Tag Archives: fear

Peace Like A River

Two weeks after Dominic was born, Mike announced that he was going out for a bike ride.

“Just a 50km loop,” he said. “I’ll be back within two hours.”

I nodded and told him to have a good ride, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to cry. I wanted to clutch him and beg him not to go. I wanted to demand that he tell me how I would survive if a car hit him – which happens to cyclists all the time, you know – while he was being so irresponsible as to be out riding for fun. Fun. What was he thinking to be indulging in something so very dangerous and call it fun?

I had expected my son’s birth to deliver love into my life. What I had not expected was that right alongside love would come something else, something that would assault me more often and more viciously than I had ever imagined.

Fear.

In the weeks following the miraculous trauma of Dominic’s arrival, I found myself battling fear at every turn. I would see myself dropping the baby, or accidentally smothering him while I was feeding him in bed. The thought of unintentionally stepping on his tiny hand while he was lying on the floor made me stop breathing. Whenever I left the house I visualized car accidents. I lay awake at night when I should have been getting desperately needed sleep thinking about the plane ticket that had my name on it – the ticket for the flight that would take all three of us back to Laos.

How, I wondered, am I ever going to be able to take this baby to Laos when I don’t even want to take him to the local grocery store? What if he catches dengue fever? What if he picks up a parasite that ravages his tiny insides? What if he gets meningitis and we can’t get him to a doctor in Bangkok fast enough? What if the worst happens?

What if?

One of my favorite hymns was written by a man who was living through one such horrific “what if”. After learning that all four of his children had drowned when the ship they were traveling on collided with another boat and sank, Spafford left immediately to join his grieving wife on the other side of the Atlantic. As his own ship passed near the waters where his daughters had died, he wrote It Is Well With My Soul.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul

This hymn is one of my favorites because it puzzles me. I’m awed and confused by Spafford’s ability to write these words in the face of such loss. Because of the story behind it, the song demands my respect.

Plus, I really like that image in the first line of peace like a river.

I think of this line sometimes when I’m out walking around town, for Luang Prabang is nestled between two rivers. The Mekong is a force to be reckoned with – wide, muddy, and determined. Watching the frothy drag on the longboats as they putt between banks gives you some hint of the forces at play underneath the surface. Mike likes the Mekong, but my favorite is the other river, the Khan. The Khan is much smaller and at this time of year it runs clear and green, skipping merrily over gravelly sand banks and slipping smoothly between the poles of the bamboo bridge that fords it.

I used to think of peace primarily as a stillness – a pause, a silence, a clarity – but that sort of peace is not the peace of rivers. There is a majestic, hushed sort of calm to rivers, but they are not silent and they are certainly not still – even the most placid of rivers is going somewhere. They don’t always run clear, either. But all that silt that muddies the waters of the Mekong? It ends up nourishing vegetables growing on the riverbanks.

Dominic is five months old now and the worst of the post-natal anxiety appears to have subsided. I managed to get myself to board that plane back to Laos and it no longer terrifies me to see Mike head out the door to ride his bike to work (most days, anyway). My fear of what ifs never leaves completely, though – it’s always lurking around waiting to be nurtured by my attention and amplified by my imagination.

I used to feel like a failure that I couldn’t banish that fear altogether – that I never felt “perfectly” peaceful – but I don’t feel that way any more. I’m learning to greet that sort of fear respectfully without bowing before it. I’m learning to use it as a reminder to turn toward gratitude rather than worry. And I’ve stopped expecting peace to look like the pristine silence that follows a midnight snowfall. I’m coming to appreciate a different sort of peace instead – a peace that pushes forward, rich with mud, swelling and splashing and alive with the music of water meeting rock.

Peace like a river.

The Khan River, Luang Prabang, Laos

(Update: In an irony of the sort you never want to live through, the day after I posted this my mother in law slipped on our stairs here in Laos and Dominic broke his femur. We are back in Laos now, but must return to Thailand for follow up in two weeks. Continued thoughts and prayers for good healing appreciated.)

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On Peace and Quiet

When I think of the word peace, I always think next of the word quiet.

