I once got an outlook calendar invitation that came with the note "Sorry for the short notice. We hope you can make it. We need your creativity." I juggled some commitments around to find time for my client and accepted that next-day invite.
I sat through that meeting listening to the team share one idea after another for the problem they had at hand. At a certain point, it became clear to me that there was no shortage of creativity at all - the room was full of ideas! Yet, two hours later, there was no consensus (nor commitment) on the way forward.
I left that meeting quite puzzled as I once again witnessed the initially-demonstrated positive attitude towards creativity suddenly turn so weak and disintegrate in the face of the risks and uncertainties all their exciting ideas posed to their company. So I felt frustrated. I felt like I had not delivered what was expected of me. I had been called in to contribute with my creativity - my ideas. But then I felt somehow overpowered by the creative energy going on. So I asked myself: why did they invite me at all? Why do they need me here?
Later that day, almost like a sign from above, while scrolling through my LinkedIn feed, I stumbled upon an article entitled "Creativity vs. Innovation in the landscape of startups". As I read it through, I had one of those 'a-ha' moments! Quoting https://medium.com/swlh/creativity-vs-innovation-42fde2e70201:
Creativity happens in your head.
Innovation happens in the world.
That was it! I knew that creativity was abundant in that team! It was the follow-through energy needed to bring those ideas to reality that was scarce. And it suddenly became clear that I had been called into that meeting room not because they 'needed my creativity', but because they' needed my innovation energy to act as a driver to make their ideas a reality'.
Innovators as Competitive Advantage
There are many ways to define creativity and innovation as well as their overlaps and differences. No matter how we choose to do it, it is imperative that these are not treated as synonyms. While creativity is in the line of thinking and ideation, innovation concerns the implementation of ideas. Moreover, we should also not assume that creativity automatically leads to innovation. The value of an idea only exists once it is used and verified.
Therefore, creativity alone is not able to create value, whereas innovation is the process of validating creativity, making it real, tangible, measurable and hopefully valuable. That is to say, innovation may not always be successful. After all, to require that there be success in advance would render void its chance of ever getting tried at all. The bottom-line here is that the existence of a system of making creativity yield innovation is critical.
By projecting this notion onto an organization, it is pretty much like saying that any team or anyone can be creative whereas not every team nor everyone can be innovative. Innovators are the competitive advantage that tell teams within an organization and companies within an industry apart. For these scarce resources are those who have the energy, courage, expertise and will-power to turn creativity into innovation, in other words, ideas into actions.
After it all dawned on me, I went back to my client with a "Challenge accepted!" mindset and not only I played my role to drive their ideas into action, but I also felt obliged to empower them to bring an innovator into their team.
This week, more than a year after that meeting, I got a call from that company again. They just wanted to share that the motivation to hire a Digital Transformation and Innovation Manager into their team was the piece of the puzzle they were missing to - in their own words - "…make our team truly complementary. We already had an idea farm, but now we have an idea laboratory."
I was 17 years old when I came out as a gay man to my family. I was still grieving my first heartbreak when I was struck with my first real loss – my grandma died. Shortly after, the deteriorating relationship between a gay single child and an orphan single mother, both trying to live under the same roof, made me want to leave home – and I did. I was 18 years old when this series of events led me to think for the first time that I was on the edge of a breakdown. And it was at this very same point in my life that I had my first grand awakening – a turning point driven by an avalanche of challenges. I was 19 years old when I left my home country to start again.
In facing the challenges life had posed me, I actively sought God for the first time. Born and raised Jewish, my internal pursuit for spirituality and godliness started within my own creed. I confess that when I left home seeking to find myself, I was not sure how the divine side of life would help me on my way – but I had to believe in something. It is interesting to me now that my pursuit to understand myself started with me posing questions about God. In getting closer to and deeper within myself, I concluded that God and I have something in common: we are both the result of purely uninvestigated beliefs.
Imagine trying to solve the equation x = (1+1) * 3 if we started from the assumption that 1+1 = 3. Would we be able to reach the result? Yes, we would! The answer would be 32, or simply 9. That is to say that finding the result for the equation is independent from the assumptions we made for it. If we start off assuming one plus one equals three, nine is the correct answer for this equation, which does not mean that nine is the true result for this problem. This is so because we used the right arithmetic with the wrong assumption to begin with. Therefore, the solution found depends on the used hypothesis – in other words, the beliefs.
Having this said, is it any wonder that sometimes we find it so hard to find true solutions to our problems in life? How often do we go about them using the math right, but stumbling upon the assumptions we make about them? Bingo! This is the reminder I need on my wall right now!
It has been fourteen years since I faced my first major turning point in life. Today, after having overcome minor and major crossroads, I feel on the verge again. Decisions I have made brought me here. And it is time for me to scrutinize the set of beliefs I carry along with me into the next chapter of my life.
Well, you see? I turned out to become a marketing guy. When speaking marketing, I normally say that one of my pluses is my affinity to telling stories in contrast to simply conveying messages. And this so because of my passion for the reverse engineering used to get information into the minds of people by using anecdotes, parables, folktales and allegories. As ancient as education itself and still frequently used in schools to satisfy the students’ needs for answers, storytelling is an art.
Making use of this invaluable resource, I hereby share mementos of my past, which shall guide me into this imminent new beginning.
I was told this story by an old man while riding the NYC metro from Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn to 34 Street-Penn Station in Manhattan somewhen in the Fall of 2005:
There was once a very wise king who observed his teenage son developing a very strong feeling of superiority, arrogance and greed due to his wealth and position as heir to the throne. The king decided to summon his young prince and commanded him to go spend seven days and nights among the people in their kingdom. The young boy was scared at first thinking he would be deprived of his wealth for so long, until his father handed him a one-million-schilling coin to spend on his journey.
Carrying his one-million-schilling coin with pride, the boy crossed the walls of the castle with everything already planned in his head. He would pay some locals to provide him the best accommodation available in the kingdom, he would pay the men of the city watch to guard and protect him, he would pay the best butchers, farmers, bakers and cooks in town to provide him with the best quality food money could buy in that region and he would hire some local artists and entertainers to amuse him with their artistries. This way, those seven days and nights would pass very quickly.
He started his journey looking for lodging. He knocked at every single inn and guesthouse in the village, only to be dismissed from each one of them for the same reason: “The night costs half a schilling only. We cannot accept a one-million-schilling coin. We have no way to give you change for that amount of money”. The boy then started to get thirsty and hungry. He tried to buy water and food everywhere, only to find out that his one-million-schilling coin could not buy him even a loaf of bread and a glass of water. A whole week worth of meals would cost him a schilling only. The absurd wealth he was carrying with him was more than enough for all he needed. Yet, his inability of turning the one-million-schilling coin in one million one-schilling coins left him on the streets without water, food and safety.
The story continues. As a matter of fact, it does not really matter how it ends. The “lesson learned” part of the plot has been reached. Keep that it mind.
I was told this story by a middle-aged homeless lady I met in Uniondale, New York, on March 26th, 2006. I spent that night on the city’s train station in her company after losing the last train back home. Her name was Virginia.
