. But lately I’ve been seeing it differently. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the more you value something the more acutely you realize what its loss could cost you — that as love grows so does fear. Perhaps the point of the verse has never been about banishing love’s antithesis, but love’s twin.
A growing love
Thinking through a co-dependent link between love and fear kept me occupied for a couple of weeks before I found myself confronted by the next issue raised by those five words: What does perfect love look like then? If love and fear truly are symbiotic, logic suggests that perfect love would simply breed perfect fear, not cast it out.
When I finally went to the source, I learned that the word behind the translation of “perfect” in this verse from 1 John is a form of telios, which doesn’t mean “flawless” but “fulfilling its purpose” or “becoming complete.” Telios, in turn, is derived from telos, which means, “to set out for a definite point or goal” or “the point aimed at as a limit.”
When I put this all together then, what I think John was aiming at with “perfect love” is a rooted and growing love. A love that is firmly anchored in some sort of external, defined and stable point, but ever-transforming into a greater and more expansive state of completeness at the same time.
All of which then begs the question — what is that external, defined, stable point or outer limit?
No one gets any prizes for guessing what John’s answer to that question is.
God. And in a circinate metaphor that is truly mind-boggling if you dwell on it for any length of time, John also asserts at least twice in that same chapter that God is love.
This doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with me, to be honest. Independent to a fault, I like sorting out my issues by myself and on my own terms. The last thorough personality profile I took bluntly informed me that I had “a defiant nature.” When, in the middle of our wedding ceremony, I stumbled on the vows Mike and I had memorized, I didn’t look to the one I was in the middle of promising to spend the rest of my life loving and wait to be prompted — I narrowed my eyes and said, “Don’t help me!” I don’t want to need a God the way a 5-year-old needs a light at night to soothe away fears of shadows in the closet, even if that God is the very embodiment of love.
Without God in my equation, however, love and fear seem locked in a cyclical struggle for dominance that my love, in its own strength, just can’t win. As long as I’m only looking at Mike, my love will always be shadowed by the knowledge of coming loss. That loss might not come this year, or next, or for 40 years. But it will come, that’s inevitable. In this chaotic and uncertain world it’s only in the context of a purpose other than just my own and a love that overshadows and outstrips mine that I stand a real chance of untangling the two and freeing the energy to nurture love without it also nourishing fear.
To savor the mystery
Many years ago John sketched out his take on this dynamic in 13 simple words — words that I hope, over time, will come to my mind as readily and vividly as the catastrophic possibilities I am so talented at conjuring.
And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
Because whenever I sit with the mystery those words represent, when I really savor them, I breathe a bit more deeply. And as my lungs fill with air, pushing against my ribs from the inside, I sense my love expanding, too — growing just a tiny bit more perfect, making room for peace, edging fear out just a little further.
Fear will never leave permanently, I’d guess. Casting it out will be something that happens in fits and starts. In steps forward and steps backward. In a rhythmic, intentional orientation and reorientation that I hope will over time get both easier and faster.
Mike gives me reason to believe that that’s the case, anyway. I’m perfectly confident that he loves me, so he’s either currently much more practiced than I am when it comes to waging war on fear or he hasn’t read the HPG Report yet, because when I told him I may be headed to Pakistan this summer all I got was, “Oh.”
There was a very long pause, and then bright hope.
“If that’s not the month I have to go to Sudan, can I come?”
[Originally published as “A Love That Scares Me” by Notre Dame Magazine.]