I’ve always been someone who is extraordinarily sensitive to sound. As a student I would find myself distracted by the rhythmic clicking of a pen all the way over the other side of the lecture theater. Even now, any tapping or drumming of fingers tends to draw my attention with all the constant compulsion that magnets offer iron. Out in public I must sometimes make a conscious effort to maintain eye contact with the person I am speaking with, or I will find myself glancing around, restless as a sparrow, monitoring the source of every other sound that is playing its squeaky shrieky part in the symphony of background noise.

I crave quiet.

They say that you never fully appreciate what you have until it’s gone, but that’s not always true. I often notice and appreciate the gentle companionship of quiet. When I hear my damp bare feet meet our wooden floors after I get out of the shower at dawn, it reminds me to exhale gratitude for these brief still moments before the day really wakes up. Last year, as I stretched my way through prenatal yoga poses, I always thrilled to the heavy silence of the empty house. When I was pregnant and living at my parent’s place, I would open the bathroom window when I got up at night to listen to the slippery rustle of the breeze taunting the leaves in the tall stand of gum trees. Then I’d shut the window again, because given a choice I will always choose silence as a sleep companion even over the nocturnal music of this magical world.

Quiet for me is not just the absence of noise; it is a calming presence that prompts me to pay attention, to feel the act of breathing, to listen out for thoughts and feelings dancing hand in hand through my head. Quiet reminds me to live rather than just exist.

I am pretty good about being present where I am, but on those rare occasions when I indulge in fantasies of being elsewhere I always think of beaches, of cabins in woods, of the hushed sigh of falling snow or the grace notes that are the pop and hiss of a fire on a cold night. I think of my parents’ house. I never find myself longing for the efficient clamour of the London underground or the din and bustle of New York with its agile taxis and steaming hot dog carts and moving, throbbing energy. Those cities have their own charm, but I never find myself longing for them. I long for the still, silent places.

On the whole, Asia is not a still, silent place. Luang Prabang is by no means Jakarta or Bangkok, but it is a place of near neighbors and thin walls. It is a place of barking dogs, roosters, axes in wood, coconuts on tin roofs, motorcycles, and a cultural more that says you’re not having fun unless people in Vietnam can hear your music playing. It is a place of power tools running right outside our kitchen window.

Silence often brings me peace. This sort of peace comes easily, as a gift, but silence is not the only courier of peace. There is also peace hard won in defiance of noise, peace chosen in the face of fear, peace found in a seemingly barren wilderness of grief.

This I believe.

But sometimes that belief falters on days when I am serenaded by the shrill screech of power saws, or I think for too long about the lack of good medical care in this country, or I receive the news that a friend has lost his mortal battle with leukemia, leaving behind a much beloved wife and two little boys. Sometimes peace seems an elusive chimera indeed.

What does the word “peace” mean to you? What brings you peace?

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When fantasy diverges from reality: Adventures with dolphins and babies

Almost two and a half years ago now, Mike and I were driving towards Akaroa in New Zealand. It was the second last day of our honeymoon. We were on our way to swim with dolphins, and I was grumpy.

I’m not sure when the grumpy started. Possibly when I woke up and it was rainy and cold. Possibly when Mike asked me in the car what I was particularly looking forward to about swimming with the dolphins – something I’d wanted to do for at least a decade. 

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just want to see them up close, and swim with an animal that’s as big as me, and pet them.”

“OK,” Mike said. “Wait just one minute. For starters, I don’t think we’ll be able to touch them. You might want to recalibrate your expectations a little.”

I stared out the window of the car at the fine misty rain that was drifting across the road and sulked. I had already recalibrated my expectations once that morning with regards to this adventure. In my decade-old vision of swimming with dolphins it was always warm and sunny. The water was always a clear azure and calm. The dolphins always swam right up to me with friendly clickings and basically begged me to hug them, or even ride them. This adventure – the adventure that my brand-new spouse had gone to a lot of trouble to research and book as a special treat for me – was not looking like it was going to live up to that vision.

Things did not improve when we reached the dock. Assuming any of them actually showed up, our tour operator informed us, we’d be swimming with the world’s smallest dolphins. They were about the size of a hefty Labrador retriever. Their skin was so delicate we could damage it just by brushing up against them, and under no circumstances were we to try to touch them. The temperature was about 12 degrees Celsius (53F). We were going to have to wiggle our way into 5cm thick wetsuits. The water in the bay was clouded chalky white that cut visibility to almost nil. The swell was 3m high and I suddenly realized that I was in dire danger of becoming violently seasick unless I downed some anti-nausea medication, and fast. I really want to like boats, but the truth of the matter is they don’t usually like me.