Virginia told me that when she was a teenager, she had serious issues with her self-esteem. She said she was not one of the popular girls and that she struggled to fit at least among the smart ones. Back then, her mother was a high-school teacher. And every time her mother would find her having one of her ‘moments’, she would reach out to her and tell her this story:
There was a time when classes of the same grade were divided by taking the students’ overall grades from the previous year as the only criteria to split them into different groups. The best students were grouped together in Class A whereas students with lower grades were grouped separately in so-called “special classes” named Class B and Class C.
Since this method was being met with strong criticism by parents of those students with the lowest performance, the school decided to replace it. Therefore, a new grouping method was developed. It consisted in splitting the students equality in different groups, so that each class would have a mix of top, average and below-average students. The educators’ intention in doing so was to promote mutual support and group work among the pupils. The class naming remained Class A, Class B and Class C.
After running under this new system for a while, the school was alarmed with the results. Statistics showed that students from the old-system’s Class A (the top ones), who had been moved to Class B or Class C, experienced a significant drop in their performance. The same happened to students from classes B who were moved to class C. At the same time, students from the old-system’s Class C, who were allocated to Class A under the new system, experienced significant improvement in their grades. The same happened to students from class B who were moved to class A.
Virginia told me this story as she talked about the hardships that made her become a homeless person. As of today I can still remember with much clarity when she looked at me and said:
Life fucked me up, you know? Wrong people! That’s why I ain’t got no home. These streets are my home now, boy! . . . [pause] . . . You’re sitting in my living room! . . . [laughs, sighs] . . . And you know why I ain’t got no home, boy? . . . [pause – she looks deep into my eyes] . . . The Lord knows. The good Lord knows my mother was right . . . [pause] . . . Every day of my life – every fucking day of my life I think that I should have listened to her. I was a class A student . . . [raises voice] . . . I was a class A citizen for fuck’s sake! And then came those God-dammed motherfuckers who put me in class C – not in school, boy, not in school – in life! . . . [speaking slower and quieter] . . . These God-damned motherfuckers played with me. And I was stupid . . . [pause] . . . I was put in Class C. I believed I was Class C. I became Class C . . . [I remained silent trying to find words to fill the void] . . .
My one-off encounter with Virginia is a memorable moment in my life and I could share numerous other stories about that night. But once again, the “lesson learned”part has been reached. Time to move on.
I just stopped and read this whole post from the beginning again. I wonder how many readers will see its core message as the product of a positive or a negative state of mind. Straightforwardly speaking, this is nothing but the good and worthy of me facing challenges and reacting to these with deep dives into my web of memories. This is how I learn best.
Well, it is incredible to think that I was told these two stories more than a decade ago. Still, their value has never felt so pertinent like RIGHT (pause) NOW. As I sit here today writing these lines, I find myself in an intermediate state between the hollowness of not belonging to the past-present and not having yet reached the future either. Decisions I made brought me here and I have once again hit the crossroads. I am on the verge of a turning point and as I look in the mirror now, I see a young prince carrying a million-schilling coin in his hands. I also see a Class A student who was moved to Class C. This guy in the mirror has a lot of stories to tell the 19-year-old version of himself. And because of that, this guy in the mirror wants to make sure that this time, one plus one equals two. Cheers to new beginnings!
“Ladies and gentlemen, we would like the next few minutes of your attention as we will be showing our safety demonstration and emergency instructions.”– said one of the cabin crew members shortly before flight OS356 took off. As the announcement started, I adjusted my noise-cancelling headphones and concentrated on the chosen take-off song playing on repeat: “Zombie”by Maître Gims.
For the next two hours, my life and safety would be in the hands of the airplane crew, but if something went wrong, I (and my life) depended on the key information delivered during those few minutes I deliberately disregarded.
Wait a sec! I deliberately disregarded a safety warning, which could eventually save my life? Why?
As the flight attendants kept on performing the safety demonstrations in front of me, I heard nothing but Maître Gims playing the following words in my ears:
“Ma raison somnolait. Ma conscience me conseillait.
Mon subconscient m’déconseillait. Mais mon esprit veut s’envoler”
( “My reason was asleep. My conscience advised me.
My subconscious advised me against it. But my mind wants to fly away” )
Something bugged me. So I took my computer out of the backpack and started writing some lines. In that moment, I wondered: Do I ignore safety warnings?
Four intense (really intense!)months passed since flight OS356 took off and safely landed back in Vienna. Eventful months these were and lots of thoughts have come and gone in respect to the question I asked myself. As I dwelled in the subject for a while, conclusions started to take shape.
Initially, it came to my attention that it is common sense that we, humans, have an innate instinct towards survival. However, while this instinct does exist, we are also vulnerable to a weakness in our psychological decision-making process, which consciously or not, leads us to a constant cost/benefit analysis of the decisions we take, including those involving risk-taking. That is to say, if the perceived danger is greater than the benefit, a person is more inclined to comply with the risk warnings; whereas if the benefit is perceived to be greater than the danger, a person’s compliance to these risk warnings are susceptible to decline.
Taking this concept a step further, I landed on some writings about the “Risk Homeostasis Theory”. Coined by Gerald Wilde, this concept suggests that a person’s calculation of risk is based on the so-called “target risk”, in other words, a person’s perceived acceptable level of risk. This theory states that we take into account the expected benefits and costs of both the risky as well as safe behavior and try to maximize our gain by taking additional risk in case the perceived risk is below the target risk as well as minimize our loss by behaving safely in case the perceived risk is above our acceptable level.
Taking this theory into account, we can note that a safety warning only influences us to act with care if it manages to convince us to perceive that our behavior would be more risky if we do not pay attention to it. Likewise, a safety warning can actually lead us to behave more risky or take less precautions if the warning sign is perceived as exaggerating the danger, for our perceived level of danger is below the actual level. (Sounded complicated? Read it once or twice again slowly before you continue!)
BAAAM! It kicked in! I suddenly found a parallel between the risk-taking thoughts I had been reading about and an ambivalent intimate struggle of mine: insecurity due to (a) failure and (b) perfectionism. And this is why.
- Failure, as a negative contributor to happiness levels, ends up influencing our self-esteem and self-confidence, raising our insecurity levels. Yet it might as well serve to our advantage, once we manage to accept it as part of the process, let the frustration out and learn the lessons from our setbacks, failing forward towards success.
- Perfectionism also makes us insecure when we end up punishing ourselves about not being good enough. However, we can still enjoy the benefit of having high standards, trying our best and working hard if we understand that there are pieces of the outcome, which are at some degree out of our control.
[Reminder to self: read the last two paragraphs 3 times before continuing.]
Well, being the product of a single-mother/only-child upbringing, I went a long and lonesome way to learn how to deal with such insecurity issues. For instance, it caused me to spend a reasonable amount of time monitoring my body and my environment for signs that suggested that something was about to go off – that failure was imminent. I struggled to be able to find the balance between allowing my mind to rest and pushing it to do more to protect myself.
As a result of this condition, I unconsciously taught myself to identify warning signs of failure. Moreover, I learned to create my very own safety warnings as self-defence mechanisms. And this is, paradoxically, where I failed – for in doing so, I was too unkind to myself.
As the risk-taking theory indicated, safety warnings can lead us to behave more risky or take less precaution if the warning sign is perceived as exaggerating the danger. And this is where I failed big time – by allowing my defense mechanism to create exaggerated warning signs.
