I Don’t Know How to Tell this Story

Which is ironic, since I’m supposedly the journalist in the Middle East, intrepid and articulate, spinning narrative for a living.

OK.
Hi.
My name is Alice and I live in Amman, Jordan. I graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School in June 2013 with a certificate in Near Eastern Studies. I’d written a thesis on Sino-U.S. soft power competition in Egypt, aka an excuse to indulge in Chinese/Arabic and get funding to traipse around Beijing, Cairo and D.C. My adviser was a former U.S. Ambassador, and I harbored vaguely fancy dreams of working at the intersection of journalism and diplomacy, bringing the public back into public diplomacy by helping Chinese, Arab and Western media spheres to talk to, not at, one another (so I wrote on my Rhodes application, ha).

I spent two months after graduation in Oman, studying intensive Arabic on a scholarship from the State Department. Then I moved here to intern unpaid at a Jordanian news network, translating reports and helping with a program that trains Syrian and Palestinian refugees to be citizen journalists. I had $10,000 of personal savings that I’d decided I could spend if Jesus wanted me to come to Jordan, and I hoped to find some kind of part-time job on the side. That would be enough to stay a year, insha’allah, which was fine! Even though I didn’t really like the Middle East and remembered losing 7 pounds from food poisoning and being harassed on the streets every day when I was in Morocco two years earlier, I was going to come, based mostly on the intense heart-gripping “I MUST COME HERE I MUST GO” feelings I had whenever I seriously prayed about it.

I moved to Jordan like a psycho because I thought God wanted me to – and because I was interested in refugee policy, journalism and Arabic, and this unpaid project had dropped from the sky with all my interests rolled into one (another story for later). I started volunteering with a Jesuit group, teaching English literacy on weeknights to some 40 adult refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, Syria and Iraq. I sent out journalism pitches too, cold emailing story ideas to editors without expecting any reply.

To my surprise, they took my ideas. Better yet, they paid! I wrote a story for the Atlantic about a Chinese product fair, then one for Columbia Journalism Review on Syrian journalists, then another for Al-Monitor on Islamist dissent. I went to Palestine for a WIRED profile on this guy who’d hacked Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. One day, the Guardian called me asking for coverage of a terrorist trial. By Christmas, I’d published 12-13 stories on refugees, nuclear programs and protests. I’d made more than enough to cover my rent and food. I never had to dip into my $10,000, and people were asking me for pitching advice.

But listen. Friends. I’m not some path blazer who went out and “made it” as a freelancer. I am no change maker writing stories that stir hearts and inspire action. I am just here. I try to be all here. Mostly, I feel very small.

The scary yet good thing about being in the Middle East is that Death stares me in the face. I spend much of my time with refugees. Many of my friends are from Darfur, Iraq or Syria. They tell me about their brothers being tortured in jail, knives twisting into their guts. They say, my husband was kidnapped by extremists, or I don’t know if my mother is alive, or I watched my baby burn. I see our world and it’s splattered with blood. I want to look away but I can’t. Sometimes I want to get a flight and just leave, peace out, go back to my comfort bubble and pretend I never came to Jordan or had to deal with the reality of everything here.

Or I grit my teeth and think, I’ll write a story about this! If I just write a really good story, things will change. Maybe a few stories. A book! A book, and I will save the world. My Princeton self is prone to the delusion that life is basically under control. If I try hard enough at anything, I can make it happen. When things are beyond me, that just means I haven’t tried hard enough. I drive harder. Push more.

Eventually I had to stop. Girl. Who are you kidding? You think your book will end war in Sudan? And Syria? And Iraq? And everywhere in the world once and for all?

Many people think journalism is a magical tool that can humanize foreign policy, bring faces and voices back into our understanding of faraway wars, show the world that we are all ONE brotherhood and that it is foolish, ridiculous, dark and dirty and wrong to hate and kill one another. Many people think we can use journalism to make a difference.

The question Jesus asked me this year, quietly, gently, was:
What if it doesn’t?

One morning I woke up at 5 a.m. and cried for 3 hours. I was gasping from a nightmare, head and heart swirling from too many stories too many people had told me of too much hunger and pain. That’s when I realized it was silly to pretend that I’m not sad. I am sad, I prayed. Jesus, damn it, I am sad.

Suddenly honesty was howling from my veins. GOD. YOUR CHILDREN ARE DROWNING. GOD! I cried like a lunatic. I prayed without words. I felt like the very bottom of my heart had dropped out, turned into a cavern, flooding and splitting with a cry, GOD. Save us. We are crumbling, twisted, poisoned, struck – Jesus! Lord, SAVE.