Luckily there was a pharmacy located at the far end of the dock, and with half an hour to spare before sailing, Mike and I headed down there to look for some anti-seasickness medication.

On our way back towards the boat that was going to take us out to look for these small-ass, fragile dolphins in the middle of a freezing rainstorm, Mike tentatively offered the following observation.

“I don’t have many data points yet on what you’re like on a day when you get to do something you’ve wanted to do most of your life,” he said. “But so far experience suggests that you’re a little… difficult.”

“Well, you keep telling people that I’ve wanted to do this for years,” I said.

“Well, haven’t you?” Mike asked.

Yes, I wanted to say. But, but, but… But not like this. It’s numbingly cold. And what if we can’t find these teensy little dolphins? What if we find them, but it’s too dangerous to get off the boat and swim with them? What if I get seasick and spend the entire time throwing up?

Faced with the sudden reality of a “swimming with dolphins” experience that promised to diverge sharply from a romantic daydream I hadn’t even fully realized I held, I did not deal with my fears and frustrations with rational grace. I doubt I explained this tangle of disappointed anxiety very well in the moment. Probably the only thing I did do well in that moment was scowl.

I found myself thinking about swimming with these dolphins very early this morning. I had just stumbled back to bed after being up for the fourth time and I was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a comfortable position to lie in.

My visions of having children have never been as clearly defined as my tropical dreams of swimming with friendly dolphins, but as I get closer and closer to delivering this baby I’ve been finding myself increasingly surprised by fears that surface at odd moments and longings related to a rooted, domestic vision that I have never lived.

Sometimes when I’m alone and awake in the silent void of 3AM I let myself imagine briefly that Mike is here instead of Laos. That we live in Melbourne. That we have no plans to move anywhere else in the near future. That after the baby is born we’ll bring him back from the hospital to our house, and that Mike and I are not facing another month apart and then a long trip across the equator just weeks after the baby is born.

Then come the fears, because even in the dreamy pre-dawn I never let myself fully forget that this is not the reality that we have chosen to fashion for ourselves.

What if the baby arrives before Mike does? What is labour and delivery going to be like? What if something is wrong with the baby? And, further down the track, what will it be like to watch over a sick child out of reach of good medical care? How will this little one complicate our peripatetic lifestyle?

Swimming with dolphins that day in Akoroa turned out to be nothing like I’d imagined. On the other hand, most of my last-minute fears never materialized, either. I didn’t get seasick. We did find dolphins. And the captain gave us permission to leap overboard into the churning sea if we were game enough to brave the threatening waves.

Five of the twelve of us were.

I was first off the boat – mostly because I knew that if I let myself hesitate too long before jumping, I may never jump. The cold was breath-stealing and the grey swell picked me up and then dropped me six feet at a time. It took most of my energy to stay upright and tap the small stones that I was holding together. The dolphins, the crew had told us, would hear the clicking noise and come investigate.

They did, too. One minute there was nothing but pale freezing waves, the next there was a small fin just to my left and a silvery shadow skimming past. They circled around for more than half an hour, darting so close in between us, dipping up and down like excitable aquatic puppies. They were always in motion, impossible to see clearly, but undeniably, exhilaratingly, there.

When we finally managed to clamber back on board the boat we had blue lips and couldn’t feel our fingers or toes. It was far from the tropical azure and gentle friendliness I’d wanted but it had turned into an adventure valuable in its own right – something altogether wilder and less controllable, but thrilling.

It’s raining and cold here today, too. Mike and I have been apart more than five weeks with a month still to go and the separation is wearing thin. Part of me, I admit, wants to sit here and stare out into the wet mist and dwell on all the ways that this adventure of having our first child is not turning out exactly as I find myself wishing that it were.

But then I think of the dolphins again. I wonder whether our adventures would still feel adventurous if most of them turned out just as we envision. And I remind myself that experiences we do not expect, perhaps don’t even want, can end up being magical, too. 

