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The clash of the fears

On March 11th 2020, Dr. Tedros Adahom Ghebreyesus, chairman of the WHO declared in his already historical speech that the outbreak of Sars-CoV-2 fits the definition of a pandemic. He also stated that this virus can be controlled and called upon governments to ‘take urgent and aggressive action’. Now, as the weeks unfold, we are starting to wonder if our ability to control this virus is a gift or a curse.

Photo by Nandhu Kumar

 

I am reading the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling. In chapter 4, The Fear Instinct, he discusses 3 primordial fears, as they have evolved along with us: the fear of physical harm, the fear of captivity and the fear of contamination. Many of our every day fears, rational or irrational, can be brought down to one or a combination of these three. Fear for snakes and spiders, for example, is in fact a fear for the invisible threat of the poison that comes out of them, meaning it is a fear of contamination. Fear for being stuck in the same office for the rest of your life, would then be a type of fear for captivity. And fear for being hit by a bus or drowning are fears for physical harm.

Rosling mentions these fears because they catalyze our interest for certain news stories. He illustrates it with terrorism, which intentionally combines the fear for physical harm and the fear of captivity for the purpose of drawing an endless amount of attention to or away from a certain issue. It works. Stories on terrorism often go viral. When reading chapter 4, of course, I immediately thought about what a nice shit show cocktail of these 3 primordial fears we have found ourselves in with this coronavirus.

Fear being a “fight or flight” type of motion, Rosling explains, decreases our ability to reason. We are quicker to choose a certain side in the discussion and take less time to carefully weigh the facts. In this crisis, I’ve felt that. We all have, because it’s a natural response. But that makes it all the more important to be aware of these fears. Society is being launched into a pressure cooker of crazy situations and out-of-the-box decision making. We are all trying to figure out which way to go in our own private lives and together as a society. For those who can grant ourselves some time to step back and think, it may be a good idea to look for our own fears and ask ourselves how they are pushing us to conclusions. If only for our peace of mind.

Which is why I am going to go through a number of fears I have encountered in my own life throughout the weeks, in the order in which they occur to me. I’ll give my quick personal assessment on how I perceive these fears, but I’m not implying that it’s complete. I’m guided in my assessments by big newspapers such as NYtimes and European equivalents, numerous scientific and anecdotal podcasts, the information by the WHO and national statistics of the individual countries, recent research published by universities and of course the quabbles between all kinds of camps on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube.

The stack of fears
I’ll start with the fear for the vaccine, or worse, compulsory vaccination. My mum brought it up about a month ago, and I see it come up here and there online. She told me that before I was born, a wrong vaccine caused her to feel illish for about half a year. At the moment, I’m involved in a Facebook discussion about it with some good friends, who are pointing out some examples in the past where vaccines didn’t work. Another very good friend has helped eradicate the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak with a novel vaccine in West Africa. I am very glad he did that. The fear for the vaccine itself clearly relates to the fear of contamination and physical harm. The compulsory part adds the element of a fear for captivity. Loss of autonomy over the own body. I also have a light version of that fear, though I do trust 21st century testing procedures are good enough to make them safe enough. Particularly in the unlikely scenario in which it is made mandatory, at least in my region in the world. I am not particularly fearful for a mandatory vaccine, but I would of course scrutinize its side effects.

Second: fear that there will never be a vaccine, or worse that this virus eludes immunity. Since I’m sure this virus is real, dangerous and far from over, this is one which scares me more. It illustrates the clusterfuck of fears going against each other in my case. It’s connected to the fear of captivity and physical harm, since having no vaccine or immunity would potentially mean being stuck in this situation for longer and having a bigger risk of catching and spreading the virus. As flawless vaccines are hard to acquire, it sounds unlikely to me that there will soon be one that could be used on a global scale. Which would mean more lockdown. Scary foresight.

That brings us to the fear for catching the virus itself. This too, is a clear case of fear of contamination and physical harm. The big, unknown and invisible and scary virus is out there and it is coming to get us. For young and healthy people like me, catching the virus is probably not much more scary than being bitten by a snake. But for older people and people with suboptimal health, men specifically, the fear seems justified. I’m not really afraid, but the thought does itch the scary-center in my brain. I do regularly have minor lung problems.

And how about the fear of being imprisoned in our own houses? It’s almost not possible to think of a clearer case of the fear of captivity. Some countries, such as China and the Southern European ones have taken the order to stay home very far. It’s not strange people there are frightened about being locked away. Particularly if they haven’t experienced this virus for themselves or don’t know anyone who has almost died from it. Here in the North, things have been better. Whenever it becomes too much, I am free to go for a long walk or bike ride. Or meet a friend outside and have a drink. It’s a way to mitigate that fear, perhaps. But also just a way to move and breathe some spring.

