Chatper 53: Have you lived?

Have you lived? Bravely Dared to be
a you that is authentic, free

Have you listened? Could hear your heart
smile and cry; dance, deny, and dart

Have you woven? Meaningful ties
between world, yourself, loyal allies?

Have you learnt? Great lessons many
from pasts, presents, people – any

Have you tasted? Oh, thirstily
sweet adventure, diversity

Have you warmed yourself? Homely fire
Of passion, love, hopeful desire

Have you rested? while walked to live;
breathed in beauty life has to give.

Chapter 52: How to get lucky

Good luck is probably written as often on birthday cards as it is verbally expressed to a person we genuinely, or sarcastically, wish well in their endeavours. I mean who wouldn’t want to get lucky in life? According to superstitious lore, children born on a Sunday absorb more luck in life than others. While I am not sure why luck would fancy one particular weekday over the others, it can certainly sometimes seem as if a selected group of people get luckier in life than the common rest. I always thought my sister had the Midas touch while I had to comb off losing streaks, especially when it came to winning prize draws. I envied my sister for her luck, and mostly for the trendy plum-coloured satchel she won in one prize draw, not least because it rubbed the ugliness of my own school backpack into my face.

At some point in my life I noticed how several people would call me lucky.

“You really managed to get that job? Wow, that’s so lucky!”

“You bought this cashmere sweater for 6 Pounds? Lucky bargain!”

“Your dissertation might get published? How lucky!”

It reached a state where such comments started to sit unwell with my ego. I perceived how something inside me developed an allergic reaction to the phrase You are lucky.

This observation led to an introspective expedition to dig up the root of my problem with it. While weeding the reasons why being lucky swam on my mind as such a problematic phrase, I decided to shell my association with the concept luck.

To me, being lucky refers to the attainment of a desired outcome. More importantly however, it implies an absence of personal contribution as if the outcome was solely obtained due to external factors, namely the right time and the right place. A lucky person is somebody who happens to be at the right place in the right time.

But in the instance of the job I secured, I wasn’t just at the right time at the right place. I invested many hours every day into emailing my application to various employers. Among the many rejections, I only landed an interview with a small proportion, and it required skill rather than luck to pass the interview. It’s a similar story with the cashmere sweater I bought. I sieved online catalogues, negotiated with sellers, and after a dozen sellers had already declined my offer I finally found one who was willing to accept it. I would call this chance rather than luck.

How does chance differ from luck? In theory, they both encapsulate the very same objective subject: landing one successful hit in an uncertain future. Yet, luck and chance evoke slightly different ideas in practise since they aren’t necessarily treated as synonyms in everyday speech. Chance emphasises the process behind success: a series of trials including failures alongside successes. Luck on the other hand cuts this process out of the picture, showcasing one successful hit alone in a polished frame. Describing somebody as lucky conveys the impression that they scored a full house on their very first trial of the game – a scenario which isn’t impossible granted the necessary skill and a coincidentally promising deck of cards. However, such a scenario is as unlikely as winning the lottery’s jackpot. Although outliers may exist, the average player doesn’t shoot their first ball into the net.

What is the final finding from my expedition around the idea of being or getting lucky? If luck is equivalent to chance, should we from now on write I wish you good chance on birthday cards? Alternatively, we could start writing may the chances be with you, how does that sound? Whereas the first option tortures language too hard, the second one may be not a total linguistic abomination. The second suggestion may just remind of Star Wars too strongly.

Jokes aside, the real take-home message is about what one can actively do to seal their luck. Instead of hoping to be the outlier who scores at first trial, play the game; keep trying to hit your goal because the more often you try, the higher the chances for a success – it’s a simple equation and it applies to every aspect in life.

Chapter 51: A confession of love

Magic. It’s when a man with a black silk hat presents the same plain hat to the audience and lets a bunny jump out of it seconds later. He’s a man who convinces you that everything you deemed impossible can become reality. The truth is that he doesn’t actually outsmart the laws of nature. He simply creates reality quicker than your mind can fathom. Magic doesn’t encompass the unreal but rather all that our mind can’t comprehend with its compressed logic.

You are magic in my life. When I’m with you my emotions steer me quicker than my brain can shift gears. I race with you through a summer worth of feelings, visions, and memories – only that it all happens in a fraction of a day. This is exactly why I can hardly catch up with processing all the seemingly endless, colourful ties you pull out from your sleeve. You’re full of surprises, and I relish each and every one of them with a child’s excited curiosity.

Like a magician you mesmerise me with your act, your words, your ability. You leave me speechless and impressed, yearning to see more. It isn’t unlikely that I may be your biggest fan who’s willing to follow you to any stage, who’d cheer you on behind any curtain, and who’s looking forward to being mesmerised again and again by you. You may not know it but I dream of being the woman who performs beside you, wears your silk hat when you hand it to me, encourages you to make the bunny a tiger, and creates all sorts of magical realities together with you.