In doing so to overprotect myself, I ended up believing in the illusion that the risk was much lower than the actual danger and in terms pushed me to take even higher risks. Somewhat like a high-risk bet with high odds, the result was a substantial reward in case of success. On the other hand, I ended up maximizing my loss when failure did actually occur – which caused insecurity to take over, only getting me stuck in a vicious circle.
After dwelling in this topic for some time, I wrote this text as a reminder of the self-knowledge journey I went through. I always say I am not afraid of my weaknesses. I am afraid of not being able to see them, or even worse, of ignoring them. And this is exactly the stage I was in when I boarded flight OS356 – unaware of the fact that I was dealing with safety warnings the wrong way all along. As aforementioned, warnings can desensitize us by overstating the danger, decreasing therefore our precaution and increasing the likelihood of more risk taking. And this is exactly where I was: dealing with the wrong assessments of levels of risk, danger, reward and loss.
In doing this exercise, I am expecting to allow myself to be able to improve my cognitive skills to assess these from a more rational point of view and not simply letting my unconscious ability to calculate the benefits and costs of risk-taking give me the result to the equation. Moreover, I am looking forward to lowering the bars of my very own safety warnings, allowing myself to deal with real levels of risk and not gambling for unnecessary higher winnings. After all, the stake is high. The stake is ME!
“We broke up. I was single again. But I still loved him.” This is how the story ended. Not an extraordinary finale. In fact, cliché – I know! However, this statement is WRONG! And this is why.
Two months passed by. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was paying visit to a married friend with kids. I was sitting on the couch sipping from my bottle of beer, while unenthusiastically browsing through the dating profiles of other men on my phone and silently observing the kids getting ready to play on the living room floor.
Hannah, my friend’s daughter, had just arrived hand-in-hand with the neighbour’s son David, her so-called boyfriend. They played harmoniously for a while – until the great crisis broke out and Hannah started crying. David had involuntarily dropped her Lego creation on the floor, bringing whatever it was down to pieces. In anger, Hannah shouted “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.” while David watched her lose her temper without showing any empathy.
For a moment, I watched the scene unfold without giving much thought to it, until it unexpectedly hit me: I had just witnessed a completely extrapolated love and heartbreak story unfold in front of me. And of course, my anxious mind would not let it pass without raising more questions.
“When asked to tell stories about love, how many of these are actually stories of heartbreaks?” – I asked myself, slapping idealistic and naïve 17-year-old me right on the face.
Never mind! That day went by, weeks passed, and that food for thought started to grow in my mind:
17 years old – I loved him. And he said no.
24 years old – I loved him. And I said no.
28 years old – I loved him. And we said too much.
31 years old – I loved him. And we did not say enough.
In every single story, I remember the ecstasy of falling in love, the joy of saying these three words for the first time and the thrill of hearing him say it back to me. (Un)fortunately, I also remember the tormenting and nerve-wracking feeling of saying “I love you” as a reminder of how I should be feeling instead of an assertion of what I really felt. If falling in love was instantaneous and effortless, the end of it was time-consuming and excruciating.
And then what? Did love end for me?
Well, my relationships did! Even though they were meant to be “for better or for worse”, they all came to an end somewhere in between. I always apologized. Sometimes I said sorry for being too much. Sometimes for not being enough. And sometimes I had to learn to apologize for things I did not really understand. Like this, between gratitude and forgiveness, the silence and the moments of solitude led me to find closure and move on.
And this is it. Variances in the levels of passion, intimacy and commitment have compromised my relationships to the men my love was attached to when I was 17, 24, 28 and 31. And as these relationships ended, my love did not.
Each of my cherished partners departed and I started walking the path of life alone again. I detached my love from them, giving room for a growing feeling of respect, caring, appreciation and most and above all, thankfulness for all we lived together. At this stage, my love was still attached to the memories, just not anymore to the man standing in front of me.
Thus: No! Love did not end for me! I did not have to stop loving before learning or choosing to love again. Every time my heart broke, it broke open – it broke free. Then I realized: I never really fell out of love. I fell out of the persons my love was attached to. And in doing so, I moved on to the next chapter in life carrying along with me all the loving energy accumulated in the previous one.
But love continues. As its load gets too heavy to carry around, it eventually attaches and it stays – not because one is falling in love again, but because a choice has been deliberately made. And when this happens, all heartbreaks suddenly make sense.
So again, “We broke up. I was single again. But I still loved.” This is how the opening line truly reads. But I still loved – not him, just loved!
Half-my-life ago, teenager me used to ask himself how the adult life surrounding him had come to be. He was quite certain that he would never grow old – that things would always remain the same. He was sure that time would pass and years later, he would still be fighting the daily “Mother vs. Morning Sluggishness” duel, praying for the math teacher to forget to collect his homework and bragging about his newest video-game cartridge.
A couple of Disney movies later, reality dawned on him and what he expected to be the “And he lived happily ever after” part of the plot suddenly revealed itself as the “Once upon a time” page in his book of life. And that is when he realized that all he had lived until then was nothing more than a foreword. And as such, it had been written by a third party.
I was twenty years old. My relationship to my family was at the worst it has ever been. I had just quit my student job and used all the money I had saved to pay my student debt. I was about to start my third university program after two cast-aside attempts and I was still not sure the third program I had chosen actually fit me. My relationship to friends was a catastrophe after repetitive disappointments accumulated during our rapidly-changing adolescence. And well, I was single. After all, not even I could handle myself while having all this happen at the same time I was going through sexual and religious identity crises. I was a complete mess with no direction for life. And this is just a rather polished summary of the first section, which I believed was being fully written by me in my book of life. Fact is: it was not (yet), but I did not know it.
But then things changed. Of course – things always change. And as they did, I managed to find my way through to my comfort zone. And there I found myself working hard to pay the bills. Then I worked harder because working to pay the bills made me need more than I did before. And this more I needed had a price tag I could not afford, so the bills also went up and then I had to work even harder. I longed for Fridays so that I could party away the anxiety I had accumulated during the week. And I dreaded Mondays when reality would fall upon me. I remained stuck in my so-called comfort zone for long enough until I could virtually feel young me laughing at how ridiculous I looked like running in circles trying to catch my own tail.
My early adulthood concern about being lost was suddenly not an issue anymore. I was not stuck in inertia, for at least life was moving somewhere and I was letting myself be steered along with it. For every turn of events, I quickly ran after the next best comfort zone, where I fooled myself into a kind of pleasure triggered by the vicious consumption of my authenticity. Self-indulgence had taken over.
Fortunately, things changed again. At this point I could write that “One day I woke up and, and, and…” but the fact is that the crave for a complete life-makeover did not hit me when the sun came up. It was only after many miserable and lonely lazy Sundays after the sun went down and I was alone in bed waiting to fall asleep that I felt this inexplicable realization that there was something beyond the walls of my comfort zone. As I peeked at it, it was clear to me that a much longer and winding road was in front of my eyes. Nevertheless, little did I know that despite being lengthier, that road did not demand fancy shoes nor a suit and tie to be walked upon, that road did not stop me every now and then to collect toll fees and that road allowed me to walk, stroll, jump, run, drive, take a ride or even fly along its path. However, or should I say, moreover, that road had a price to be paid for each step along its way – and ‘detachment’ was its currency.
