I’m already in the car when the message comes, stuck in traffic but halfway to work.
We think someone at the office may want to try and kill you today.
Those aren’t the exact words. But I imagine it’s how my security manager would say it if he were retelling the story after a few beers, or if he wasn’t legally obliged to be more cautious with his phrasing. In reality he uses words like “insider attack” and “green on blue”—the oddly colorful way we explain what happens when the soldier you thought was on your side turns out not to be.
This isn’t new. It’s not routine either, but it’s not exactly surprising. It’s Afghanistan and there’s a war going on, so by definition, someone is always trying to kill someone else. But I’m not normally either of those people. I’m usually standing just a little off to one side.
I suppose though, that this kind of thing is why people’s eyes widen when they hear where I work. Why they use words like courageous and heroic. They mean well, but lately I’ve perfected the art of smiling and saying thank you—with just the right touch of expected humility—while secretly wanting to throw up on their shoes.
People always assume you have to be some kind of extreme saint (or sinner) to love it out there. There is no easy way to tell them that most days are just ordinary days when the laundry needs to get done and the emails answered. Or that some days are scary but if you did find the words to tell them even half of it, they’d worry so much it would be too painful for you both. Or that some days are heavy and sad, with the weight of all that is not yet as it should be, but you can be so numb that you just keep showing up for work because it’s what you do and it’s what you know and it’s easier than figuring out anything else. Even when your job is in the middle of a geopolitical game of king of the hill halfway around the world.
But being one of the ones left alive in a place where so many had been killed around me hasn’t seemed to take much courage. Luck maybe, or fate or grace or politics or jammed rifles or traffic jams or destiny or sovereignty or some kind of theology that I don’t know I’m fully prepared to stare in the face of yet.
There was the one who was shot while waiting outside for me. And the one taken on a road I used everyday. A few more came under fire at that meeting I would have been at had I not been on vacation at the time. Some were friends, some colleagues, some had become like family. Some I didn’t know well, beyond the strange intimacy of realizing I’d met them during some of their last sacred hours on Earth.
After they were gone. One after another after another. It hadn’t been suicidal, my particular form of numb (although there’d be no shame in it if it were). I didn’t want to die, per se. But when I got right down to it, I didn’t want to live instead of him. Or her. Her. Him. Them. Him. It just felt like it really should have been me by now.
I grew up surrounded by the tales of a God-man who died instead so none of us would ever really have to. Yet all around me, even after all that “Once and For All,” all that salvation on a silver platter just for the taking, everyone else seemed to keep dying instead of me. At all the wrong times and all the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons. Or for seemingly no reason at all.
But me, I’m just fine, thanks. Binging Netflix over the weekend and wondering if it dishonors their memory or if they’ve fashioned a cozy couch out of a fluffy cloud and are watching over my shoulder with a bucket of popcorn somewhere in the great beyond. My death won’t bring them back, but life instead of doesn’t always feel like much of a consolation prize.
And yet staring down at the text message and its implication that it may be my turn, from somewhere deep and primal, there’s a “No.” Unbidden and unexpected. A guttural “not today.”
I don’t want to die.
It surprises me, this genuine desire to survive. Or maybe it’s fear? I don’t care. Whatever it is, it’s something I can feel and taste and it is heady and sweet and an instantaneous biochemical high pulsing through my veins in the backseat of the car.
I want to believe this new lust for life is more than simply the passage of time and biology and the mystery of grief. I want it to be a sign of deep healing, like some profound fruit birthed of late nights with candles and journals and Jesus. A promise of some renewed reason for being, some use for my life just waiting around the corner that will transform humanity (or at least my little corner of it) and for which I must arise to live and thrive and flourish. But, there is a part of me that wonders if maybe it was just the good hair day and a plan for a coffee with a boy after work. Or maybe because I did my homework and prepped for the meeting and just want to get to work and get on with my damn job for once and not be bothered by interruptions, thank you very much.
Whatever it is, this wanting to live—this life, my life—is something I could quite easily get used to again. I text back to my security manager re: my determination to disregard his note and continue on with my day. My thoughts turn to the guys waiting for me at the office and the many, many Afghans in uniform who (most likely) do not want to kill me or anyone else today. They set out hours before me to sit in this same traffic. Set out after bidding parent, lover, child goodbye and praying that they won’t be among the dozens of men in uniform who will not return home tonight. They pray to live. And today I find myself once again able to join them in that prayer.
I want to live this life, not simply live through it.
Cover image by JFL.