Chapter 50: A tale of original copies and copied originals

“Zynoeia – a fantasy kingdom of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. It’s a land where gem stones rain from the sky, evaporating as soon as they land on solids, and where all sorts of bizarre creatures roam. There are gigantic Venus flytraps exhaling neon-coloured gases, scarabaei that can clasp your vocal cord to rob you of your voice, bears born with the armour of terracotta soldiers strapped onto their black fur, submarine fish that —”

“Who’s the main character of your story though?”, interrupts my sister impatiently. 

“I was going to get to that part,” I grunt. “The main character, Lynn, gets teleported from the human world into Zynoeai due to extraordinary tensions between the universes and the forces of destiny. She lands in the middle of a gory ambush executed by the ice army on a settlement in the earth kingdom. The ice army represents a mutation of the water tribe which seeks to dominate the whole Zynoeian continent. Before Lynn’s arrival, they already sieged the fire realm, banishing the entire fire nation. Therefore, the earth, air, and water nation must unite to defend themselves, or otherwise they will be annihilated too. My story follows the journey of Lynn as she prepares alongside the good element people to stop the evil ice army. Eventually, she plays a strategic centre piece for restoring the peaceful balance in Zynoeia since she is the only one capable of wielding the powers of all four elements. Whereas every Zynoeian’s fighting abilities are limited to the craft of their own element, Lynn isn’t bound to one element by birth — ” 

“Right, so your story basically copies the Avatar,” interrupts my sister again.

The Avatar?”, I ask with a smack of suspicion swinging in my tone. 

“Yeah, the fantasy story about Aang, the avatar, who is the only one capable of controlling the powers of all four elements. He’s also the main figure in fighting the antagonistic fire nation which has already eradicated the air folk and seeks to diminish the other element nations too. Come on, you must’ve heard of it?”

My cluelessness gapes at my sister as deeply as my jar drops after learning about the existence of this Avatar story.  “I swear I’ve never heard of this Avatar thing!”, I say, attempting to defend myself and my precious novel. I’m shocked to hear that there’s apparently another fantasy story almost exactly mirroring my very own one.   

This conversation happened when I was twelve years old. Now, more than twelve years later, I’m still struggling to accept that somebody else concocted a fantasy novel suspiciously similar to my own manuscript. It bugs me. I could never publish Zynoeia without having to ward off plagiarism claims, despite the fact that my fiction exclusively originated from my own creativity. At the same time, I’m amazed by the absurd congruence between my manuscript and the Avatar saga. I mean, what are the odds of two people conceiving the same, complex idea independently of each other?

However, as it turns out, my case of seeming unoriginality isn’t a rarity. The music giants Led Zeppelin, for example, were accused of having stolen chords from the song Taurus by Spirit for their famous Stairway to Heaven. They even had to fend off these accusations in court. Lana Del Rey also faced malevolent head wind from plagiarism claims in regard to her title Get Free and its resemblance to a composition by Radiohead. The band Coldplay had it even worse: they were hit by not just one, but by two legally-enforced doubts about the originality of their hit Viva La Vida. Ultimately, Coldplay won their disputes in court, as did Del Rey and Led Zeppelin.

You could scroll much longer through the list of allegations questioning the originality of popular pieces. In fact, the exhaustive list of examples continues beyond the music domain to include works from many other backgrounds, such as literature, art, inventions, science, technology, etc. Considering the many coincidental analogies throughout history, one question pierces through my mind: does the concept of originality truly exist, or is originality a mere phantom of our vanity? 

It could be argued for the latter. If originality meant the creation of novel work from first-hand insight, then true originals would be impossible to deliver. Nobody is immune to the influences of our surroundings: any thought shooting through our head or any idea surfacing from our inner depths is inevitably inspired by what we surround ourselves with. Any expression from our internal stands in constant, conscious as well as unconscious correspondence with our impressions from the external. This is what scientific evidence argues. It is thus inherently impossible to pluck strictly first-hand originated ideas from our mind because anything we conceive naturally embeds some recycled form of the information we sifted from our environment. 

On the other hand, however, you could reason that originality is present when we prepare this information that we distilled from our environment according to our very own recipe. By adding your own spice to existing ingredients you assemble information in a novel mix that could indeed be labelled as an original piece. Yes, your creation may possess a similar taste to somebody else’s blend, but the addition of your own flavours – your distinct character and expertise – will result in an original dish. 

In conclusion, the question of true originality ends in a stalemate. Depending on the definition of originality itself, there’s spacious ground to plant scepticism about the originality of somebody’s ideas. Simultaneously, there’s ample room to prune such claims – unless somebody copied with unambiguous, millimetre-fine precision. Distinguishing an original from a copy is tricky, in part even for the originator themselves because unconscious influences of our ideas cannot be tracked. So, the quarrel over true originality involves too much subjectivity to allow for an objective verdict. The way forward may be to foster a work ethics according to which creators must respect the work of others. That includes the honest acknowledgement of inspirational sources as well as the acceptance that no original will be free of accidental copying.  