And there I was. The utmost uncomfortable time of all when I had to learn to detach from places, things, people and ideas so that I could reach new places, need ever less and less things, surround myself by different people and cherish never-before-imagined ideas. And I did not only pull through it – I loved it! And symbolically speaking, my mind was the engine, positive thinking was the fuel, diligence was the additive and creativity was the motor oil.
Fond of sharing, I have browsed through several of my personal writings and dug into my mind to compile what I consider to be the backbone and the doctrine of my personal road towards detachment. These are:
- Pursue joy as a lifestyle. After all, happiness is only a circumstance.
- Think positive. And remember that positivity is a skill; and as such, it can be learned.
- Make gratitude an autonomous action, not a sentiment. And thank yourself daily.
- Fight for success. But use value and effect as measurements, not effort nor money.
- And remember that significance is granted, not inherent. You can define what, where, when and how much (significance) to confer.
Years have passed since I entered the ‘detachment’ road and started learning and practicing the lessons learned. I have had good and bad days, sunny and rainy Sunday afternoons as well as successes and pitfalls. Yet, never have I felt like my life was being written by third-parties as if running in auto-pilot mode. By learning to detach, I have managed to live in a reality created by my dreams and not in an illusion moulded by the expectations of the world surrounding me. I took control.
Moreover, letting go of things, losing people, leaving places behind and revising morals became so much easier as part of my routine once I got used to how seasonal everything in life is, including life itself. And as I keep on writing stories on my book of life, I rejoice about how exciting it is to let go of all that I am accustomed to and to move on to all that I designed for myself despite not knowing them for sure yet… in other words, my future.
And it feels so right to be the writer and the story teller instead of the character and the story told. Detaching is finding the 60 seconds for every minute of life.
I was twelve years old when I first boarded a plane to travel. The excitement I felt when flying for the first time – “Oh wow!”. This is one of those things from my childhood I remember very clearly – as if it happened yesterday. It was 1997 and I was not on my way to a family vacation like most of my friends, who would then come back and share stories about going places during their holidays. I boarded that flight feeling extremely excited about leaving my life behind. I was not going on vacation. I was about to start a year-long exchange program in a boarding school in Rio de Janeiro. And I was not ‘being sent’ there by a careless mom who wanted a child-free year for herself. On the contrary. I had to fight my overprotective mother to convince her to allow me to leave home at such an early age. And I thank her to this day that she did so.
On board of that flight, I remember thinking about the new and different life I had just started, the new people I would meet and who my new friends would be, the new places I would visit and how my new home and neighborhood would look and feel like, the new types of food I would try and those I would miss, the new clothes I would wear to adapt to the different weather conditions, the new routine I would have and well, the new adventures and stories about them I would have to tell afterwards.
It all sounds very exaggerated knowing it refers to the story of a twelve-year-old boy. Nevertheless, deciding to say goodbye to my ‘stable’ life and childhood did have an impact on me and this is why out of several memories and stories of my past, I may not remember the many vacations and holidays I had, but I do remember very clearly the first time I ever travelled.
Now at the age of 31, I’ve had the opportunity to travel numerous times, to visit hundreds of cities in dozens of countries and “Yes! I am addicted to travel!”. I know many people who travel as much or even more than I do, but I often distance myself from a comparison, for each one differs in his or her approach to traveling. And here I do not refer to the widely discussed difference between being a tourist and being a traveler. Here I refer to the difference between being a ‘travel enthusiast’ and someone like me, a ‘travel addict’.
In my personal quest of self-discovery, I have always wondered why I find it so easy to be everywhere, yet so hard to be back. And this is exactly where the thin red line between an enthusiast and an addict lies.
Every time I come back from a trip, I feel empowered by the ecstasy of the journey that just came to an end. I enjoy the ‘kick’ that keeps running through me and it keeps me active for days or even weeks while ‘welcome back hugs’ are given and stories are told.
But then my ‘fix’ starts to wear off and I slowly become aware that ‘home’ is in every and single way exactly how I had left it – only I changed. And as the inertia of what surrounds me continues to slow me down, I feel exhausted. I start craving for more of my ‘drug’.
I miss the different people I met, the different landscapes I saw, the different places I visited, the different things I discovered, the different lessons I learned, the different experiences I had, the different food I ate and the different feeling of simply ‘being there’. I need to get ‘high’ again! No matter what! And honestly speaking, my addiction sees no coordinates. No matter where I am going next, I just need to set myself in motion again. I need to be surrounded by the unknown again. I just need more of ‘being there’ in order to satisfy my cravings.
Well, as aforementioned, from a very early age, I did not only dream about leaving home and going to foreign places, I dreamt about making foreign places home to me. And from this I learned that home is not a static spot I would always come back to, but rather a dynamic ‘sense of belonging somewhere’. And this ultimately made me figure out that traveling was not a search for things and places, but a quest to find myself enabled by the foreign and unknown nature of every environment I immersed myself into. In other words, by traveling and learning to belong, I allow my senses to respond to special stimuli that in turn empowers the unknown in me.
The American writer Henry Miller once stated: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”. And well, seeing refers to one of our senses. Sight, along with smell, taste, hearing and touch are the input sensors that react to the stimuli that bring pleasure to life. And the more I challenge my senses, the more fine-tuned they become and thus, the greater I enjoy life and myself.
So, after having experienced several terrible post-travel scenarios and after having literally fought myself and the depressive state of mind following my return from a trip, I learned that by exposing my senses to experiencing ‘home’ more intensively, I end up setting ‘home’ in motion, making my ‘kick’ last longer. After all, my tweaked senses and I are the only things that change after I return from a trip. And with my more precise ‘sensor gear’, I can ‘feel home’ differently every time I return. As of now, I can definitely feel my ‘sense of belonging’ to this place I call home. “How long will it last?” – I ask myself. For that I have no answer.
Well, making my ‘kick’ last is my ‘come back’ priority. And in the meantime, while I have not found a holistic therapy for my addiction (nor I wish to do so, I think 🙂 ), I keep on discovering the ‘unknown me’ when traveling and getting to know the ‘undiscovered home’ when I come back.
I wrote this text after returning from a trip, which took place following a 40-day-long stay at home. This was the longest I spent without traveling in three years.
And last but not the least, I keep on dreaming and planning more and more trips. This is an essential part of my therapy after all: knowing when I will get my next ‘fix’.
PART 1 – From Facebook to the Police Station
Some weeks ago I was doing my usual Facebook feeds reading as I made my way home from work. ‘Terrorism’ was the common denominator in a series of posts, which triggered an unpleasant emotional response in me. That’s when I decided to impulsively react to Facebook’s ‘What’s on your mind?’ question.
With the same three words I started this text, I began saying what was on my mind. And that Facebook post of mine spiraled into a great life lesson. Thankful and still overwhelmed by the magnitude of some of the reactions, I decided to share some thoughts on it.
I am not writing this as a corrigendum to my original post nor do I want to reopen the discussion via social media. As an individual, I am entitled to my own opinion. As a social being, I am open-minded enough to hear others’ opinions with respect. And as a human being, I make mistakes. Having said this, I hereby elaborate:
In my original post, I addressed my frustration with Islam and the unfortunate connection that the world’s current deadliest terrorist organizations have with the Islamic faith. And the content of my post do reflect my opinion on the subject.