Next one: fear of passing the virus to another. Since my last post in early March, I think this fear has become much better felt and acted upon. I’m happy with that. The connection to one of the primordial fears is not very clear to me, and so far I haven’t seen many stories of this. Perhaps it relates to the fear of captivity, because it implies a loss of control over the consequences of your own actions. You don’t want to infect others, but do it anyway.

Another very real fear that is emerging: the fear of losing our livelihood. In a locked down capitalist society, not being able to work poses a real threat of losing the freedoms you acquired earlier. Your house, your luxury. Losing everything would lead, in part, to losing your autonomy, so this one quite clearly translates to the fear of captivity. If this lockdown lasts for very long, I too might lose my home. Many others would go before me, though, and for that reason I think it’s not likely to happen to me. I imagine others are more afraid of this, and rightly so.

Related and stronger: fear of starvation. It doesn’t come near me, here in the Netherlands, but it’s very real for people in poorer countries. For those who are on the edge of this, any action coming from this fear, even if blind, is of course legitimized. The UN is working hard to mitigate this, but that will unlikely be enough.

Or how about the fear of the unknown? The scale and size of the measures to control this pandemic are unprecedented. We don’t know what our next year, two years, three years will look like. We never did, of course, but this time feels different. I think this one also originates from the fear for captivity. Not only because we are inside all the time, but also because we have reduced control over our own lives. To embrace the unknown is one of the hardest things for people who have everything, but we’re all forced to do that now. It’s truly crazy to imagine how much could change. This tempts us to already make a choice for ourselves on knowing how things will play out. But whatever we imagine the future will be, we’re likely wrong. I am actively refraining from trying knowing anything except that I’m pretty sure we’ll still be dealing with this in some form for a long time.

I was glad to see quite some of the politicians political leaders admitting that they don’t know what will happen either. This included Putin, Merkel and the lesser known Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte. They refrain from making predictions on how this will evolve in the coming months. They all show a certain insecurity about the facts out of fear of getting it wrong. The risk here, though, is that they shift the power and the blame of decision to epidemiologists, which isn’t always the best approach either. With the constant stream of information, I’m also regularly afraid of being wrong, but luckily I don’t have this great responsibility of decision-making. Is being wrong a type of incarceration of the mind? I don’t know. This one doesn’t very clearly fit one of the boxes of media-friendly fears, I guess.

On the other end of the spectrum, the fear of appearing weak, more clearly relates to the fear of captivity. Because if you’re weak, you can be controlled. According to some leaders, at least. Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, and Orban are shining examples. Well okay, I can’t speak for them, and in hindsight not for the guys I mentioned in the previous paragraph either. If I look into myself, the moments where I want to appear powerful are when I want to get my will to become reality. Anyway, I’m not so afraid of this, in the context of this virus I think.

Personally, I have more fear for societal or economic disruption or collapse. Did you see the oil price drop to negative territory? Insane. It is an intricate fear these days, because such a disruption could come in many forms. It could come with a sudden wave of sick people overloading the hospitals, but also from economic or social unrest due to an overly locked down consumer lifestyle. From the popping of the debt bubbles. It could come with the emergence of a new kind of apartheid, where immune people can freely move while the vulnerable have to keep locking themselves up. Or when a scary order seizes control. Such disruption could lead to situations of captivity and physical harm. I do think this fear is rooted in those two fears, among others, and therefore very media-friendly. The big question is the order of magnitude in which things may go wrong and how they might get fixed.

Then, of course, there is the fear of a sudden implementation of intelligence infrastructure such as 5G. All around the world, people are now burning down 4G towers because they believe the emergence of 5G is bad news. A clear link with the fear of contamination and also with the fear of captivity. The fear comes with the hypothesis that 5G is meant to control us somehow, for example by making us sick. While I kind of share the fear for the emerging intelligence infrastructure, I find it hard to relate to this virus. We were already well on our way with installing 5G before this mayhem started. People want their self-driving cars.

Related, and also very much linked to the fear of captivity, is the broader fear of being controlled by the government, the media or by the corporate world. The lockdown itself is quite scary. It weakens us all in our way. And under these circumstances, the removal of a video from Youtube or Facebook, due to “community guidelines” looks extra suspicious. Or the implementation of surveillance apps. Some people believe thight response is a test to see if governments and corporations can further control the population. Living in Western-Europe, in one of the countries ranked highest on the global press freedom index, where everything is up for debate and every fart of the prime minister is under scrutiny, I’m personally not too worried by this. If this was the case, they would not have removed the circuses. But I do see the threat of the emergence of dictators exacerbate, which is scary, particularly for people living in the areas where they tighten their rule.