Chapter 49: Snippets from self-development

Tacky green glasses roost on her head like a giant grasshopper. She flirts awkwardly with the camera from an angle that is intentionally hiding her red spots. Since she wants to look pretty with a hint of cool, she is half smiling, half duck-facing. Of course, she could never compete with the most popular girl in her class whose flawless, dollish face is crowned by silver-blonde hair. But that doesn’t stop her from dreaming of being the most beautiful girl. In her dreams she stuns the world with dazzling beauty which lets her escape from the ugly reality where her appearance seems to be more repulsive than appealing, particularly to boys .

Two wimpy, thin lines sit over her eyes where thick, bushy eyebrows used to be. She has been self-conscious about them ever since teenagehood had started feeding her body dissatisfaction. You could tell from the photo that she also tampered with make-up although she had no idea how to actually flatter herself with the brown mousse. Her mum never wore make-up and didn’t support the beauty industry to begin with, so who should have taught her?

Her look is terribly rounded off by an orange T-shirt which is pressed onto her body so bright it hurts the eyes. She possesses little sense of what suits her well, about as much as a fish’s idea of a giraffe’s colour. She has little sense of herself in general, but this is simply the natural consequence from a lacking understanding for the person who truly lives inside her heart. It doesn’t help that her consuming efforts to be “normal” divert her attention further away from the path of discovering her true self. Who could blame her though, for all she longs for is to belong and to be liked in the face of harsh puberty.

Fast forward to another picture taken a couple of years later. In this shot she stages at an idyllic beach of Auckland’s urban shore. She has ditched the orange T-shirt for a white jumpsuit that blazons her athletic, slim figure with a breeze of summer. She has finally broken off with the shy shadow of herself that dominated high-school time. Moving out from home into a new, faraway environment has clearly spurred an unprecedented experimentalism and confidence, allowing her to flay the old skin of self-doubt and insecurity.

Compared to before, she is finally a person – no, a woman – noticed by the world around her. She is desired by many, and the awareness thereof bestows her with a whole new body image. She feels ready to conquer the world as if she embodied Aphrodite herself. Was it okay that she compensated for her former invisibility by actively playing her newly-found sense of appeal? One may say she overcompensated for the exclusion and subliminal bully that eroded her during high school.

She savoured life in stereo and louder than ever before. After this quick beach shoot she would head off to a house party following the invitation of some guys she befriended a week ago at another flat party hosted by this dude who she matched on a dating app. Every week promised fun and every weekend a party where she would dance her soul out of her lungs. Life was young and rolling out adventures on repeat: dating, sun-bathing, dating, shopping, travelling, clubbing, dating, promenading, partying; all merely interrupted by the occasional work shift. However, was she really living a life that filled her with genuine content? A couple of months later she would be so bored of it all, craving more meaningful accomplishments.

Snap! There is a third shot of her, again at the beach but this time on Scottish shores. In this photo she grins into the camera wearing her prettiest, most beautiful asset – her authenticity. Opposed to the staged portrays from before, this one presents a real shot of the moment capturing the memories of a spontaneous day with her friend at the beach, obligatory sunburn included. Her curls are styled by the salt of the sea, her face is contoured by a sandy tan, and her lips are glossed with strawberries and melon that sweetened the intimate conversation she shared with her friend throughout the whole afternoon. She brims with a healthy and firm sense of self. Happiness is written all over her.

You can tell that she finally convened with her true self – an ambitious, positive, and creative woman who is no longer just concerned with herself but has adopted an increased holistic perspective. She may not be perfect in the picture – for example her teeth could be whiter and more symmetric – however, such flaws in her appearance do no longer reign over her relationship with herself. Her self-definition has shifted its emphasis from outer aesthetics to inner strengths.

Note that she is also not smiling alone in the picture as her friend smirks sassily on the right. This is a notable detail because it nicely symbolises her transition from former self-centredness to a deep care for the people in her life. Donating time for her social connections has risen to her top priorities whereas the investment into an all-time favourable portrayal of herself has dropped to sparse attention. If you look very closely into her eyes you can even spot another detail: the reflection of a formidable, frisky wave she is riding in the waters of life. It surely has taken her some time to find her stance and balance, yet she becomes a little better at surfing on top of this wave every day.

Life stages many different shots of us. We may grapple with recognising ourselves on some of them, on others we may identify with the person in the picture very strongly. We like some of these shots more than others; we feel proud about them or embarrassed. Perhaps we would like to re-take a few selected snippets, even if for different reasons. The good thing is that we can take new shots at any time, and developing the shots of tomorrow is in fact what we can look forward to the most.

Guest blog: Vaccines – to jab or not to jab

Author: Magdalena Qenani

Edit: rikkisday

“I hear Bill Gates is trying to change our DNA with these new vaccines.” 