Opinions reflect an individual’s own subjective inferences about a given matter based on his/her own set of beliefs, experiences and observations of the world. Opinions cannot be taken as conclusive in the broader sense, for as much as they might be based on facts, they will always be someone’s views on the facts, and not the facts themselves. Thus, the content of my post reflects my very own interpretations about the given subject and my statements should be respected as my right to freedom of speech.
“Why did it go so wrong?” – I asked myself, followed by “I should have seen that coming!” And this is why:
After the several discussions carried on the subject following my post, I gathered input from several contributors. Publicly or privately, some people chose to agree with my opinion, some chose to politely disagree with my opinion and others chose to disagree not only with my opinion, but with me – altogether! And this is where things went wrong. The subject matter of discussion shifted from the opinion itself to the holder of the opinion, in this case, me.
I allowed myself to be understood as a ‘hater’ and to be described with a variety of flawed traits and swearwords by people who do not know who I am and what I stand for. When sharing my views via text opened to hundreds of friends in the way I did, I chose the means (text), the channel (Facebook) and the audience (people who do not truly know me in real life). Thus, it was my choice to do so – my mistake (!?).
To summarize my point, I must quote a saying in my mother tongue, Portuguese, that goes: “Onde há pães, há ratos.”, which literally translates into ‘Where there is bread, there are rats.’ The interpretation of this aphorism can be manifold. On one hand it can be understood as ‘Say what you want. (bread) Hear what you don’t want. (rats).’ whereas it can also be read as ‘Knowledge (bread) decays to be consumed by ignorance (rats).’, both interpretations which I spotted in the context of this experience. And from this came my first lesson learned from it.
Hence, I reiterate that I’m entitled to my opinion and that having shared what I did via Facebook was my own choice, all of which allowed me to learn how such social media interaction can be prone to fiascos because of 1. The lack of emotional context and familiarity with the message sender as well as the receiver, 2. The sender’s deficiency in expressing the right tone of the message via text and 3. The misevaluation of the willingness to understand points 1 and 2 by the receiver.
Well, this post was a true ‘shitstorm’ in my social media life. While I carried out every discussion focused on the subject matter with pleasure, it overwhelmed me to see how I, Thyago, became the target of several offensive messages.
I initially wondered why the authors of such messages chose to withdraw from the discussion quite early. I questioned whether they would be able to sustain their arguments at all, for I was highly interested in the topic. But then I realized these belligerent messages were the ones filled with the fiercest anger towards me as a person. And as I lost Facebook friends, I wondered how exposed I was to such expressions of rage. And it got me scared!
Being an active Facebook user, I had never felt unsafe or vulnerable because of my social media life – until that day! I received one particular message with words such as “(…) you should care for your life next time you cross my way (…)”. This message led me to a police station as the anger in the author’s words felt like a life threat. Consequently, as advised by the police, I had to withdrawal from going public in the last Free Hugs action, which took place on Saturday, June 18th, 2016, in Vienna. And these two happenings really had an impact on me. Facebook goes real life!
I decided to step down and take some time off social media. I had to make sense of all that happened. And I could never be thankful enough for all the hatred that fell upon me. It was EXACTLY what I had to experience in order to be able to re-evaluate some essential aspects of my social media behavior.
PART 2 – The Weight of the Useless
In my 31 years of life, I have met so many different people, places and cultures. One of the most important things I learned from the people I had the chance to meet is that the wisest men are not only the ones who accumulate knowledge and experiences, but those who know how to ignore the useless.
As I underwent the stress of dealing with the reactions to my Facebook post, I felt scared and unhappy for having been bombarded with such aggressive attitude and words. And when I found myself dwelling in thoughts about it all, it occurred to me that the real conflict had nothing to do with what the essence of the discussion was all about. After all, I stood by my words. The conflict was between myself and I.
My mind was fighting against itself for having allowed myself to be portrayed in a way contrary to that what I stand for. That is to say I allowed myself to be pictured as someone who is ‘sharing hatred’ while my most crucial principles stand for ‘sharing love’.
And this conflict happened because I was overrating the weight of my social media life in my real life. I assigned too much value to what it meant to me and let the output from it influence the real me. In other words, I was minimizing my ability to feel joy because I was giving too much weight to the reactions I had faced online. The people whom I wanted to know me as someone who ‘shares love’ were then labeling me a ‘hater’.
And this was my second lesson learned from this experience. The essence of my conflict can be found in the words of the last sentence in the paragraph above: “The people whom I wanted to…” This was my mistake! The conflict started when I gave them the power over me by “wanting them to…”
As people say: ‘Living and learning!’. Sometimes it is hard to ignore the useless in life to make room for the good because it is not always the most convenient choice in the first place, and at times, like this time, it is only after an eye-opening experience that I realize how much weight useless things had in my life. This realization is the trigger of my learning, which takes the chaos away from my mind. And chaos, after all, is not really disorder, but rather an unknown order. Once known, I found my peace of mind.
As I figured how wrong I was in “wanting them to…”, I stopped concentrating on what I could not change and focused on building my self-confidence up again. And this led to yet another fantastic self-discovery triggered by the questions “Why did ‘I want them to’ in the first place?’ and ‘Why was my desire to share so dependent on the recognition gained from it?”
PART 3 – Thank you, Negativity
As aforementioned, ignoring the useless is a successful strategy I keep on learning to find joy in life. And ignoring the useless entices understanding what the useless is. In this regard, my rule of thumb has always been: ‘It is OK when something does not add to my life. But it is not OK if it subtracts from it’ and this goes specially to problems that I cannot do anything about. ‘Why bother after all?’ The problem lies in the fact that not everything that does me harm is explicit. At times, I might actually be the one feeding its very existence in my life without being aware of it. And this was the case with my social media behavior approach, which only came to light as a consequence of the incident talked about before.
The way I see social media and the way I go about it is comparable to an open stage (like Facebook) where artists (users) have the chance to express themselves. Every single status update, photo and shared link, video or other media content is used as the artist’s means of expressing him/herself. Whether the content shared is the artist’s personal output or not, it is nevertheless the manifestation of his/her perception over a certain idea. Thus, every single post comprises the result of the artist being moved by a piece of information, making it a creation, whether authorial or not.
Having this metaphor in mind, I therefore understand my very own social media behavior as an artistic way of expressing myself.
As artists differ in the motives and purposes of their creations, I have come to understand myself as an artist who uses his creation as a means of bridging the gap between the real and virtual worlds by obtaining acknowledgment. Thus, I seek to heal the isolation experienced due to the virtual gap between real life and social media with my intense desire to share my creation. And as I exhaust my energies in the process of creation, I find relief in the acknowledgment obtained from it. And here’s where the third and most important lesson from this experience starts.
As much as acknowledgement serves as a reinforcement, which motivates the creative cycle to continue, my happiness comes from the making and not only from the result and other’s approval of it. And if happiness can be found in the creative process itself, why give third parties the power to dump the value of the joy obtained from it by ‘wanting them to…’, thus, expecting them to be the seeders of my satisfaction? And with expectations come disappointments, which in turn allow negative feelings to flow into my joyful process of creation.
Well, as I learn more and more how imperfect I am and how much room there is for growth, I choose to integrate this insight and accept the negative. Yes! I choose to integrate it, for it entails accepting, including and not resisting. And by being aware about the existing negativity, I no longer perceive it as troubling. Thus, I have no reason to undergo the additional effort of avoiding it, for avoidance creates resistance, yet another negative exertion of energy.