Back at Home are Mike and I: Jottings on art, parenthood, and home

Well, we’re back from Thailand and we hit the ground running this week. Although, after a full week of looking at this on Koh Tao…

And this on Koh Samui…

And strolling through resorts…

And buying satay off the beach…

And dining in lovely seaside restaurants as the full moon rises over the ocean…

Well… let’s just say I wouldn’t expect any sympathy from anyone if I tried to complain that we’ve had some re-entry shock with getting back to work. So I shall just say that we’re well and truly back at work.

Mike returned to scores of emails and the usual collection of unruly work-related campfires needing to be tended (and, in some cases, extinguished). I have returned to a new schedule of memoir work in the mornings and consulting work in the afternoons.

I’m jotting this down in between switching from memoir to drafting a distance learning chapter on personal resilience. I have ended this morning’s memoir work without much idea about how to fix a tricky chapter transition. Or, maybe more accurately, how to fix a tricky whole chapter.

That would be chapter, uh, two.

Sigh. I hope something shakes loose on that front this week as I am determined to finish this edit before the baby arrives. Because, of course, after the baby arrives my life as I know it now will end. I will never again find the time or energy to write anything worth reading, and Mike and I have probably just gone on our last truly relaxing holiday and enjoyed our last meal out at a lovely restaurant.

OK, so maybe I’m being just the tiniest bit melodramatic. But I have to admit that stalking my genuine happiness about this coming baby is no small army of fears – fears clothed in thoughts similar to those above. So, as I get into a serious creative writing rhythm again, I was particularly delighted to stumble across a great article recently called The Parent Trap: Art After Children.

Frank Cottrell Boyce writes:

There’s a belief that to do great work you need tranquility and control, that the pram is cluttering up the hallway; life needs to be neat and tidy. This isn’t the case. Tranquility and control provide the best conditions for completing the work you imagined. But surely the real trick is to produce the work that you never imagined. The great creative moments in our history are almost all stories of distraction and daydreaming – Archimedes in the bath, Einstein dreaming of riding a sunbeam – of alert minds open to the grace of chaos.

Writers have produced great work in the face of things far more stressful than the school run: being shot at, in the case of Wilfred Owen; being banged up in jail, in the case of Cervantes or John Bunyan. Yet that pram is lodged in our imaginations, like a secret parasite sucking on our juices.

While I would argue that it may, in fact, be easier to write while locked up in prison than while trying to get kids ready for school every day, I loved this article for standing in opposition to some of my fears. Well worth reading if you are an artist with a family, or thinking about having one.

In addition to all things babies I’ve also been mulling on all things home as I start to pick up the threads of my memoir once again. I stumbled across this poem by Emily Dickinson recently and it intrigues (and baffles) me. Anyone want to help me out by offering their thoughts on it? I am particularly confused by the last two lines – about feet retiring and faces remaining.

Away from Home are some and I

Away from Home are some and I —
An Emigrant to be
In a Metropolis of Homes
Is easy, possibly —

The Habit of a Foreign Sky
We — difficult — acquire
As Children, who remain in Face
The more their Feet retire.

Thanks for dropping by!

When criticism collides with fear

As everyone who’s read the previous post knows, we didn’t have the greatest start to the week over here. So I wrote about that in all it’s “ugly day-ness”, and I wrote about myself and my “not the finest display of coping with frustration that I’ve ever put forth”.

I received more than a few comments on that post – many of which warmed my heart and made me smile, and one that didn’t. It’s all caused me to think a lot about my reactions to compliments and criticism this last day and a half, and I’ve decided that something I am giving this much time on my mental airwaves deserves to be written about.

Let’s start with criticism, and sometime in the next couple of weeks I’ll wind my way around to talking about compliments.

So, one of the comments I received on that post was the following:

“I’m addicted to your blog. I guess I keep reading, waiting for when things will turn around (or for your perspective to change). I feel sorry for Mike. Not only does he have to contend with the low water pressure, lack of air conditioning, and all the inconveniences, but it’s compounded by a stressful job in which he can’t help everyone who needs it and by knowing that his wife is thoroughly unhappy because he wanted to move to Laos to fulfill what he feels is his purpose in life. It’s always harder to deal with negative situations when surrounded by negativity.

Reading your blog, I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to be poor and living in Laos–having no air conditioning ever, running water, or people to call to fix things.

I hope you find something beautiful and meaningful in being there. Try to stay positive, Lisa.”