“The Vaccine is a biological weapon designed to kill the Roma community in southern Greece.”

“Vaccination is a method of systematic control, wait for the revolution!”

 “How do you even know Corona is real?”

These are examples of some statements I have personally encountered by strangers and the people around me throughout this COVID-19 pandemic. If you know me, you know I practically and embarrassingly honour vaccines at this point. So, hearing this left me pretty frustrated and disappointed for much of 2020, to say the least. I couldn’t exactly fathom how people could fall for anti-vaccine propaganda. Particularly, people who are privileged like me and have access to seeking their resources to make informed choices. Why would they deny empirical evidence given by credible scientists who have sacrificed many years of their life towards this research? 

A rather recent experience, which fearfully sent a trickle of doubt to me about my own stern, pro-vaccine beliefs, came from a colleague at work who forwarded a video via Facebook which showed  “medical professionals” worldwide giving a list of reasons to why they will not be taking the new COVID-19 vaccine. The entire time I was watching it, I was entranced by the rhetoric message which was (unfortunately) aided by the eerie music playing softly in the background. The overall tone programmed throughout the video was professional and trustworthy. However, I couldn’t make it to the end, because I cringed when my head started slowly streaming with questions I knew would not hold many sensible answers to.

I shared this video with a few friends to see how they felt about it. One friend mentioned they knew they were being exposed to propaganda, the moment they noticed the video cast a doubt to their knowledge. Anti-vaxxers may argue, this doubt we were experiencing may have simply been an epiphany for us which challenged our core beliefs about the efficacy of vaccines. But what if it wasn’t an epiphany? What if it was just our brains getting tricked?

An explanation to why we can be deceived sometimes, may lie in our deep-rooted and evolved cognitive biases. There is scientific research suggesting that some anti-vaccination beliefs may spread quicker as they are more in line with our intuition (Salali and Uysal, 2020). Given this intuitive bias, the information presented to us, affects the way we understand and remember information – in other words, our intuitive bias makes it damn easy to retain information. That’s not necessarily a convenient thing, considering we live in a digital age where misinformation can spread just as fast as the virus itself.  

This widespread misinformation is facilitating another terrific thing we humans are great at creating — an us-versus-them scenario. In order for this vaccination to be effective, we know it relies on a large group of the population to be inoculated. You could say it’s almost like a silent social contract. According to one study by Korn et al. (2020), individuals who were pro-vaccinators (the in-group) did not exhibit generous behaviour towards people who were not vaccinated (the out-group). In order to be accepted by the in-group, the researchers found it would be beneficial for members of the out-group to adhere to this social contract. However, there is one problem with this. These social contracts may be considered to be part of a bureaucracy, something research has shown people increasingly show mistrust for (Lee and Van Ryzin, 2018).  Furthermore, it probably doesn’t help that we as a society, myself included, throw labels like “anti-vaxxers” as this can further isolate an out-group’s position in society and can consequently emphasise their vaccine-hesitant beliefs. 

So, what can we, who believe in the efficacy of vaccines, do to help end this pandemic and prevent any further future biological disasters? One obvious answer is to actively prevent misinformation from spreading. But not all of us are tech giants or academics with good credentials, if any. However, there is one step-forward solution that might lie in our vaccine-science-communication which can be practiced by you – empathy. Empathy is not simply feeling sorry for someone — it is the ability to deeply understand them. For example, empathy can be sharing and understanding the concerns people may have about the side-effects of vaccines. Whether it’s a vaccine-gone-wrong story which hits close to home, or systematic mistrust, or even a conspiracy theory which has ingrained widespread fear, people’s reasons for vaccine hesitancy are valid. Research has suggested, practising empathy may increase vaccine adherence (Maurici et al., 2019). In particular, one study found exhibiting affective empathy (the ability to understand the emotions of one’s experience) encouraged people to partake in physical distancing and mask wearing in the current COVID-19 pandemic (Pfattheicher et al., 2020). 

A step to practising empathy would be to listen to people without judgement, and acknowledging their fears despite how irrational they may seem to us. This in turn, may open avenues where we can encourage individuals to challenge their vaccine-hesitant beliefs and current knowledge.

Yet, what if your empathy doesn’t reach the person? You can’t exactly force someone to change their beliefs — they have to be open and content for a healthy discussion in the first place. Nonetheless, it could be possible your approach will still have somewhat an effect. In the words of Joseph Joubert “the aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.”  With your empathy, you’ll have done just that hopefully, progress. 

Korn, L., Böhm, R., Meier, N., & Betsch, C. (2020). Vaccination as a social contract. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences117(26), 14890-14899.

Lee, D., & Van Ryzin, G. (2018). Bureaucratic reputation in the eyes of citizens: an analysis of US federal agencies. International Review Of Administrative Sciences86(1), 183-200.

