Thursday, January 20, 2011

The distant war

A young man who's a regular customer at our Starbucks recently accepted a job opportunity in Afghanistan. He was working construction at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation site across the street from us one day, and then came in to tell us goodbye, that he would be shipping off the next day for Afghanistan. The opportunity of a lifetime. I didn't envy his destination, but I agreed that it could be an incredibly eye-opening experience. We said goodbye and he said he'd be back in a few months.

He walked into Starbucks yesterday morning, and I did a double-take. "Back so soon?"

He explained that he was kicked out of the compound where he was stationed because he lost his security badge. It would have cost the company more money to provide him escorts for several days while they issued a replacement than it would cost for them to ship him home. So here he was, back to life as usual.

"It was so crazy over there," he said, "Unreal."

I think he was there for maybe two weeks. He said he couldn't sleep. He wore earplugs, but they couldn't block out the sound of fighter jets flying overhead, or the missiles, or the explosions in the distance.

"It's real over there, the war...." His eyes got big as he spoke. "I wasn't too disappointed to come home."

I shook my head. "I can only imagine."

But really, I can't imagine. What it's like to sleep like that every night, except not in a secured compound. In a village or a city or a town, under fire continually - as in, the war never ceases.

People don't take a day off from war. They don't go on a vacation. It's just their lives. War covers everything, like a cancer spreading from cell to cell in the body. I guess it can be "treated," but at a high, high price - probably the highest price - with lives and futures, the loss of physical and/or mental health, loss of safety, a decimated country, a gasping economy, a bleeding government, and even something as basic as loss of sleep. But I don't know this from experience. I don't know what it's like to live in this reality, to never know when or if it will end in my lifetime, or if my lifetime will end first. Will my loved ones come home that day? Will the war invade my town, my neighborhood, my home? People in the midst of war zones seem to not even have the luxury of deciding whether or not they will live in the moment; it just is.

Standing behind the counter of Starbucks in the coffee Mecca of North America, inside a spacious and abundant grocery store, I felt even more removed from the war. From the Afghani people, whom I admit, I think of very rarely. And I thought, that could be me. Except, right now it's not me. It's a struggle not to feel completely guilty about that, so spoiled and privileged, but that wouldn't really honor the people whose lives are caught in the prison of war. Instead of giving into the guilt, perhaps I can remember the Afghani people and honor them with how I invest what I have been given today.

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