During my senior year of college, I worked at the Service-Learning Center in the Commons Annex. My coworkers were good people, good friends, with a marvelous sense of humor and a lot of grace for me on bad days. A few days before my twenty-second birthday, a week before graduation, we had a send-off for the seniors. There were only four of us, so we got a little extra love. And my boss, Jeff, spoke to each of us in turn about how we’d contributed to the team, and what we were up to next. He told me that choosing to go to Egypt took courage. It was brave. That was three months before I left.
Now, almost nine months later, in an overpriced coffee place on Hegaz Street in Heliopolis, I have different reflections on courage. I remember being flattered and surprised when the word was used—I didn’t feel brave. My guts were a numb knot of fear; l felt desperate and foolish and scared. But Jeff was right about courage—not that I have it or don’t; that’s not the point—but that courage, like love, is a choice, and not a feeling.
I live in Egypt, at least for the time being, and I hear about bombs in the airport and I drive by tanks in Tahrir Square. I know that whenever Egypt makes headlines, people at home will think of me and worry. I know from personal experience that Cairo is not a city that promotes life, in most senses—it is polluted and dirty and crowded; there are no discernible road rules or pedestrian crossings; I am probably more likely to get killed in a traffic accident or contract amoebic dysentery here than in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But when people ask me why I chose to come to Egypt, one explanation gains potency with each repetition: Americans, my family and friends and acquaintances—we have a lot of misunderstandings and fear about the Middle East. I wanted to know the truth.
I don’t know the truth about the Middle East. I do know it’s a lot more complicated than we’re willing to admit, and a lot more about fear than anyone will say aloud. But I’ve met a lot of brave people here. People who get up every day and try again to be faithful to God, their church, their families, their principles. People who call to mind again and again Marilynne Robinson’s words from Gilead: “nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.” The truth of God can only be spoken with courage, a courage that acknowledges fear and moves forward, courage that rises above threats to one’s position, that seeks more to pursue righteousness than to denounce opponents.
Two lines from Griffin Jackson’s piece “Slowly” have stuck with me: “some days the fear absolutely runs you.” And the bolder resolution: “you will risk something today.” Which seems true, everywhere, whether in my parents’ suburban neighborhood or downtown Cairo, Egypt. He also said that the risk will make you better. It turns out that the risks of living in Cairo are the risks of living: you risk offering friendship to someone who might reject it. You risk crossing a busy street. You risk asking questions. You risk getting to know people who might change your mind. You risk being wrong, and hurting people you love, and you risk being right, and doing the same thing.
I was at a conference this past week with a lot of people who work in politically volatile countries. The speaker, a tall Arab pastor in his mid-forties, I think, focused on Acts, and talked about Paul, about believers who asked for boldness. Not safety, or protection, but boldness. Which is, of course, not religious license to be stupid. But Marilynne Robinson also writes in Lila that “there is no safety,” there are no guarantees. Which is easy, of course, for me to say. I have faced very little real danger in my life, and I face very little real danger in Cairo. But I might as well start now to choose courage. I’d like that to be a habit of mine.
So I’m scared shitless, most days, and getting out of bed is difficult and frightening, and I know that every day I will risk something and will be unable to control the outcome of my gambles. Perhaps I’m simply more aware of the fragility of my life in a context where my lack of understanding exacerbates my lack of control. But inasmuch as prayer and discipline and will spur me on, I’ll outrun the fear. I’ll make courage a habit, if I can. I’d like to live up to, live out, live the hopes my friends have for me. And if courage is getting up every morning knowing that I’ll risk something, if it means drinking my coffee and taking the stairs down to Michel Lutfallah and walking across it, if courage is acknowledging the fear, and letting God be bigger than my desperation, if courage is focusing more on my faithfulness than my fear—well, I’ll be brave.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.