Maurici, M., Arigliani, M., Dugo, V., Leo, C., Pettinicchio, V., Arigliani, R., & Franco, E. (2018). Empathy in vaccination counselling: a survey on the impact of a three-day residential course. Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics15(3), 631-636.

Pfattheicher, S., Nockur, L., Böhm, R., Sassenrath, C., & Petersen, M. (2020). The Emotional Path to Action: Empathy Promotes Physical Distancing and Wearing of Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Psychological Science31(11), 1363-1373.

Salali, G., & Uysal, M. (2020). COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is associated with beliefs on the origin of the novel coronavirus in the UK and Turkey. Psychological Medicine, 1-3.

Chapter 48: Generation Covid

My sister never liked bananas. They still disgust her; their mushy consistency make her gag. When we were younger, my mum would often tell us the dramatic story about how she bought bananas for my sister back in the days when concrete-grey Plattenbau were still as subsidised as Marxist ideologies. It was the time my sister came into the world and the iron curtain still divided my home country into East and West Germany. Since I am a 90’s kid, I never saw what it was like to live in East Germany under Soviet leadership; neither did my sister because the Berlin Wall came down before her memory became reliable. But our parents grew up being conditioned to a communist system during their entire youth until the fall of the Berlin wall teared down Eastern-bloc bricks two months prior to my mum’s 26th birthday. Thus, my parents had a cassette’s tape of stories about former Soviet oddities and commodities to share.

The banana story is one of my mum’s classics. On a spring day, warm enough to bask in an allotment garden, work colleagues passed my mum inside information about the exclusive whereabouts of bananas at their local cooperative shop. You must know that bananas were traded as rare goods in East Germany and people seized them at the shop as if they were D-marks or a Westpaket*. Like Westpakets, bananas shipped in from the West, the enemy’s territory. The fruits therefore rivalled the scarcity of public criticism directed at the communist system – though opposed to bananas, the latter was officially censored and shut down by the state.  

Because bananas were mongered as gold nuggets amidst the fruit isle, people obsessed about them, so much that they would sacrifice hours of their day to queue for the edible luxury. On said spring day, my mum was one of these people who joined the long queue for some brown-freckled starch, hoping to scoop a yellow-peel bargain. The odds stood in my mum’s favour. For one, she had the advantage of working half-day shifts which allowed her to freely go the shop at the middle of the day, as opposed to her colleagues who were still under the surveillance of their clock cards. Soviet Germany did not have many trumps to play against its Western twin but the state’s benevolent childcare entitlements were certainly stitched on its strong suit. For another, my mum was fortunate in securing a few precious bananas from the store.

*a care package sent from family in West Germany containing sought-after products that were unobtainable for East Germans in the GDR.

My mum carried the bananas home as if they were a prize she won. She immediately prepared them as a special treat for her beloved baby girl. But her efforts and patience at the store were returned by ungrateful, puked banana mash a moment later. Watching her baby, my sister, disgorge the expensive rarity exiled her into a shocked outrage over this disaster. How could her baby despise bananas?

I could never fully sympathise with my mum’s fuzz about the banana incident. It was an entertaining story to me nonetheless, and I loved listening to it even for the hundredths time. Though, for my mum it seemed to be more than a mirthful anecdote. The experience was apparently so minting that it stuck with her for years. My mum remembered all the details as if it had only happened yesterday. The German division and the conditions under a Soviet government notably affected the everyday life for my mum as well as many others of her generation. It is thus not surprising to see traces of former communist Germany wired into her personality, even decades after Germany’s reunification.

Every generation shares their own batch of historical events which characterises them in a distinct manner, setting them apart from other generations. It is like an unmistakable badge hanging from their shoulders of time-bound, unique experiences. I remember how bewildered I inspected my granny’s pyramids of bread and condensed milk under the stairs leading up to our attic. She stockpiled dry foods in the same fashion as rodents cache for the winter, and her supplies of these basic plate-fillers never seemed to shrink. Once when I sat at the kitchen table with my parents, I pointed out my granny’s odd habit of hoarding. They seemed not surprised at all considering that my granny was reared by the stale smell of war and the deadly taste of famine. With more rubble from bombings than food available, my granny learnt an essential lesson from post-war misery when she was only walking in toddler’s shoes: keep emergency stocks at any time to prevent starvation from severe supply shortages in the future (when the next war rampages).

I wonder how the current pandemic will spread into our life, mind, and routines in the long run. What aftermath will Covid incubate in our psyche? Will Generation Covid become germophobia-ridden? Will the scare over viral infections ban the public display of affection and thus forbid hugs, kisses, or holding hands? Will hand sanitisers become a purse essential and will face masks stay around as a fashionable accessory? When people sense symptoms of sickness, will they stay at home more readily due to a newly developed awareness over the responsibility we have to keep others safe and healthy, especially the most vulnerable?

