Searching For Beauty

The tree in question, Morrison, Colorado. 

The tree in question, Morrison, Colorado. 

Sometimes when you’re in the midst of something hard or stressful or you’re suffering, the only thing that relieves the pain is beauty. And sometimes that beauty is excruciating to the soul but necessary for healing.

I’m still arguing with my insurance. If you read my last blog, you know I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer for the third time. I am scheduled for surgery in early November. One problem -- I have no anesthesiologists in-network. None. And as of right now, my insurance refuses to authorize one. After the latest denial of coverage, I crashed hard. It’s incredibly frustrating fighting a system where your health and life don’t matter or factor into the decision.

This has put me in culture shock -- American bureaucracy. I have thought many times over the past few weeks how much easier it would be to do this in Middle East than in America. Do you know why? Relationships.

I remember years ago, climbing up and down stairs with tears flowing down my face in Beirut. I was in a government building trying to get my passport back, hopefully with a residency card. But, at that point in time, I just wanted my passport back. I needed to travel back to the US in less than a week for a scheduled surgery. I had just argued with a guy name Ali who had my passport on his desk but refused to stamp it and give it back to me. I burst out into tears and a Lebanese lady grabbed my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry dear; they do this to all of us.” Somehow, it made it better for someone to see my pain and relate to it.

A few days later I went back. The guards all knew my name and always greeted me with enthusiastic, “Ya Sooooozzzzzaaaaahhhnnn!” This day, I brought them treats. It was my last ditch effort and I was hoping it would be the last time I saw them. My passport was not ready. I went from office to office to office. I even found myself in the basement of that horrible, grey building wandering around unsupervised. One room had mounds of paperwork and passports on the floor that stretched to the ceiling, not a computer in sight. Not a joke. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life and I hope never to again.

An officer found me there crying, took pity on me, and told me I needed to see the general. Fine, bring on the general. I was brought into his office and pled my case to him. I was working with a church in Beirut, I had cancer, I needed to return to the US for surgery. On and on I went. It turned out he was a Lebanese Christian and was so happy I had applied for residency as a Christian worker. He ordered his subordinates to find my passport and make the appropriate changes. I remember thinking to myself, “Is this really happening?” I didn’t think they would be able to return my passport back to me that day, but I had hope it was moving forward.

He offered me coffee, as a good Arab would. I sat in his office as he talked about his family in Beirut and their village in the mountains. He drank multiple cups of coffee. In the midst of all the frustration and stress, there was beauty. Why? Because of sitting down with someone over a cup of coffee. In less than an hour, one of his minions returned with my passport and my brand spanking new residency card. My mouth dropped open. I looked at him in disbelief and stumbled to get out an appropriate thank you in English and in Arabic. He smiled a big broad smile, told me if I ever need anything else to contact him, and escorted me out. Lesson --generals get stuff done. Ha! (If you’re paying attention, that is not the lesson.)

I can’t even tell you how many times in the past month I have thought of that interaction as I have sat on the phone on automated systems for hours desperately wishing to talk to someone in person. It’s hard to deny someone something they desperately need if you’re sitting across from them sharing a meal or coffee. As long as it’s in your power to do so, that is. I think many of us think we are not capable of being the change people need or that we can’t actually help anyone else including ourselves.

While we might feel inadequate, as I often (mostly) do, there is great meaning and power to stepping out and helping others. It takes great courage to engage others who are different than you, let alone try to help them. But, you honestly can’t hate people if you listen, really listen to their story. Cue Brené Brown. I sat down and devoured her latest, Braving the Wilderness, in one evening. Shouting, “YES!” at intervals as I got through the chapters, particularly “People Are Hard To Hate Close Up. Move In.”

I have said it before and I’ll say it again -- Arabs are great teachers. They have taught me how to cook delicious food, honor guests, hospitality, how to navigate the Middle East, and how to appreciate another culture. But, the greatest thing they have taught me is the importance of relationships. Relationships are KING in the Middle East. There are vibrant communities that rely on each other to get through life. Your first thought of the Middle East might be war-zone or terrorism. I think of community life and connection at its fullest.

It always hits me hard, the culture-shock when I arrive back in the US. I feel it on a basic gut level – we’ve lost our connection, our community. Brené says this:

“The world feels lonesome and heartbroken to me right now. We’ve sorted ourselves into factions based on our politics and ideology. We’ve turned away from one another and toward blame and rage. We’re lonely and untethered. And scared. So damn scared.

But rather than coming together and sharing our experiences through song and story, we’re screaming at one another from further and further away. Rather than dancing and praying together, we’re running from one another. Rather than pitching wild and innovative new ideas that could change everything, we’re staying quiet and small in our bunkers and loud in our echo chambers.”

Not to give the book away (because you should get it), Brené suggests the only way back is to engage each other with heart and civility. And stand together in each other’s suffering. I know this as the only way back to my heart, to overcoming fear. The beauty we are searching for is in each other. But, it takes courage and vulnerability to get there.

One of the truths of my life is my relationships in the Middle East – Arabs, Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Jordanians, Muslims -- have defined me. It’s made me a better person, more well-rounded, more accepting, and more loving. I don’t look at others who appear “different” as people to be feared but people to learn from. My greatest sense of connection, of belonging comes from being welcomed into a community 360 degrees different than my own. To work together to help others. Honestly, it’s the greatest joy of my life and the reason I get out of bed and continue on with helping refugees. The thought that I can connect to anyone on this planet in our shared humanity and that we could reflect dignity and worth back to each other.

As I sat on the back porch on a beautiful late summer evening and read Brené’s words, I felt a pang in my heart. As my head was screaming, “YAS, someone gets this and is affirming my life experience!!,” my heart was aching. Aching to sit down and have dinner with someone from my insurance company so I can know them -- know their heart. And they could know me. Surely we could agree on many things, including an anesthesiologist. Surely we could speak blessings over each other.

My heart ached over the pain of that damn cancer that continues to grow in my body. It ached over missing the Middle East, it ached over missing my friends. It ached over the frustration of the moment I find myself in. I remembered thinking, “Dear God, I just need something that is true, something that is beautiful right now.”

I look up to see a corner of a beautiful maple tree starting its lovely golden fall transformation.

Glory swelled and seared my heart at once.

Suzann MollnerComment