In the early phases of this thing, Asian people were looked upon with disgust throughout the world. Later, the same happened to Italians in Europe, New Yorkers in the US and now, foreigers are seen as scary in Asia. Well, at least we have something in common. Indirectly, that’s a fear for the virus itself, of course, so a fear for contamination, but journalists like to elevate this to xenophobia, which I think comes closer to a fear of captivity. I have felt this fear in the early stages when I saw some Asian people with masks, I must admit.

Let me end this series on that fear for masks. Personally, I find people with masks on the street a little scary. Not when I think about it, of course, but the sight. Wearing them myself, not so much, but it’s certainly not my hobby. Masks are introduced as a mandatory thing in many countries, but not here, so I don’t wear one at this time. Perhaps I will if I become aware of a local outbreak in my neighbourhood. This fear definitely has an aspect of loss of control and captivity. Particularly if the mask is mandatory. An ominous sign of a dark presence in the streets.

Taming the coronamonster
By declaring that we are able to control this virus, the WHO has laid an unprecedented burden on each one of us, and on our leaders in particular. Whoever is in power now, is obliged to make the effort to solve this problem.

For the first time in history, we are putting all our global human effort in getting a grasp over an elusive beast of this scale. There is something majestic about that ambition, but at the same time, it has something utterly naïve. What does success mean here? Will we ever get there? And what does failure look like? The fact that we’re taking up this collossal task says something about who we as a human race think we are. And who we are becoming. What that is, no-one knows.

What we do know now, is that we can no longer go back. This virus isn’t simply a force of nature anymore. We have made it into a nuisance that we are failing to get rid of. When people die, that is our fault. When people live, we can praise ourselves. No more God or Allah to rely upon. We have called upon ourselves the burden to look for the middle way between life and death on a global scale.

That in itself is a frightening thought. It combines, at least in part, many of the fears I mentioned above, makin the coronavirus into the ultimate subject for media and social media to publish about. I’m not surprised to see a lot of different, opposing views clash online and off. And since fear is a strong motivator, I would also not be surprised to see eruptions of civil unrest, resistance and disobedience appear in the months to come. I just hope people will cut each other some slack when looking each others fears in the eye. Because I don’t think demonizing each other is the way to go.

However it looks to you, we all agree that the fears are real. Yet while some may see in it a call to arms, I’m trusting that things will turn out well. I’ve seen structures crack open that I’d never expect to some years ago. Something to talk about in my next blog, perhaps. Who knows when that will be. And while there is a lot to doubt, question and meditate upon, there’s one thing I’m certain about. We live in interesting times. And I’m grateful to be in the priviledged position to witness it from a distance.

My opinions

I thought it’d be a good idea to just list my opinions here. It has several advantages. First, having not written on my blog for a while, and to avoid I write a post about everything, I just stick to my opinions. Second, it helps me create an overview of where I stand in the current geopolitical landscape. Third, by posting my opinions here, I save myself the time of having to pass by all social media, forums and other online outlets and spread them there. Fourth, this also spares me the need for engaging in discussions. Whenever I disagree with someone or someone asks me for my opinion, I’ll just pass them the link to this page. Might even create an app for it. Neat. Arranged. Like a cupboard for the pieces of my person which aren’t generally in use.

The list won’t stick to facts, nor will it exclude them. And I am not saying that these opinions are fixed. Okay, here goes, in no particular order:

  • A fact may also be an opinion. That doesn’t make it less fact. It does make it less opinion.
  • Oranges are fantastic fruits.
  • Writing these down isn’t as easy as it sounds.
  • Social media aren’t social, nor are they antisocial.
  • Dualistic thinking, such as in mind-body, us-them, men-women, yin-yang, good-evil, light-dark, rich-poor, black-white, fact-fiction, is neither productive, nor based on reality. This thinking might not even be fundamental to who we are as a species. In fact, it’s closer to a prison of our minds.
  • Logical reasoning is useful, but used badly and overrated. Combined with our dualist bias, it almost always leads to wrong conclusions.
  • Time is not linear, nor is it circular. It goes in all directions at once.
  • Nobody likes work, but people like money. That’s why people are paid to work.
  • Societies in the West have a twisted relationship to sex and death, hiding both events in real life, but glorifying them on stage.
  • The fact that we keep old, sick people alive for as long as possible, sometimes against their own will, can be explained by the fact that nobody wants to carry the responsibility of letting someone die. When it becomes the collective burden, however, for example in the case of climate change, social neglect, war, or inequality, we are a lot more willing to accept our role in it. This is a hypocrite stance supported by legislation.
  • Trump and his family are guilty of tax evasion, and it’s a miracle he made it this far. It’s a matter of time before we find some of them in jail.
  • #MeToo hasn’t changed society much (yet).
  • Trade wars and blocking roads for political reasons are bad for the economy, but good for the environment as long as they don’t lead to armed skirmishes or wars.
  • There are no easy fixes. Not for climate change, not for the financial system, not for other problems. All change needs time and massive dedication.
  • At this point, nuclear energy is probably necessary to avoid out-of-control CO2 exhaustion.
  • Greta Thunberg is both gifted and cursed. The question whether her parents should have protected her from herself remains a dilemma to me. Time will not tell, as this was a risk taken at a time when the outcome was unknown. The same applies to all child stars, by the way.
  • It’s concerning that the most populous social movements today are generally not in favour of the environment, but rather in favour of regional freedoms (Hong Kong, UK, Cataluña, Wallonia, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru) or outright against environmental measures (Gilets Jaunes, Farmers’ protests, Trumpists, Bolsonarenho’s), while it’s the businesses that are taking steps, albeit small ones, to improve the climate situation.
  • It’s to be called fishy at least, that 4 champions of the fight against AIDS in Africa combined with local empowerment, all very influential, have died in 3 separate plane crashes.
  • All matter is conscious.
  • Combining coffee with very spicy food is always a good idea.
  • The global legislative system is under pressure, but it will not fail. Humanity is still quite reasonable. But the very powerful will always be able to slither out of it.
  • On the one hand it’s tragic that we have to kill to eat, but on the other it’s quite strange that I find that tragic. This may well point to a human misinterpretation of reality.
  • Facebook and other powerful enterprises should start building schools and hospitals where people go for free.
  • The financial crisis of 2008 has not been solved. But the fact that much of the work force is retiring, is an even larger problem.
  • All hope is not lost, but we need to brace for times less easy than the past 6 decades. The West, at least.
  • Sometimes, giving up is a great thing. Surrender is tied to freedom.
  • Ajax deserves to win the Champions League next year.
  • While the emergence of theme-focussed action groups such as third wave feminism, gay rights and black lives matter is a great thing, they will be not be very effective if they don’t work together. They need to keep looking at the bigger picture.
  • Tension in your underbelly can be seen as stress, but it can also be a source of creativity or sexual expression. Holding it consciously for a while, doesn’t hurt.
  • For a while should be written as such.
  • Mr. Robot deserves far bigger viewership. It is challenging Breaking Bad in quality. Breaking Bad remains the best series of all time.
  • Most people are quite okay.
  • The Dutch news really isn’t that bad either.
  • Democracy is functioning, though it could be improved.
  • Disregarding opinions by classifying them as “bigot”, “racist”, “mysogenic”, “neo-liberalist”, “offensive” or the like, is a form of violence. The method should be treated conservatively. It is prone to be labelled as fascist and rightly so, particularly if done by ruling institutions such as universities and news media. Open debate is always better.
  • The fact that protests are at a high recently, while the the stock markets are at an all time high as well, is not a good foreboding.
  • Humans are more resilient than they think. We have become overly sensitive to many things, such as strange opinions or critique, disappointment, germs, foods, irregularities in looks, irregularities in thought, broken clothes and suboptimal working conditions. I suspect this is because we are not exposing ourselves o these enough. Of course, that has benefits.
  • Most drugs are fine. It’s the repression of them that causes the problems. But I don’t believe these occur in bad faith, such as fear for the freedom of the people. I think it is a genuine act of protection. But most people don’t need such care by the state.
  • Marriage and love are two different things. One does not depend on the other.
  • Many basic ways to make sense of life are mutually exclusive. Most people hold several of such visions at once, but few are aware of it. For example: many people believe that they have somehow chosen their own existence, and also believe in logic to explain the world around them. Strictly seen, both can’t be true. Another example: atheïsts who believe that there is nothing after death because there’s only matter, fail to see that they apparently ascribe consciousness to matter, and that matter will not disappear after their death.
  • It might all hinge on the point between existence and non-existence. How sharp is that cut-off? Is the point itself transient? Could evolution have happened in a second? What I mean is, if time is omnidirectional, which I think it is, then it could have, it has, and it hasn’t. The question is irrelevant. But in that world, we have merely imagined death, birth, endings and beginnings, to alleviate the burden of eternity, perhaps. Or to create it. Because I can’t solve this problem with logic, I can only conclude I don’t know how this works, fully aware that that statement opens up a new realm of non-existence, being that which isn’t known. And what exists between the known and the unknown? Opinions.
  • Pepper is overrated.
  • Relativity is much more interesting than the absolute. They are no opposites of each other, because the concept of opposites is absolute, which excludes the relative. The same applies to order and chaos. The understanding of such concepts as opposing, shows the banality of the human mind. That is not to say that I don’t keep finding myself seeing them that same way.
  • Relativity exists through perception. Opinions are our purpose in life.
  • If our minds were devouring beasts in the sea of knowledge, then our opinions would be the phase of digestion of our food, the relative into our excrements, the absolute. Yet we don’t back off from the absolute the way we back off from our shit.
  • I find it pretentious of myself that I’m now lifting the simple act of writing down some opinions to a level of absolute meaning. If the opinion stated above would be mine in the absolute way, I would instantly stop giving opinions. Actually, no. Because giving opinions would be my destiny.
  • While I have not yet given all my opinions by far, I think it’s better if I stop now, because I am caught in a loop.
  • Making videos is a lot of fun.
  • So is writing.
  • Despite the greatness of 2019 with regard to film, Climax and They shall not grow old, are still the two best ones I have seen this year.
  • European Schools are good schools. I think it would generally benefit societies if there was more multilinguality around.
  • Hurricanes are mighty interesting. The way they move. Their power. It’s sad that they’re so destructive, but without that, they’d hardly be more interesting than an emptying sink with some ink in the water.
  • Val Dieu Tripel is the best beer. But alternating it with other beers improves it.
  • Midgets are inherently funny. That doesn’t apply to all midgets, of course, but to most.
  • There is no greater medium than sound to touch the soul. Perhaps sound even creates the soul, that I don’t know.
  • It’s strange that in Slovak, and probably in other Slavic languages as well, double negations act as single negations.
  • Zuzana is the sweetest chick in the world.
  • The dynamic between arts and power is troubled. It probably makes sense to look for the undiscovered, instead of looking for art in power houses. Even if most of what you’ll find will not be very meaningful to you.
  • Now that we are all racists, the term racism has lost its weight, so we need a new word.
  • Toilet paper should always be piled as high as possible.
  • Dirty dishes shouldn’t be piled up in the sink.
  • Ironing is mostly unnecessary.
  • Remote controls are very handy.
  • All forests should be protected.
  • There is poetry hidden in everything.