Hence, I have come to the conclusion that it is alright for me to connect to the despicable side of life that social media exposes me to. And the way of going about it is by acknowledging and praising its negative sides instead of fighting them, for it will ultimately lead to me fighting my own faults and emotional problems instead. Therefore, I choose to integrate and accept it, which means I am open to experience it while retaining my intellectual discrimination that things might be different from the way they are manifesting, and it is OK.
With all that in mind, I can continue to enjoy the pleasure of the creative process as well as the joy of acknowledgement without letting the latter’s failure harm the ecstasy of the former. And by reassessing the weight of social media, I distance myself from the possible negative impacts it might have on me, and allow only the good to come through.
I normally say that time is my most valuable resource, after all, there are no second chances for the time wasted. And as I see now how much I troubled myself with overthinking and introspectively trying to interrogate myself asking Why, What and How, I realize that this ‘self-defeating’ time was not wasted at all. The aftermath of this ‘shitstorm’ was exactly what I had to go through so that I could activate the unknown order inside through an intellectual approach triggered by the influence of others. And this is what ultimately allowed me to rationalize how much good the hatred I experienced had on me. And I love it!
As a result of my rather highly active social media life, I often hear comments related to my social media behavior from friends, acquaintances and online followers.
Recently, due to some above-average amount of travelling in my agenda, the frequency of my activities on social media was also above (my) average, which led to some above-average amount of social-media-based communication with all who follow me.
And one of these messages inspired me to write this text.
“You’re a freaking narcissist. But I’m sure you know that.” – so read the message. To which I replied: “Absolutely! Came out as a narcissist a long time ago. And my life has been pure awesomeness since then. J”.
And well, here I go… Narcissism is a highly frowned-upon human trait. It is associated with people having self-aggrandizing fantasies who crave for admiration, normally operate anti-socially, lack the ability to empathize with other people’s feelings and can reach pathological levels, in which it is described as a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It doesn’t sound good at all, right? Well, fair enough – it doesn’t! I would prefer aligning myself with something much more joyful than this, but before just accepting these definitions, let’s take a little ride on the topic.
To start with, scientific research has already proven that every child undergoes a natural phase of egocentrism. A child’s process of cognitive development eventually undergoes a learning path in which their inability to see a situation from another person’s point of view turns them into highly egocentric individuals – and this is the so-called ‘me me me stage’.
As we grow from children into teenagers, our sense of self-worth and concern for others both mature and leave most of us at a stage of balance between these two. And as we regulate these two variables until we find a healthy measure of them, we also deal with some of adolescence’s major challenges – those in which we are expected to take life-style decisions and find our spot in society.
STOP! [Time to slightly take a turn in the line of thought] Side Note: Have you noticed that the common view about the aspirations of every individual in the bottom of society’s class pyramid is the dream of reaching the top and fighting for equality and the flattening of the pyramid? Well, as much of an equality supporter as I am, what I just described is called communism. And (un)fortunately, we live in a capitalist world.
‘What the heck are you talking about?’ – you may ask.
Well yeah… after the side note, let’s get back to where I left off in the paragraph before: as we strive to find our spot in society, society imposes its values on us. And our capitalist society teaches us that we have to study hard, work hard, be highly ambitious, make sacrifices, strive for money, make profit, beat the competition, exploit the resources to maximize gains, focus on the accumulation of wealth and go up the ladder of success by seeking power and taking advantage of every chance we have to become wealthier – all of this while disregarding the impact of our decisions in humanity and the environment. It sounds rough. It sounds unreasonable with the exceptions. Nevertheless, it is a rule that governs how society, politics, economies and corporations work. Sad, but true.
And behold! A toast to the birth of narcissism!
After all, as the Freudian concept puts it, narcissism refers to an insecure person’s constant seek for attention, affirmation and admiration, all of which are necessary to enhance his/her self-esteem.
Insecurity being a weakness born from an individual’s pursuit of society-prescribed ambitions, narcissism is therefore the result of this equation. It is the mere reflection of the social conditions we live in upon our lives as single individuals.
Nonetheless, there is scope to seeing narcissism in different ways other than the turning of a young person’s innocent egocentric phase into a controversial young adult’s personality trait. And this is where the account of my views comes in. In my life, this much demonized trait is actually celebrated blissfully. And this is how I see it:
THE NARCISSIST IN ME
It has been more than a decade since I left my birthplace, Brazil. Now I sit by my desk in my office facing the Opera house of Vienna, the city rated with the best quality of life in the world. What a privileged view! What a privileged job! What a privileged home I made for myself! What a privileged life!
7.12 billion people in the world. Out of these, only one person can tell the story of how he made it from the middle of the Amazon rainforest to this nice office with a view to the Viennese Opera house. And this person is me! I feel extremely special about it!
So yes! I am very proud of myself. It took a self-evident man and tons of lessons on self-confidence, self-esteem and self-love to learn that all these are ingredients to success, in whatever subjective way one defines it.
In fact, pride is not the only word I use in this context. Thankfulness must be stated. I am very thankful for having had the chance to find my spot in society in such a privileged way. And the narcissist in me is to be praised for this achievement.
We all know the famous axiom ‘you have to love yourself first before you can love others’. And as vague or even cheap as this might sound, this is the backbone of my secret to happiness and thus, to success.
By nurturing self-love, I learned to accept who I truly am and to have my very own dreams, no matter if they seemed too little, too silly or too impossible to the foreign mind. I’ve used opportunities and fate to break boundaries. I’ve made it happen!
By nurturing self-love, I learned to accept that life is a mix of ups and downs, and that everything happens in perfection. I believe in causality. Yet, I give proper credit to the random nature of life. My mind is de-attached from negativity and suffering and focused on the truth, no matter how hard it is to understand.
By nurturing self-love, I learned that I am the master of all resources available to me. These include people, things and most and above all, time. I cherish people, use things and exploit time. And this is a non-negotiable rule. The management of these resources is fully up to my own discretion.
The secret to nurturing self-love? Mind -and will power!
Some might think I seem too pretentious with my words on the subject. I am not trying to set benchmarks nor become the next motivational speaker in the market. I’m just well aware that I am a fighter, I am a winner and I deserve to feel good about myself – no matter what.
Back to the the probable reason why my social media friend wrote the message stated in the beginning of this text, I say: Yes! I love to document myself in pictures. Yes! It feels good to hear the compliments about the way others see me in these. However, very few people know the true meaning of these images. They are not desperate cries for attention, affirmation nor admiration. They are personal reminders of my journey that took me there. They are personal reminders that allow more thankfulness to grow inside me. Thankfulness for having had the chance to reach those places.
Now, having it all said, I reflect that the narcissism engrained in me while finding my spot in society did not really teach me to LOVE myself. It taught me to fear NOT LOVING myself enough. And this is where the thin red line between the demonized picture of narcissism and my celebrated life-style is to be found.
It took modern life to turn me into a narcissist. And it took intellect to turn fear and insecurity into sources of gratitude. One might say even my choice of words is that of a self-aggrandizing person after all – so why bother? Well, yes! I am my own fan. I am my own admirer. I am a son of the ‘selfie-age’. I know it. I like it. I am open about it and honestly, it is my being aware of it that excludes any self-obsession from taking over.