What stories will we tell our children, the new generation that does not know what it means to implement social distancing? I imagine myself giving account of the raging despair over queuing in front of a supermarket – not for bananas but for toilet paper which claimed the rank of the rarest good during the first blow of Covid-19. I am sure my children would find my toilet paper anecdote amusing although they would probably not understand the fuzz about some white sheets for wiping your bum. I would also tell my children about the many two-meter-distanced walks I went on with people since there was no other way to meet and speak in person.

Even after the pandemic has reverted back to normality, I hope to continue the tradition of catching up with friends by going for a long stroll where we fill our lungs with fresh air and our eyes with the neighbourhood’s finest nature and architecture. What do you think? Which quirks will generation Covid become known for?

Chapter 47: Heroes exists and you could be friends with them

I wake up on Boxing Day with my back hurting. I wish this bed’s mattress was sterner and not budging like a limp loaf. I cannot wait to rest in my own snugly, cosy bed again. Although I am feeling less than adequately recovered, I get up and hurriedly change from my night gown into my day clothes before the arctic iciness in the room congeals me. Without aligning the blanket neatly with the footboard of the bed, as I would usually do, I escape the glacial air.

As I enter the much warmer kitchen, a picturesque morning panorama infuses me. Ava, the friend who is generously hosting me over the festive holidays, reads at the kitchen table as if she was in a blissful meditation. A purple scarf keeps her fleecy, almost as toasty as the coffee she is sipping on. We exchange a gentle good morning which cradles our happiness to be spending the Christmas season together and Ava puts the book to the side. I curiously glimpse at the book’s cover: “Dictatorland: the men who stole Africa” by Paul Kenyon.

I ask Ava what the book is about. She tells me it documents the political landscape of various African countries during and after decolonisation from around 1960 to the 2000’s. The book particularly zooms into how corrupt, brutal, and greedy African leadership gushed out of meddling Western forces. There are the radical, ruthless, nationalist leaders who succeeded colonial regimes. Their names – Gaddafi, Mobutu, Mugabe, and others – were hailed in the street as they led their countries to independence and broke the shackles of oppressive, discriminating white powers. But later on, these heroes of independence turned into tyrants themselves who rigorously exploited the land, sucking the economy dry and impoverishing their people. At the same time, there are the Western superpowers whose own greedy and rogue interests blighted the young, independent Africa. First-world nations like the USA or UK grassed in their former colonial territory for natural resources all the while these territories were raided by humanitarian crimes. So in a nutshell, the book unveils the complex political and economic interdependence between Europe and Africa, including all their tampering in the grey zone. “Because the problem of African dictatorship isn’t just black and white”, Ava says.

I admire Ava for devoting her free time to educating herself about a topic that our European education as well as media notoriously neglect. In general, I look up to Ava’s stern morals alongside her laudable ethical code. She does not only advocate equality and human rights, she furnishes her words with substantial action. Among others, she volunteers for the national victim support; before the pandemic, she used to volunteer in a refugee shelter too. I observe Ava’s altruism with a pupil’s eye. In a related fashion, I take notes while watching her adopt a zero-waste lifestyle, guided by her astonishing environmental consciousness.

We have been befriended for at least two winters now and I feel as I am still thawing out so many formidable facets, which I had no idea about, from her modest composure. With every one of her impressive deeds that I learn about, my respect for her intensifies. I certainly view her as my role model in regard to standing up for humanitarian and environmental causes. Although I care about both matters, I do not engage with them as gustily as I would like to. But Ava does.

Doused with embarrassment, I confess to Ava that I have never really crackled with much enthusiasm for reading up on humanitarian crises or political injustice around the world. I often slide this kind of news aside because of the burdening Weltschmerz that lurks in it. Since none of the world’s political and racial wars, robberies, or violence have ever affected me directly, I always had the choice to concern myself with them or push them out of my hearing range. On most occasions, I have chosen to bypass the world’s misery on quieter, more peaceful roads through idyllic first-world fairyland.

“But don’t you feel compelled and responsible for educating yourself beyond your privilege – a privilege to care only for your immediate surroundings from an unendangered, comfortable position?”

She is right. I agree that I am padded by the privilege of personal security, financial stability, blithe health, and free opportunities. I have not even floundered much to secure these privileges. I was just incredible lucky in the birth lottery. If I wanted, I could deliberately shut my eyes in oblivion of the world’s unfair cruelties. I could slurp on my happy-go-lucky life with a narrow understanding of the world and pampered by my white, Western wealth. However, I want to think critically and to do so I can neither shut my eyes nor drink from the fountain of my country’s paradise without questioning where its streams of riches came from.

For the rest of the day, I cannot stop thinking about Ava’s words. Her plea for greater attention to global affairs, especially human rights, leaves my mind stirred up. The contrast between my whitewashed ignorance and to her compassionate sense of justice bites my conscience. A day after our discussion, Ava’s words continue to pinch my mind. Five days later, her appeal has still not soften its grip on me.