To gun

A few days ago I was around a table – even if it was rectangular – with two architects who work on nature inclusive urban design. It was a first meeting in a set. We’re writing a small guide together. While discussing the reasons why one, being a human being, would include nature in one’s urban design, we came up with 3 main streams of reason. I will order them the way I will for the sake of this essay. Not randomly, but also not in a way that puts one above the other. For now.

The anthropocentre. Nature benefits us humans in endless ways. To recite them now would be an insult. ‘Who’d be insulted?’ You might ask. A quick answer would be: those who are tired of measurebators. Me, for one. I guess that breaks with the ‘for now’ bit of a paragraph ago. Do feel free to apply your own logic to that one.

Custodianship. This stream is less common, because it implies responsibility. And who likes responsibility? Not you, not me, and certainly not the guys and gals who direct us. In this case, custodianship assumes that humans, one way or the other, have got themselves in the place where they can care about nature. We know how to destroy it, so why would we not inherently be capable of rehabilitating it? As long as it’s still there. I don’t think there’s a reason why we wouldn’t. Which doesn’t mean I think that human minds would be able to create earth with all today’s beauty from scratch. Let that be clear. But this responsibilty could, in theory, be something we were born with. Something our nature demands us to take up. Unfortunate as it sounds.

And then comes stream number 3. Even less common, I think: gunnen. Emmanuel Levinas. He made a big point about the unknown other. I’m not sure if he said we all have an unknown other inside us, and in fact I think that’s a good idea which needs to be elaborated upon, but he did raise the question ‘what happens if an unknown makes a call upon you?‘ A jew could ask you if he or she could stay in your place while some crazy guys are comming to kill him, for example. Would you answer, even if you knew that person is vastly different from yourself? If that soul is unknown to you? Will you allow yourself to provide the person what he or she needs? And if your own life would be at stake?

