I was slow washing dishes last night. My mind was in a book I had just finished called The English Patient, my heart tearing through the raw emotion it evoked in me. Concepts of love and war and the complexity of life that we all choose to ignore now and again had been haunting me throughout the last months of extensive travel and alone time. They pushed over the edge of some cornice in my brain that caused the thoughts, formally without conclusion, to form into words and opinions that I don’t even fully understand.
I was slow washing dishes last night. I thought of the candle on my desk. A red one, because of the season, it sits in a white candle holder with the cut out words “Life is Beautiful” so the candle light flickers through. I like that phrase. I toast here to “La Vita Bella”. I enjoy the deep residing belief that there is beauty to be seen in all aspects of life and in the world and have been blessed enough to see much of it. A sweet, optimistic reminder is what I thought this candle would be for me and it is for that reason that I bought it.
As I watched it burn night after night, I realized that this candle did not serve as an optimistic reminder at all. In fact, the last few weeks, I have found myself glaring at it, letting it torture me as I learned of the attacks in Paris, letting it wreck me as I read through the aftermath on social media. The death so close, the reminder of the horrific war that’s growing, and the tone of absolute hate and fear screaming at me from my laptop. Perhaps life isn’t so beautiful.
Fear of strangers is normal. It’s evident on my oftentimes hateful Facebook feed and I was reminded of it while reading The English Patient which is set in Northern Africa and Italy during World War II. The premise of the book revolves around four very different individuals from different religions, races, and sides of the war finding themselves all left in a villa near Florence as the war ends. There is a fear in them, a wariness that only war can bring. Yet, despite this, there is a beauty in this novel even though it is laced with tragedy. The origin of the beauty is found in the acceptance of other stories… the acceptance of strangers.
Traveling abroad, I spend more time with strangers now than ever before, and I, too, have perhaps the beauty of life in many of these encounters. It is not a beauty easily found however. You have to pay. You must give over your fear to experience this beauty found in being a world citizen… a friend to strangers…
A few weeks ago, I found myself on a night train to Austria to meet my mom and grandma, eating breakfast with five men with sunrise revealing the gorgeous Austrian countryside to us through the tall window. Four of the men were dorky, loud, Korean youths that spoke about five words in English each (so cumulatively about 25 words if you’re incapable of mental math) and I placed the fifth man, a Nigerian-Italian, in his low-thirties. He spoke competent English, but was fluent in Italian.
We ate silently at first. As a young, very white American girl sitting here with these men, fear told me not to talk. Just to eat quietly and mind my own business until I could get off. The door was open and people were mulling around the train- there was absolutely no rational reason to be afraid in anyway, but I knew, if I were in contact with people from home, people from my own culture, they would tell me that the situation was “sketchy” and I shouldn’t get involved further (I know this because that’s what I was told later).
But, I found in that moment that I wasn’t afraid of these strangers and I turned to the Nigerian-Italian next to me and attempted to start conversation in my very rudimentary Italian. He was on his way to Vienna for a engineering job interview. We switched the conversation to English because my Italian wasn’t keeping pace and the man next to me began to talk to our Korean companions. With some help from my good friend Google Translate on one of their phones (my phone doesn’t have data here) we ended up having one of the most fascinating conversations I have ever been apart of about Jesus, Buddhism, travel, Obama, gay marriage, and Maroon 5 (the Koreans collectively could use 25 words in English conversation but all knew the lyrics to “Sugar”). Before I got off the train, one of the younger Koreans handed me his phone with Google Translate still pulled up. The English half read, “It is not by chance that we have all come together today. But fate.” We stepped off the train. They went right. I went left. And I am forever changed. Life is beautiful.
I was slow washing dishes last night. All of these things flashing through my head. Each playing their own part, becoming their own piece in the thoughts that have been tormenting me the weeks since the Paris attacks. There are so many variables, so many political aspects to consider. I am not ignorant of that. But, I do know that the spirit of God is not a spirit of fear but a spirit of love and sound mind. I refuse to let fear take away my love for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the hurting people of this world. I will not let my fear lead to hate.
I long to live my life in the day to day realization of hardship and horror but end it with the recognition of beauty and experience and friendship such as in The English Patient. I want to be a citizen of the world, placing the value on every life, every soul. Life is beautiful, and it is the most beautiful in the unexpected bravery, compassion, and love we exert. If my travels have taught me anything, it is that I am willing to lay down fear to experience such beauty. If this book has taught me anything, it is that that beauty will only wait for me at the end of each tragedy, each hardship, if I’m able to continue to live with love, with compassion. It’s an easy choice to make: to befriend my Muslim neighbors, to laugh with some silly South Koreans on a train, to wash dishes with my crazy friend from Oklahoma who was a stranger not so long ago.
“Why do I keep that candle burning?” I ask myself as I finally finish, clean out the sink and rip off my plastic apron. Perhaps, because I found an answer to all my raging questions the candle and The English Patient had evoked.
Life is beautiful to me when we decide to love strangers.