Eventually, I muster the resolution to read the book that she was reading about African dictators, or more specifically, I start listening to its audiobook. Muffled in the duvet of my bed, I press the play button and emerge into Africa’s blustery past.

Listening to the audiobook of Dictatorland awakened my sense for political justice and equality from its prior hibernation. Ava had triggered a change in me – a brisker political and humanitarian involvement which I had wanted to see in myself for a while, but had blocked with my own shortcomings. Ava melted these shortcomings with her fire for a fairer, sustainable world. I look up to her because she is in parts the person I aspire to be. Real heroes exist and befriending them will help you work on yourself.

Chapter 46: Being an adult – more than candles on a cake

How can you tell that you have become an adult?

This question was posted as a writing pitch for the student magazine where I occasionally get featured in. The pitch caught my attention and I pondered over how I would address it.

Many complex, intertwined facets are stacked behind the question – too many to construct a good answer on the spot. What do you think? What does adulthood mean to you?

Perhaps plunging into independence?

Claiming a certain age?

Queuing for a salary?

Assigning age as the commander over adulthood would guarantee a straightforward division between adults and minors. In favour of recruiting the classifier age votes the law. Legal books employ age as a judge to rule whether one is adult enough to drink, drive, and to be fully accountable for one’s actions. According to the law, anybody who can evidence that they possess a certain age may title themselves as adult. This legal definition is based upon precedence of the cognitive development in humans. Several studies have proven that our mind evolves from fickle short-sightedness to an increasing capability to reason responsibly.

Say we agreed on age as the classifier for adulthood, at which threshold value would we stake out adult territory though? The boundary could be declared at seventeen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-six, or any other arbitrary number within the human lifespan. In theory, we cultivate more and more prudence as we grow up until we reach our cognitive peak at around 30-40 years of age, but in reality this cultivation is not perfectly identical for everyone. I have witnessed barely-twenty-olds whose astonishingly mature sensibility checkmated the wits of some over-thirty-year-olds. From my own experiences, I can attest that some people age only on paper while their minds never leave infancy.

The concept of adulthood is consequently too fluid to be seized by plain age. However, one prior notion is worth to be inspected further – the notion that adulthood is tied to a specific state of mind which steers thoughts, words, and actions. The thoughts speeding through an adult’s mind clearly race on a different dimension than a child’s thoughts. Similarly, the typical adult routine – which includes hustling from nine-to-five, providing for a family, and autonomously sustaining oneself – is set apart from the layout of adolescence and childhood. This implies that adulthood means to think and act like an adult. The problem with this conceptualisation is that every single possible human action and thought would have to be sifted through in order to cull the behaviours and mentalities that strictly attire adults alone. Such a task would even cripple the highest advanced computational forces.

Let me paint the seal of adulthood in another shade for you. Comparable to the former proposition about the meaning of adulthood, my own hypothesis relates to the mental faculties of thought and action too. Opposed to the former proposition however, my idea rephrases this duo by strapping both thoughts and actions together, linking them in one cognitive process: decision-making. Each action orbits around a decision which emanates from the sphere of our thoughts. Some of our decisions just operate our actions so automatically that the underlying decision-making process stays unnoticed.

I argue that you can tell how adult you are by your manner of making decisions.

Decision-making effectively equals choosing from a pool of given options. This could be the choice between closing the window or leaving it open, brewing an afternoon coffee or drinking some water, going to the bathroom versus holding it in a little longer. It could also be the choice between long-term security or ongoing risk, chasing a career or cherishing a comfort, personal gain or common weal.

The first listed examples represent swift, routinely decisions that switch on specific actions without considerable reasoning behind them. Trickier, momentous decisions like the second instances on the other hand convene thoughts to a congress where all possible alternatives must be critically evaluated.

In my opinion, our pattern of responding to a tough decision reflects how adult we have become. When every option bears heavy consequences, including personal sacrifices, immaturity is inevitably unmasked during the decision-making process. At the stage where the pros of each option are weighed up against their cons, a more mature person will rely on a vaster repertoire of information and previously compiled subject knowledge. More adult individuals will additionally have an enhanced holistic perspective and realistic clairvoyance, as well as less biased principles counselling them in their decisions. Lastly, the more of an adult we become, the less pronouncedly will the limbo of indecisiveness char our decision-making.

How can you tell that you have become an adult?

You are an adult when you make decisions wisely, foresightedly, effectively, consciously, and considerately.

I realise that my suggested answer to the question is also not spared from limitations. Among others, one’s decision-making process is a spaceflight more difficult to grasp and measure than one’s age. But since the word adult clothes an abstract, human-invented concept to begin with, it can mean as many different things as there are humans promenading on the planet. What it means to be an adult is surely open to interpretation, so, why don’t you give it a go and find your own answer to adulthood. I would be curious to hear your opinion.