Ha! I used the word soul again. Tears come to my eyes. It’s a word that, in order to be used unequivocally, requires a laid back state of mind or at least a state of faith. But as I use this word again today, I have to admit I redefined it to myself. Before, I insisted that the soul was that part of our being that unites all beings. God, basically. As of now, I have shifted my definition back to a more common one, closer to the individual. A personal soul. You have your own soul. Why not? And to explain why I shifted back: the concept of soul I believe to be closer to the truth is too omnipresent for conversation, and that’s not what having a conversation is about, I discovered. I appeared atheist. In this case I used the word to imply that the unknown other has some innate value, transcending even the concept of value.

To gun. No, gunnen. It’s a Dutch verb.

Around a different table, with some friends, one day after the first, we discovered that there is no proper translation for that word in any of the languages we know. That puts ‘gun‘ in my new list of favourite Dutch words, together with ‘oer‘. To clarify: that list now consists of 2 words. And I do think this time the table had some roundish shape. It was quite low, in fact, and not very prominent. But it invoked something between us.

So let me explain the word to you, knowing I’ll fail.

Consider the expression to give someone the benefit of the doubt. In Dutch you’d translate that as iemand het voordeel van de twijfel gunnen.

All other words in that sentence translate fairly literally. The difference between giving and gunnen, is that giving comes from a position of wealth, and gunnen from no position at all. To give someone something, you first need to have something. Even if little. To gun something, you don’t need to have anything. You just wish that someone has something. You don’t put yourself above the other. In the most fundamental way, it’s the opposite of being jealous.

If that makes you wonder: ‘hey! what’s wrong with the word wish?’ Well, nothing is wrong with it, but its meaning is subtly different. And that’s not that easy to explain. Wishing is, or can be, more active. After a half an hour try-out with our French friend, she concluded it was rather abstract. But it’s not.

Gunnen (to gun, pronounced with the traditional, throat-rasping Dutch g) is a state of being from which you wish something good to someone or something. Not necessarily because that person deserves it, but just because you do. What’s more, the thing you gun to something can be very defined, but it doesn’t need to be. Yet it’s always positive. Sure, you could use the word sarcastically, but what it refers to can technically only be positive. Improving someone’s situation.

There may of course be reasons why you would gun something to someone, for example because you like the person, but the word gunnen doesn’t imply reasons. In that sence, it stretches into the realm of Levinas’, unknown other.

Gunnen as a verb is seamlessly applied to the other. Not because of the other per se. You can gun any being whatever they wish for, without knowing who that person is or what it is that person wishes for. A bit like ‘I’d wish a stranger anything’, but more casually. You can gun nature life. There is no reason why anyone wouldn’t. If nature doesn’t end up with life in this context, that’s just because we encountered ourselves in the pickle of taking it from it. Not because we don’t gun it it.

That was a thought in our talk around the table a few days ago. And it suddenly felt so important.

Vegan Challenge

For the coming fourty days, I will eat and drink solely plant-based foods and drinks. I will succeed, except perhaps for a few mistakes out of ignorance (though I just took screenshots of a list of vegan E-numbers, and intend to verify them). It’s not my intention to permanently switch to a vegan or even a vegetarian diet. I don’t consider that necessary, but I do think doing such a challenge is a good idea for everyone. Since it is a topic of discussion these days, let me briefly give my views on some of the arguments.

Eating vegan is the more natural thing to do
Some vegans claim that eating vegan is a natural thing to do. They support this statement by pointing out some of our physiological adaptations to green food, such as our molars to chew, our long intestines to digest greens and our not so acidic stomach. These are supposedly signs that evolution adapted us to a fully vegan diet. For now, all I’d like to contest against this doctrine is ‘Vitamin B12’. That vitamin is vital to our nervous system, but can be found solely in animal products, in some very exceptional algae and in food supplements. The fact that humans would get serious problems (such as blindness) if we don’t regularly ingest B12 pretty much settles the argument for me. And I find the ‘natural’ argument a bit scary in fact. As if ‘cultural’ would be wrong. Depending on your definition, we humans have moved far beyond the ‘natural’. I don’t see that as morally wrong as long as we stay respectful, and I do not support such doctrines.

Eating vegan is healthier
Here’s an argument I haven’t researched that much. So far, I have lived by the principle that my body knows perfectly well what is good for it and what is not. Now that I’m thirty, I do admit that this outlook may be a little naive, since I would supposedly not yet notice the potential long-term damage I did to it in my early years. Yet following my appetite, I noticed that my food choice becomes heavier in winter, containing more meat, and more vegetable-based in summer, when I need less energy and fat to keep my body heated. I consider that a good sign. Of course, I cannot be sure if that is a mental of physical thing. Probably a combination.