Now as far as my social media behavior is concerned, do I need to do what I do? Am I actually explaining myself with this text? Well, I have never given myself a single ‘LIKE’ for anything I share. Yet, I spend no time complaining that I haven’t accomplished anything in my life. So well, I think I’m better off keeping myself busy with self-appreciation rather than wasting my time caring for the grass on the other side. In fact, every time I look at any of my social media profiles, all I can think of is: “Oh man! How amazingly green is the grass I stand on right now. And I thank G’d for it!”.
Born to a Jewish mother and raised in a rather conservative Jewish family, being “Jewish” has always been my identity as far as the answer to the question “What is your religion?” is concerned.
After having gone through Jewish school in my childhood, and voluntarily studied Talmudic Law and Ethics as a young adult, I happened to realize that Judaism might not always have the answer I wanted to hear for my questions, but at least no questions were left unanswered. (And if I may add, my people do like to be questioned!)
Again, when questioned about my religion, my answer has always been the same since ever: “I’m Jewish.” (A statement I’m always proud to say, by the way.)
On the other hand, when asked “Are you religious?”, I must say the answer needs to be seen from a point-in-time perspective, for it has changed over time.
Before I continue on the topic ‘religion’, I would like to bring something up: I recently ran into a very trivial but revealing question about my understanding of religion. When researching about the origin of the word ‘religion’, I found out that the word comes from Latin ‘re-ligare’, which means ‘to bind’, word that later gave origin to another Latin word ‘religio’, which means ‘bond’. Thus, the morphological word formation ‘religion’ semantically refers to the bond, which binds man to his source. And there couldn’t be a simpler and more straight-forward definition of religion to align with my views than this one.
Now to answer the question “Are you religious?”: As of today, after having matured my understanding about religions in general and more specifically about Judaism, my answer is: “Yes, I am religious. But I am not observant!” In other words: I do accept my identity as a Jewish man. I do accept my heritage of being a direct descendant and part of the Hebrew nation. I do accept the Torah. And most and above all, I do accept my G-d. (And just so it is clear, I do believe in both the Genesis and in the scientific theory of evolution. One does not nullify the other. Topic for another discussion, though.)
Well, I do. I do. I do. I do. And it all makes me a religious Jew because these beliefs define my bond. They bind me to Judaism. They bind me to my origins. However, the fact that I choose not to follow every single man-made interpretation of the Torah makes me a non-observant Jew. In short: I am a non-observant Jewish man who feels connected to his origins.
Now if I were challenged to accept all the rules stated in the Torah as a pre-condition to be credible when I say I’m connected to my origins, I tend to compare with something very simple. Let’s take the fact that I was born in Brazil. Being Brazilian constitutes another of my identities (like being Jewish).
I do not agree with the all the social manners of Brazilians. I do not align with all the cultural practices of Brazilians. I do not accept all of the laws in practice in Brazil and reinforced by the Brazilian society in general. I do not practice all customs of the Brazilian people. I do not observe all Brazilian holidays. Etc. Etc. Etc. And despite all of this: I am Brazilian. Yet, I am a non-observant Brazilian man who feels connected to his origins.
Now I ask myself, if I believe in the guidelines that bind me to my origins but I do not observe these very same guidelines, am I bound to my G-d at all? Or am I disconnected?
To answer this, I must state my greatest criticism on the philosophy of virtually every religion: the fear of G-d, the backbone of religious belief. In my opinion, it is highly paradoxical to bind G-d, or whatever one calls it, to fear. There’s nothing G-dly in fear. Fear, in fact, is a human feeling and cannot even be described in the context of goodness, which defines G-d.
To go further, I see G-d as pure perfection, like the whole of the universe He created. And we have G-d in our lives for one reason only: to have a model to look up to – a model of goodness and perfection. His role model has been given and we have the free will to decide whether to follow it or not. As said, the world created by G-d is good and perfect in its entirety. We, as single beings, are only part of this whole. Our role in this life is to pursue leading a life filled with goodness. Thus, leading a life dictated by the fear of G-d goes against the principles of goodness and the perfection that defines G-d’s creation in the first place, including us!
So am I connected to my source? Am I bound to my G-d at all despite the fact I do not observe all the rules dictated by my religion? Yes, I am.
In fact, the more I learn about beauty of men and of the world, the more I believe in G-d.
At the same time, the more I learn about religions, the farther away I get from pursuing an observant life.
I cannot erase from my life the fact that I am Brazilian. My place of birth will be the same till the day I die. Likewise, I cannot erase from my life the fact that I am Jewish. My ethnic origin will be the same till the day I die.
So well… am I religious? – Oh yeeeeah! I am one proud religious Jewish man! J
And I believe hard enough that my G-d loves the religious guy I am. As long as goodness is what brings joy to my life, I’m sure I’m walking the path of His will.
Oh well, what about the ‘bacon’ thing in the post title? Well, the comment on that is a reaffirmation of the essence of my text.
Everyone knows Jews do not eat bacon. Neither do I. I do not eat bacon nor pork. And this is so for the same reason why people in the western world do not eat cats and dogs – the culture has taught them to do so. The culture in China in the east, on the other hand, tells them otherwise.
So yeah, the same principle applies to me. I was brought up in a Jewish home where pork is not an animal one eats – as simple as that. And this is why I do not eat bacon nor pork today – for my culture has taught me to do so.
And the weekend began. It was Saturday 6.44AM when I boarded the train from Vienna to Munich carrying in my backpack nothing more than my camera and the traditional Bavarian outfit „Lederhosen” (leather shorts) on my way to the Oktoberfest, Germany’s largest and internationally-known annual beer festival.
After boarding the train, I opened my computer browser to read the news and well, the headlines kept on going on the hot topic of the moment: the refugees’ situation in Europe. Articles, chronicles and commentaries all interlaced in a mesh of facts and opinions, which make use of social, religious, political, cultural, anthropological, historical, (…), and, and, and elements to try to make sense of this and that.
The trip continued. I was entertaining myself reading the second ‘Harry Potter’ book on my Kindle when the train made a stop. After some passengers left the train, a considerably larger amount of people boarded on that station. The flow of people inside the train called my attention. I noticed most of the passengers who had just boarded had a rather Mediterranean/Arab look, they seemed to be speaking Arabic and they were carrying little to no luggage.
A young man approached the area where I was sitting. With his eyes between the seat numbers above my head and the train tickets on his hand, he seemed a bit unsure whether he had found his reserved spot or not. I stretched my hands offering help in taking a look at his train ticket. After confirming that the seat next to me and the one in front of it are the ones he had a reservation for, he thanked me with a smile and a very low-voiced ‘thanks’, offered the young lady travelling with him the seat in front of him, helped her with a bag in her hands and then finally sat down next to me.
Some five minutes passed. I felt something different in the energy surrounding me. And I convinced myself I was right when I saw the young lady stretching her arms across the small table between the two rows of seats, holding the young man’s hands, raising their interlaced hands to her face and starting to cry.
I put down my Kindle. I had no mind for the reading anymore.
