Morhaf Al Achkar’s memoir, Being Authentic, is both salient and poignant.
During this time of the global pandemic, thoughts of mortality are on everyone’s mind – but much moreso on the mind of Dr. Al Achkar, who learned, in the calm before the storm that Covid-19 would become, that he had stage 4 terminal lung cancer.
This would be devastating news to anyone. However, Dr. Al Achkar has viewed it additionally as an opportunity, to encourage others to tell their stories of their own lives by telling his own. During the pandemic, he has seized the same moments of calm that we all suddenly are faced with as our nations impose social distancing, isolation, and in the best cases, introspection. While his life is undoubtedly unique, Morhaf encourages us to acknowledge that all of us are, and remains humble throughout his narrative. It appears that he truly believes that the story of humankind is written by all of us, and he is enthusiastic and honest as he tells us his piece.
Although highly individual on the whole, there are aspects of Al Achkar’s experience that resonate with all of us. Facing down one’s own death is of course frightening, and Morhaf gives depth and description to that fear. Past the fear of death, there is the fear of being forgotten. However, he goes further than even that to ask – exactly what do we fear would be forgotten? What is the core self, the one that we would like to have remembered?
Dr. Al Achkar allows us to read along as his audience as he answers these questions for himself, and provides a framework for which we might in turn answer them for ourselves. As we all do, he begins at the beginning, and tells of us about his early childhood in Syria. His humility shines through sharply as he lovingly describes his family, and refuses to accept credit for his subsequent achievements without immediately attributing all of it to them. He does this in a much more sincere fashion than many would think to, and we can clearly see the principles of each of his parents combine in his life up to this point, and manifest in the motivations that drive the creation of this current work. Even though he acknowledges that he was raised in a country that would sound foreign in contrast to his current home in Seattle, from his description it sounds so familiar – a small town, trouble fitting in with school, friends, and neighbors. It’s a natural reminder to all of us that in essence, we are not so different, and not alone. The foundation of family is clear and on top of all life lessons he learned about the transience of life when his parents died tragically while he was in university.
Reflecting on that episode explains quite a bit of the bravery that we see in Dr. Al Achkar as he speaks candidly about his own expected medical outcome. Life is of course sacred, but it is also inescapably finite. Rather than wrestle with life and death as the head and tail of one timeline, as DesCartes duality would have us do, Morhaf handles the matter more along the lines of Hegel, his favorite philosopher. Life is beautiful in it’s essence – beginning, end and any point in between. If a man is ever good, then before that he was becoming good, and after that the good remains.
Morhaf openly acknowledges that he is writing for himself, just as much as anyone else, and this knowledge adds an extra nuance to his story as he thoroughly examines the elements of his own narrative to find his central voice. The title of this piece fits perfectly, as one must first truly know who they are, in order to actually be authentic.
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