Essentially, health is a complex thing. What is healthy for your brain, may be unhealthy for your heart, and what is good for your kidneys may be less good for your eyes or your nervous system. Food scientists discover new impacts of foods every day. Hence, next to following my taste, I have always tried to adopt a balanced diet and eating a bit of everything.

To stay within the discourse on health and veganism, some people use the argument that vegans get sick as soon as they eat a bit of meat. I wouldn’t deny that they get sick, but would look for the explanation in the switch of diet, rather than blaming the actual meat or dairy. And many people have allergies, intolerances or other medical conditions which would fully legitimize certain diet choices. Problems I don’t have, luckily. In the end, I’d say that avoiding illness requires a broader outlook. We should stimulate our capacity to continuously heal ourselves, which in my view is about untightening.

Vegan consumption reduces animal suffering
I’m all for the decrease of animal suffering. Whether an animal suffers or not, depends on how it is treated. Not eating meat at all means turning your back on meat farmers. Buying organic meat of the kind that focusses on animal welfare, on the other hand, stimulates a better practice. It could indirectly stimulate change in the standards of animal treatment in general. Thus using market forces, buying organic meat could decrease animal suffering in a way that eating no meat can’t. Let’s not forget also, that many of the animals we’re talking about would never have existed without us. Provided they enjoy existence, breeding animals could be a good thing. I would say that this conversation should be more about respectful animal treatment than about eating or not eating them.

Killing animals is wrong
I’m not happy that we have to kill other beings to survive, but that’s the bitter truth. Vegans, vegetarians and many others make a sharp distinction between plants and animals. Now, I agree that there are differences between the groups, but there also are plenty of things about plants we do not yet understand. And if there’s one thing in which plants do not differ from animals, it’s in the meaning of death. We are talking about the difference between being held together by life, and falling apart. I don’t see how plants and animals differ under that light. I believe that feeling the life flow out of you is a deeply relaxing experience to all creatures alike.

Vegans’ environmental impacts are lower
I find this the strongest argument against eating animal products (or for the reduction of it). Every step up the food pyramid costs ten times the amount of food and drinks as the previous step did. In other words: it takes 10 kg of grass to create 1 kg of cow, and 100 kg of grass to create 1 kg of human that fed solely on cows, while it would take 10 kg of vegetables. Keeping our position in the food pyramid low will inevitably reduce our impact on the global environment.

There is something unfair about this calculation, however, that I do want to stress. Grass can become new fertilizer. None of the ingested substances truly disappears. All of it will be given back to the atmosphere, the water and the land. The power of the global ecosystem has always been to keep the cycle intact. But: we humans have disrupted the balance, to a point where ecosystems are incapable of dealing with all of our waste. We could, theoretically, compensate for that ourselves and create new cycles that are more adapted to our taste for meat. However, we are far from having created such new cycles at the moment, and many of the valuable nutrients for our food are disappearing into the oceans. Hence it would be better for now to decrease our meat ingestion. Yet in this discussion, we should not forget that many plant products such as coffee, chocolate and plant-based oils have similar impacts on the global nutrient cycles as meat does.

Still taking the challenge
So, if I’m not against consumption of animal products per se, why still take this challenge? Well, first of all, not being anti doesn’t make you pro. I like meat, and not being discriminatory against it is by far the easiest way to go. Reducing my consumption of it is nonetheless still a good idea. Besides, I am not fond of habits that have taken control over me. I take yearly month-long brakes from coffee and alcohol, and I decided to do that with animal-based products as well at least this year. By doing so, I force myself to explore different behavioural patterns, and I expect that my outlook on food will expand. I suppose I’ll have a bigger palette of habits and dishes at my disposal after this period, which will decrease my animal-based consumption without me noticing.

I’m by far not the first of my friends to do something like this. Many have gone before, and I suppose that seeing them do it triggered it in me as well. But this is my choice, and I’m quite sure I will face some small conflicts with myself and society. For a short while, I will look into the faces of the pro-meat camp with the eyes of an anti. That may well turn out to be an interesting experience in itself. I do think I come equipped to disarm potential opponents.

Fear Spiders

If I dream about fear, my own fear, it is often embodied by a poisonous spider. The spider in my dream frightens me especially on moments when I cannot see it.

In real life, spiders only scare me if they are larger than my hand and faster than my arm. In dreams they emotionally disrupt me. They often co-occur with the collapse of my house. In a recent episode, there are giant moths involved, about 30 cm long, which have been eating the foundations of a wooden top floor. They live symbiotically with a black widow in her nest made of half composted, tar-smeared branches. The spider is hiding somewhere deep inside, behind the eating larvae which quickly evolve and fly off. I know I will encounter it when I clean up this nest. And it won’t be happy.