The couple exchanged a couple of words and some time later the lady managed to control her urge to cry. I had the impression she only did so out of embarrassment. Her eyes were clearly telling me how much she wanted to keep on crying. I could see her fighting to control the sobbing. I watched the scene in silence. My mind was booming with thoughts and questions. Unsure whether it was the best moment and if there was a best moment at all, I just decided to start a conversation. And I did:
‘Excuse me, what language were you speaking?’ – I said. The young man looked at me with a discreet smile on his face and a rather unsure tone in his voice and said: ‘Sorry?’ I repeated my question once again slowly and this time, as he paid closer attention to me, he replied: ‘Arabic’, carrying a modest smile on his face.
‘Where are you from?’ – I continued. ‘Iraq’ – he said.
‘Is this your first time in Austria/Germany?’. ‘Yes’.
‘How long have you been travelling for?’. ‘About two weeks’.
‘Where are travelling to?’. ‘Today, Hamburg. Tomorrow, we don’t know yet.’
‘What brings you to Europe?’. ‘War’.
Besides reading his facial expression of obvious fear and concern, at this point I had no doubts I was talking to one of many refugees – the ones whose situation I had read on the news earlier that day. And since Sayid (this was his real name as I later found out) seemed to be a very friendly person who had a subtle smile on his face, I decided to start what ended up being a one-hour conversation about his life, his journey and lots of stories about his reality. I didn’t know yet, but that would be the most valuable hour of my day, week or month. A conversation, which was only interrupted by my arrival at the end station. Its value, on the other hand, will certainly last for much much longer.
And this post tells the summary of this one-hour talk with this brave 24-year-old man from Iraq, whom I had the pleasure to meet on my way to Munich – a trip which was followed by my return home on the next day. Sayid was on the same train. Sayid was not on his way to any particular destination, though. Sayid was simply escaping as far as he could away from home, a place he had no idea when or if he will ever return to.
Sayid is the youngest of four siblings in his family. He is 24 years old. He just finished his academic studies in law in Damascus, Syria, where his family moved to from Baghdad about a decade ago following some unrests in Iraq. Sayid said that his biggest dream is to move back to his home country. He remembers his time as a child growing up in the Iraqi capital and said ‘It has never been easy to live in a country under so much tension, but things were much better before. We were not afraid someone would knock on our door and kill us for no reason’.
Sayid was then sitting next to me on board of a train in Europe. And this is the series of events that led him there: It all started with a dispute with extremist militants (Islamic State – IS), who tried to force him to join their army. Upon refusing to join them and escaping their control, Sayid fled to the home of his girlfriend, Sadia, the young woman now sitting opposite him on the train. Some days after he went hiding in his girlfriend’s home, Sayid came to know about the horror that had fallen upon his family, which would then be the reason why, less than a week after, he would be on his way out of Syria. Militants of the IS went looking for him, and upon reaching his home and not finding him, they murdered Sayid’s parents, three brothers and one of his sister-in-laws.
Without having the chance to even care for the proper burial of his family’s remains, Sayid was advised by his in-laws to leave the country as soon as he could.
And for more than two weeks, Sayid and Sadia have benn on their way to nowhere – or somewhere where they can find shelter. From Syria to Turkey, from Turkey to Greece, from Greece to Macedonia, from Macedonia to Serbia, from Serbia to Hungary, from Hungary to Austria and now from Austria to Germany. He said he has been informed that Iraqi nationals are beings fairly treated in Finland. He hopes he will make it all the way there, but this is not written in stone. He wishes it would be easier; that they could take a flight somewhere where they could start a new life in peace. But reality is not like that.
After paying EUR 4,400 for both his and his girlfriend’s spot on a boat from Turkey to Greece, their fear of death has been hastened. The boat carrying 20 passengers turned after two hours in the Mediterranean Sea. It was night. They could see nothing but each other and the moon and stars above them. Sayid says that since this night his girlfriend Sadia started having those attacks in which she would cry desperately. They were 20 people on that boat. After what they calculate based on the sunrise to have been more than five hours, only approximately half of them were rescued by fishermen who took then to Greece. As Sayid told me this story, he opened the bag he carried and took out two iPhones and a pile of paper, all showing signs to have been under water for quite long.
‘In Hungary the situation was very bad. In Austria everyone was nice to us. But it doesn’t matter. They give us food and drink but nobody understands our problem. We don’t want to stay here. But we cannot go back to Syria or Iraq. And we cannot fight. We need an army. Our money we spend to travel to here. We need help. The people went crazy. We are fighting ourselves. In Syria people want to kill us. Why? On the way here, people are killing each other too. Why?’
At a certain point, the conversation that had started with questioning from my side continued as a monologue. Sayid went on and on as if he was taking the chance to vent his thoughts with me. He kept on going non-stop about his stories followed by stories of people he knows. Drama, misfortune, tragedy, terror, fear and panic were among the words one could use to describe these. I was overwhelmed. As much as I wanted to know more, I felt like the flow of energy was so negative that it started to depressingly influence me. I felt an urge to cry. I couldn’t stop him, though. I had nothing to give this man and his girlfriend except my attention. And so I did. I kept on listening to him talking about much of what I had read in the news earlier that day, but this time it was adorned with emotion.
‘Her parents did not have much money. She is the only one who left. She only left because I did. She wouldn’t do it alone.’ – Sayid said, referring to his girlfriend as he held her hands and kept talking to me. Sadia’s eyes were the saddest I’ve seen in a long time. Her make-up was flawless, though. She was so quiet the whole time. She didn’t say a thing. I was convinced she couldn’t understand us speaking in English. And then Sayid said: ‘And she is the reason why I am still alive. I promised her parents I would take her to a safe place and take care of her. And this promise kept me from drowning in the sea. Without her, I think I would have given up.’ And then I figured she could actually understand English. As he said these words, she brought his hands to her lips, gave it a kiss and gave up to tears again. This time, the load was just too heavy. Tears went up my eyes and I let them fall with a smile on my face, which indicated how honored I felt to have met Sayid, a real-life hero.
‘Next Station: Plattling.’ – announced the train information system in the speakers. I had to take my connection to Munich in this station.
I was speechless. I did not know how to close this conversation. I did my best. ‘Well, it’s been a pleasure to meet you. I wish the best of luck in life for you and your girlfriend. May love keep you both together and guide you to a future of peace and success. I doubt I will ever be able to understand much of what you have just told me. But I can assure you that I share your pain and all I can offer you now is a share of my joy and a hug.’ – I said to him, ending up with a smile on my face.
Sayid left his seat to make space for me to leave, and as I stood in front of him, I looked him in the eyes and opened my arms. He understood the gesture and leaned towards me. He hugged me. I tapped him three times on the back and said: ‘Be well, man!’. He said: ‘You too.’ With smiles on our faces we both looked at Sadia, who now also had a subtle smile on hers’. We didn’t say anything. We just kept on smiling. I took a deep breath, and waving my right hand while picking up my rucksack with the left one, I said goodbye and wondered where the strength to smile comes from in these two young people. Their stories were just too devastating.
As I left the train and ran to the other platform to take my connection, I added some notes to my logging of the conversation just to make sure I would not miss a thing. As I did it, one rather obvious thing came to my mind: their names. ‘Sayid’ and ‘Sadia’ sound like very similar names. I was curious to find out what they meant. So I googled it only to find out that ‘Sayid’ means MASTER and ‘Sadia’ means HAPPINESS. Despite their tragic ways, Sayid and Sadia made me smile once again.