I’ve had a wide range of reactions to this in the last 24 hours.

Initially I was just stunned, and bewildered. (Also a little admiring that this person had managed to imply that I was an unending fountain of negativity who is making Mike’s life harder than it needs to be, subtly remind me to think of the poor, and begin and end with a clear message that I could perhaps benefit from a perspective shift… all in 151 words. I can clearly learn something about brevity here, if nothing else.)

Then I wanted to be a bitch – to hit “reply” and deliver a pithy, self-righteous, set-down in return. I won’t list the one-liners that rushed to mind, but there were several.

Then I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to point out that in the last couple of weeks I’d written about bad days and tiring border runs, yes. But I’d also written about interesting visits to museums and incandescent days spent out at beautiful waterfalls and meaningful Sunday afternoons spent pondering how to help sick kids.

Then I started to wonder why this was bothering me quite so much. There were other comments on that post that were very positive indeed. In fact, most of the comments left on my blog are positive. This was the day after I had written, in a draft chapter for my next book, “I am less imprisoned than I once was by what people think of me.” The irony of my ruffled feathers over this – a single comment written by someone who does not know me well – was not lost on me. Neither was the fact that I was doing the very thing she insinuated I do far too often – focusing on the negative. So why did this bug me so?

Then I realized she had (probably unwittingly) trespassed on something that, deep down, I sometimes greatly fear – that I’m not supporting Mike in his important work here as well as I could/should be. I also sometimes fear that I am the weak link in the chain of our marriage. I sometimes fear that I am a petty and small-minded person who chronically runs short of joy and gratitude. I sometimes fear that I am really not all that lovable, and that one day Mike will figure that out.

Once I’d dragged this tangled mess of “sometimes fears” out into the light, I sat down and tried to really think about where she was right and wrong, and what helpful take-homes I could glean from her comments.

She is absolutely right about the fact that it is always harder to deal with negative situations when surrounded by negativity, that a positive attitude is one of the most powerful forces in life, and that trying to stay positive is rarely wasted energy.

She is very wrong in her guess that I am thoroughly unhappy here in Laos. I think/I hope that she is also wrong in her supposition that I am, on balance, making life overall more challenging for Mike. Yet she came to these conclusions from reading my posts – not just the one I wrote yesterday, it seems, but all of them. Should I change something about the way I write, or what I’m writing about?

So after pondering this today, here’s what I think… I’ll continue to monitor the balance of generally “positive” and generally “negative” material that finds its way up here, but I’m not going to let fear of what you all may think of me drive me to sanitize the blog of accounts of bad days, or my own potentially less-than-admirable moments.

Because, right now, this blog is meant to chronicle life in the moment. Sometimes those moments here are waterfalls or museums or funny encounters with the police, and sometimes they are hard days where lots of little things go wrong (and they are relatively little things – but sometimes in those moments they don’t feel quite so little). Sometimes in those moments I do desperately need a shift in perspective. And, often, it’s writing about those moments that helps me find one.

It is writing more than almost anything else that helps me transform an event, a thought, or a mood into something acknowledged, clarified, and manageable. Writing is cathartic. I usually don’t show Mike my posts before I put them up, but I did the other day. I read the bad day post out loud to him that night while he was washing the dishes. We laughed a little. Writing the post played a large part in nudging me back into territory where I could laugh. And the comments that you all leave on the posts make me smile. Well, usually… But even when they don’t make me smile they often (as in this case) push me to think, and that is very valuable too.

So thank you all for tracking with me on this journey.

P.S. Hey all, feel free to comment on anything I’ve written in this post, but please do not discuss the comment that I reproduced in this post. I did not write this to set her up for any third-party criticism (or praise).

P.P.S. When Mike read the first draft of this post he laughed when he got to the line about me fearing that one day he’d figure out I was unlovable. “One day,” he teased me, “one day dumb old Mike will figure this out.” Then he grinned. “You’re safe for a good while yet, though – I’m far too busy organizing medical care for orphans to figure it out anytime soon.”

P.P.P.S. I’m going with Mike up to the villages today and will be there for the rest of the week. No internet = no blog. So I’ll see you all next week.

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Banishing Love’s Twin

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.

Fear.

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.

Imaginary trails

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?”