To be fully alive is to risk an open heart

Almost two years ago, when I returned from Tanzania, where I’d spent a month as an orphanage volunteer, a dear friend marveled at my ability to walk so openly into an experience that would no doubt bruise, if not break, my heart. To thrust myself into a space where I would encounter staggering deprivation, move daily among a fleet of stark and haunting sorrows was to live from too raw a vulnerability. She couldn’t imagine the heart holding such an ache or how the body learned to carry it, to swim with such an unpredictable current of awakening.

But I didn’t think about the ways in which my time in Arusha would devastate me, the sea of tears that would surprise me in the late-night quiet of our volunteer house, the sense of futility that would follow me home to the states, where I longed only to pour myself into a salve for all that was stripped from those bright and hopeful souls.

I knew only that the journey would change me, imagined there would be hard days and even harder circumstances to confront.

The grief that filled me for months after my return was not something I’d anticipated. But I was willing to give that fragility space, to keep the moments of solitude it seemed to insist I needed. Tanzania was always about more than a one-time experience for me, a checked-off adventure or feel-good endeavor I could pack away with the other accomplishments of my life.

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With (from left) Annie, Teresia and Beatrice.

Yet the truth is I am still unraveling its meaning. I cannot explain the calling that sent me across the world to a Swahili-speaking country with love as my only language, do not know why I can still feel baby Claira’s hand clutching my sleeve or the warmth of a sleepy Happygod nestled against me. I have no great clarity into why the soft murmur of Beatrice’s voice as she brushes my hair from my forehead is a song I replay or why the shy clasp of Teresia’s arms around my waist is a memory that falls like a slip of sun against my skin.

But I trust in the unfolding and revelation. And I believe in risking the heart.

I know walking that edge isn’t for everyone. That safety is a comfortable retreat or boundary not to be crossed. If we’ve suffered the contraction of loss, laying ourselves bare to the exquisite fullness of anything that carries even a whiff of sorrow can feel terrifying. We open up in inches and hasten backward when discomfort tolls. We flirt with a vague beckoning only to let the unknown root us where we are.

Or maybe we fall, let go and let in, we cross the unalterable line. Because we want to live, to feel that bigness. We take the hands of joy and pain and swing out wide. We grow our hearts brave as we fly.


8 thoughts on “To be fully alive is to risk an open heart

  1. I am still in awe that you chose what you knew would bring a mix of joy and grief that nobody can possibly comprehend. Honestly, Naila, it’s more courage than I could imagine in myself. Thank you for doing this and for carrying it forward. And yes, it is still unfolding in your heart and in your life.


    • Beautiful, fierce, beloved Grief Warrior, the courage of your own heart ceaselessly astounds me. We each come to know the bravery we’re capable of in our own ways, more often not by choice. And I thank you for honoring that part of me. I do know not that I ever considered any of it being courageous until I returned and was able to sit with the experience. It still remains, all of it, one of my life’s greatest gifts.


    • Ah, dear friend, it is what you have done too. What you do. The love you give, the joys you savor — they are all enriched by that well of fathomless sorrows. So honored to be walking this journey alongside you, so grateful we can support and celebrate each other in swinging out wide.


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