Two things happened when I prayed that morning:
a) I stopped being in denial about the world.
b) I stopped trying to save it – and found hope in doing so. When I stopped trying so hard, I was suddenly, freakishly, unnaturally able to hope.

Journalism has taught me that in the Gospel, effort doesn’t save.

More importantly, it’s taught me that I don’t save.

Let me share this video with you. It’s from an amazing thing that happened when I wrote a story about my Sudanese friends: kind-hearted Americans across the world read my article, started a fundraising campaign and sent more than $5000 to help them. I went out with the Sudanese community leader and bought heaters for ~900 members of the refugee community here.

It’s beautiful, right? I was so moved when this happened. I cried. It was incredible, the kind of impact journalism I’d always dreamed of.

But I’m under no delusion. War goes on. My friends remain refugees, mistreated and forgotten, the system rigged against them for no particular reason at all. A heater is great,  but it’s a fist-sized sponge trying to sop up an ocean of need. My results-oriented self cringes, annoyed at its insufficiency, and looks for a way to leave.

My LORD says, Hush. Beloved. Stay.

I am terrified to love people when I feel like I can’t take them out of their suffering. Yet Jesus is teaching me this, to love without saving. I’m learning to accompany, to just be a friend and sister, to say I have no solutions for your problems, but I’ll stick with you anyway. I’m learning to love even when I can’t make pain stop. I’m learning, I think, to just carry pain alongside my brothers.

The tearful-lunatic-prayer thing has only grown, not stopped – but it always ends in praise. It always ends in hope, inexplicable but firm. I feel like I know God more because of it, like I know the Gospel better as a message not that pain has gone from the world, but that God loved us enough to come and bear pain alongside us. Maybe all He wants us to do is love each other enough to do likewise. Instead of straining to stop suffering, we step into it, offer a shoulder, we say, Dear friend, I can’t save you, but
I’m here,
I care,
I’m listening.

Tell me your story.

You are not alone.

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5 thoughts on “I Don’t Know How to Tell this Story”

  1. Ok, there’s something very, very compelling about this observation: “Journalism has taught me that in the Gospel, effort doesn’t save. More importantly, it’s taught me that I don’t save….I am terrified to love people when I feel like I can’t take them out of their suffering. Yet Jesus is teaching me this, to love without saving….”

    It’s antithetical to everything we learned in school and maybe even what we learned in church. In fact, today I even caught myself thinking “since I can’t change this, it’s not even worth my time or thoughts.”

    The Gospel Worldview is in part about how we and our work fits into the redemptive narrative of ushering in the kingdom. But how are we supposed to work towards this end and not end up in the mindset where WE are redeeming things, and not God?

  2. @hanwei @alice

    To the question you both raised about why we do all this if, in the end, we can do very little…there’s a passage in CS Lewis’s essay called “The Efficacy of Prayer” that I like to meditate on every now and then.

    ————

    “God,” said Pascal, “instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.” But not only prayer; whenever we act at all He lends us that dignity. It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so …

    For He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to coexist with Omnipotence … This is how (no light matter) God makes something—indeed, makes gods—out of nothing.

    ————

    It brings me down from the pedestal of power and back to that altar of mystery and grace.

  3. @hanwei: “But how are we supposed to work towards this end and not end up in the mindset where WE are redeeming things, and not God?”

    I think you’re touching on something we have to be mindful of – sometimes we catch ourselves using language about us redeeming things, when really, it’s about us being faithful in loving God’s world & pointing to Christ as her redeemer and then trusting Jesus to bring renewal.

    Alice – beautiful words. May we continue to learn to love by listening.

  4. @hanwei2011
    I thought it went like: God commands, we obey, God fulfills.
    Our plans can’t include everything that will happen, and working while recognizing these limitations we do our share of what we can do, and trust that He will uphold the numerous other things we cannot foresee or control.

  5. When we are trying to fix someone or something we are really removed from them. It is the difference between sympathy and empathy. The power of empathy is to just say, “I feel and hear you.” I can’t change it but I recognize you and that can be more powerful than a “fix.” We, in the western world, often take a paternalistic approach having learned that it is our responsibility to solve the worlds problems. When I was suffering from feelings of powerlessness to change the world (which happens often) my dad once said something I often return to. He told me I could make the world a better place simply by being a kind person, being the best person I could be. It sounds like you, Alice, have come to a similar point realizing “a) I stopped being in denial about the world. b) I stopped trying to save it – and found hope in doing so. When I stopped trying so hard, I was suddenly, freakishly, unnaturally able to hope.”
    Seeing the world as it is can be a very painful thing, but if we can’t see it than we are missing the whole thing. Maybe that is what journalism does- helps us see. That is enough, maybe.

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