Chapter 45: The scent of good memories

Right now, I’m in a state of mind
I wanna be in like all the time
Ain’t got no tears left to cry

So I’m pickin’ it up, pickin’ it up
I’m lovin’, I’m livin’, I’m pickin’ it up

Ariana Grande’s no tears left to cry rolls out from the speakers as we, my friend Mina and I, buckle up our seatbelts. The midday fireball in the sky pierces through the small, milky window right next to me. Desert temperatures of over fifty degree Celsius cake everything that sets a foot outside, but luckily a cooling breeze from the air conditioning prevents us from melting away in this Boeing 747.

I’m pickin’ it up (Yeah), pickin’ it up (Yeah)
Lovin’, I’m livin’, so we turnin’ up
Yeah, we turnin’ it up

The upbeat song continues to play in the background and I exchange a silent smile with Mina. I know that we both must be thinking the same: after half a day of vegetating inside Dubai’s airport – due to an incredibly long overlay time – we are finally sitting in the machine that will fly us home to Glasgow. Looking around me, I see a colony of passengers board the luxurious, grand Boeing 747. This plane is such a gigantic ship whose very back and front I cannot even remotely scout from my seat. My eyes move back and forth, hopping between aisles, until they eventually return to the screen in front of me where I check the time. The departure towards home lies a bit more than a runway away, so this is how our backpacking episodes in South East Asia end. I feel a little strange imagining myself back in everyday work routine after having just voyaged to Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Right now, I’m in a state of mind
I wanna be in like all the time

Two years later, I hear the same song from Ariana Grande discoing on the radio while I trod through the local drug store. Within a snap, the tune mentally teleports me into the same Boeing 747 in which Mina and I ended an adventure of our lifetime. Instantaneously, the memories of our backpacking fun in South East Asia flash into my mind again.

I revive the scenes of sipping coconuts on a rooftop overlooking Ho Chi Minh City, of climbing up the countless stairs to limestone cave temples in Kuala Lumpur, and of conversing with a humble monk student in Chiang Mai.

We were truly lucky to profit from these extraordinary experiences. Being absorbed in the plume of mundane academic duties, the image of cutting through thick jungle seems rather surreal now. Yet, this is exactly what we did just twenty-four months ago. Even more absurdly, we actually hid in a murky alleyway from hostel owners who chased after us as if we starred in a crime movie. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Mina and I had truly jumped from one thrill to another while travelling through Southern Asia.

By a mere tune, all those incredible memories reawakened in me – memories which I never want to forget. However, I fear that memories I treasure could fade or vanish. Good memories delight as heartily as bumping into a close friend by coincidence. I therefore try to preserve precious memories as much as I can, mostly by capturing them as coloured pixels. Though, I wish I took more photos of the golden moments in my life. I keep telling myself to log more impressions directly upon their occurrence.

I am horrified that my keepsakes of good memories could be ruined irreversibly one day. In fact, some of the camera shots I collected in Asia suffered from corruption and became inaccessible. More than once, I have envisioned the loss of my entire picture albums and diaries which led to sweat-inducing frights. I became so paranoid about losing digital records of my memories that I began storing duplicate backups of my digital souvenirs on multiple devices. Still, I am afraid that these materialised versions of my memories could be gone at one unfortunate match of life circumstances.

Are tangible records really the only keepsakes we carry of good memories?

On a surface level it appears so.

However, Ariana Grande’s song and my unique connection with it exemplifies that we also own many intangible, perceptual records of our memories. We typically refer to mediums like photos, videos, or objects as vaults of memories. Yet, our sensual experiences shepherd a significant amount of our memories too – we are just less aware of them.

As opposed to physical or digital documentations, we do not actively gather perception-borne memories. Instead, we unconsciously accumulate them as a by-product of our brain processing sensual impressions which accompany the actions we engage in. Think of it as our brain taking five dimensional snapshots of moments without us having to press the record button. For example, our memories could be captured in a particular scent, a certain music, a special colour, or a distinct flavour.

These snapshots of the senses wield a magical power to transport us back to past experiences when we encounter the same, familiar sensual impressions again. Memories consequently dwell in the imminent environment around us. Intangible perceptions may not be our first intuition when we look for carriers of our good memories, but they are worth being sincerely attended to, especially because they tickle our emotions in a way that the tangible records cannot.

Right now, I’m in a state of mind
I wanna be in like all the time
Ain’t got no tears left to cry

So I’m pickin’ it up, pickin’ it up
I’m lovin’, I’m livin’, I’m pickin’ it up

Whenever I hear these lines sung by Ariana Grande, my head instantaneously returns to the seat in the Boeing 747 where I enjoyed her song for the first time as well as the end to one of the most exciting stories of my life. I like that Ariana’s song shelters sweet memories of my travels through Asia and in particular of the flight home from Dubai because no other record of my travels allows me to reminisce about it so vividly.