I remember waiting to get on the plane out of Bagram, Afghanistan. Usually when I’m leaving a place like Sydney or Melbourne, Australia, Las Vegas or New York, I sit in the terminal and reflect on how it went. I think about what I liked and what I didn’t and what I’ll do if I can someday return.
But leaving Afghanistan was like disposing of Kleenex out of my pocket. I used it well; it served a purpose, but I wasn’t going to have it hold a place in my heart. I was heading to Australia for two weeks to unwind from the year.
I remember my friend Lee meeting me in Melbourne and having this surreal moment. I have to be someone else now. Everything in a flash became easy: ordering food, getting a cup of coffee, walking the streets, starting up a conversation. My usual shtick is to talk to every stranger and say hello, but for three days I walked around silently and staring at a wonder of a warless city. No ruins. No tanks. No sandbags and dust that follows every trail. In Melbourne, I ate a lot of meat pies. I just want to be honest. That happened.
Fast forward a year. A year of high anxiety as I remained without work for 8 months. Job rejections that piled up and emails that simply said no thank you. Saying goodbye to a well constructed and highly treasured life in California with my friends. Getting a new apartment. Helping with elderly parents. Finding a career where I find this overwhelming purpose and meaning.
I’d love to say that Afghanistan didn’t leave a dark scar on me. I’m more anxious than I used to be. I’m fearless in ways I just don’t like. I have to have my own hotel room and I still lock the bathroom door in my apartment. But those are small matters, quirks that will slough off eventually.
But I have to ask—what about the Afghanistan you live in?
Afghanistan will always be this place of fear. Fear of culture and war. Fear of harm and distance. Fear of coming home and lack of connection. It’s this pervasive and thick fear that pushes us all away from each other.
People ask me all the time, “What was Afghanistan like?” And I grasp for them to understand or see a glimmer of what I experienced. It’s like living in an ashtray or an airport. It’s a big pool of desolation. It’s living in a broken down amusement park where you can’t leave.
And some of us have portions of our lives that are just like that: broken, scary, warlike, and fearful. Most of them of our construction. We are afraid to try this or go there. We are afraid to take that risk because we afraid that failure is the same as a rocket attack. So we stay in our bunker, our cement, cold fortress and there we stay and there we live.
Every year on this day, April 17th, I’ll reflect on what I’m afraid of and how I’ll live my life with my hands up, screaming down the roller coaster.
I invite you to do the same. Because while you stay in your own private Afghanistan, we miss you and we want you home.