The Dread (Or Delight?) of Normalcy in a Foreign Land

by - 2:07 PM

As I sit by my window, having the dinner I’ve just cooked without water or electricity (but thankfully with a gas cooker), I look out to the pale glowing colors of dusk as the mountains of Kabul loom against the sky in dark grey silhouette. I think about my day: rising at 4:30AM, teaching my sweet piano students, improvising a new composition as a piano duet with one of my brilliant 12 year-olds and laughing together with ridiculous happiness at the moments of unexpected inspiration, coaching my Grade 10 class to sing acapella and in harmony, and receiving an unexpected gift of a scarf and a colorful turquoise-yellow stitched traditional dress from an Afghan sister-friend who took the time to travel in notorious local transport to deliver it to my home… A simple thought strikes me with subtle force: My life in Afghanistan is becoming normal.

For a moment, I don’t know how to respond. I feel a slight sense of trepidation and dread tugging at my heart. No, of all things, I do not want this to become normal. I want it always to be exhilarating, special, and fresh – a life that keeps me on my toes. Indeed, it does; but I will admit that I feel a little disappointed – no, thrown off-balance – by this simple thought. I was stricken by its reminder that everything novel will soon turn normal if we stay in it or keep at it for long enough. The question is, will it be a dread or a delight? What will make ‘normalcy’ in a foreign land like Afghanistan a necessarily good thing or a bad thing for me?

I know myself well. For someone like me, it could be a good thing as much as a bad thing, and vice versa. I love venturing to new territory and encountering unusual people. I relish the feeling of discovering an unfamiliar place and the (fun) challenge of navigating different cultural codes. I naturally kick against the humdrum of ‘settling down like everyone else’ and pathologically question the parameters of a ‘normal’ life in the suburbs. It’s not just for the sake of being adventurous – not at all. I don’t have a desire to travel the world or experience new things for Epicurean reasons; I simply have a desire to make my home wherever God wants and calls me. (I’m just glad that He gave me a sense of adventure, to make things easier!) For this time in my life, I am dead sure that my home is in Afghanistan because it’s where He destines and beckons me to be. (There’s a crazy miraculous story of how I ended up here in a very divinely-accelerated process, but that’s another story – one day I will write about it.)

Tonight, this niggling thought that ‘my life in Afghanistan is starting to turn normal’, has given me cause to reflect and wrestle with its significance. As I write, the sun is gone and I see the moon rising over the mountains as the evening prayer call echoes from the mosque. On one hand, it seems a dread that my daily life of rising early, facing Kabul’s morning traffic madness to work, and teaching my brilliant music students at the only music school in Afghanistan, is becoming my real life. Will it soon become ordinary? Worse still, monotonous? Perhaps only if I let it. Because the truth is, real life is always about making decisions, laughing, eating, crying, interacting with others, solving differences, and even playing music, in ordinary places and with ordinary people. Yet, it doesn’t have to drown in monotony. Everything special can become ordinary when it becomes a part of your everyday life, your everyday you. Yet, it doesn’t have to lose its meaning. Even though it’s not a holiday, or a volunteer mission anymore, it can be a responsibility you carry in your heart – a decision to stay, and to be a person of integrity even when you cannot pack up and go. If I had no reason, cause or calling to stay, trying for ‘normality’ in a place like Afghanistan will drive any person mad. But thanks be to God, I do have a reason, cause and calling to be here – so much so that turning back is not an option.

So, after some thought-wrestling, I find myself coming to a heart-warming and soul-assuring resolution: Why, isn’t it a glorious miracle – a delight! –that I’ve come to the point where I realize that my existence in this foreign land is metamorphosing into a state of normalcy? It means that I’m no longer the new arrival I once was a few months ago! Wow. Before I came, I thought I’d be here for three months, but now I’m no longer in the mindset that I’m on a scouting trip, or that I’m going back home. I’ve chosen to stay. I’ve resolved to work really hard. I’ve decided to count the cost. It changes everything. It means that even though there are always daily news reports and warnings of bomb blasts or averted attacks, I have grown resilient enough at this point to live my life doing what I believe in, even to the point of entering into a state of daily ordinariness (not numbness) in the face of oppression. A miracle indeed. I can’t remember where I read this quote, but it sticks in my mind: Faithfulness is not maintenance, faithfulness is multiplication. I hope I will learn greater faithfulness in Afghanistan. A faithfulness that isn’t begrudging obligation – hence the term ‘maintenance’ – but one that sows seeds of hope that germinate, blossom, and multiply in many lives. Even in ‘normalcy’, there are still a great many beautiful, unique and novel things that happen every day in my life here – with my students, my colleagues, my neighbours, my new friends, my God. In no way is this condition one of tedious boredom. Therefore, am I not so blessed? Shouldn’t I be immeasurably delighted, that all these moments – both the interesting and the routine – are evident marks of grace intrinsic to a life ordinarily and fully lived? (You can almost hear me exhale a sigh of relief.) As I sip my evening chai, the profound intermingling of dread and delight at the epiphany that ‘my life has become normal in Afghanistan’ transfigures into a novel experience in itself. 

[Cover Photo: An Afghan mother sweeps her home at an IDP camp in Kabul, 2016. Rahmat Gul, AP Photo.]

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