Clearly, I’m not the only one who, albeit below the surface, has a fear for spiders. I do wonder what causes that because honestly, they’re not that dangerous. Only a few exceptional specimens could kill you, but you’ll have plenty of time to find the antidote. It would make far more sense to dream about poisonous snakes or about an aircrash or a bulldozer falling un top of me, because those events are far more threatening. Why the spider?

A spider is generally blackish and has eight legs with which it runs rapidly and with a very light tread. More often, it sits still, hiding in a dark corner, or somewhere on its self-built sticky and artistic web. Most spiders have beautiful patterns on their back which deserve a better look. They are hunters. Top of the food chain. Prevent the blood from clotting, then suck their victims dry. To humans mostly harmless.

My mom and sister used to panic when there was a wolf spider in the house. Motioning after them, I did too. As the man of the house, I had to gradually learn that the easiest way to get a spider out of the bathtub, is to let it walk onto your arm, get outside and push it off the place of your body were it felt comfortable to stay. A spider is most scary when it runs, because we don’t know where it is going. The aspect of the unknown. I think her sudden speed also reflects the suddenness with which our fears present themselves to us.

Do spiders in my dream reflect my mothers fears from when I was a kid? The explanation is interesting in combination with the collapse of my house. The loss of control over my limited, constructed understanding of myself and reality. Is this fear culturally inherited? Is it psychologically entangled with the cognitive challenges of our childhood?

There’s another hypothesis I’d like to propose; one of more mystical nature. It’s connected to the number eight. The sacred geometry of it. In semi-dream mode I sometimes have visions of octangular, tunnel-like structures that seem to be a passageway to a certain insight or to my subconscious. The vision sometimes evolves into spider shapes, and even into highly detailed images of spiders with nice, colourful back patterns and fangs. It seems meaningful sometimes, as if these spiders have something to do with the access to my subconscious. Hiding in the dark, unknown corners of my mind.

The spider. A small, powerful entity that makes our imagination go wild. One day, she’ll trap the bug that ate from my corpse.

Pointain

Because it (still) is World Animal Day today, I’d like to tell you a story about a meeting with a cat. It really happened.

Paris, halfway August, 2009,

This must be the third metro I’ve seen go away, from my seat at the metro station Bonne Nouvelle. It’s interesting to see them come and go, they remind me of my thoughts. Yesterday night, I did the same thing with tourists in Montmartre. Observing lives pass by, as if they were never lived.

I was at home two days ago. My friends were gone, and I had little to do, so I hitch hiked to Paris in an impulse. Beautiful drivers, crazy drivers and boring drivers. Same old freedom, still fresh. Ended up on a couch at a juggler’s festival. Went on in the morning, and arrived in the early afternoon. I love Paris.

As I see another metro go, I write in my diary that I’ll take the next one. I keep putting down words, but within a few minutes, I hear the next one come. I stand up and see it slow down as the compartments pass in front of me. It almost stands still. Inside, in front of the door in the back, stands a darkish girl with thick black dread locks, not entirely unattractive, but not extremely well taken care of either. She is surrounded by a great deal of backpack-like luggage. Yet what strikes me most, is the black and white baby cat standing on her shoulder. I follow her compartment for another ten meters, then it halts. I get in and sit down in the hallway, a bodylength away from her and her little companion.

The metro accelerates. Everybody else seems to know quite well where they’re going to. I look at the cute little creature. It’s completely relaxed, looking around, then it looks at me. The girl picks it of her shoulder and holds it in front of her. It miauws. She starts shaking it in the air, and tells it how cute it is. It miauws harder, and lifts a paw in her direction as if it wants to scratch her, but she is several armlengths away. The scene breaks my heart.

“You should not treat a cat like that.” I tell her. She looks at me, then does it again. It pisses me off.
“Give it to me.” I say.
She does not react.

The metro moves on, stations come and go, surprised passengers half ignore the situation, while I get more and more pissed off. The cat looks at me sometimes as if it wants to come towards me. I’d swear it even reaches out to me with its paw.
“Give it to me.” I repeat in the exact same tone. My own calm determination surprises me. “I’ll take it to cat paradise.”
No response. More people start to be annoyed about her behaviour.

A few more stops go by, then she turns to me.
I hate her.
“Do you want a cat?”
“If it’s that cat, yes.”
“I’m going on a long trip.” she says. “so I can’t take care of it. Here it is.”
She hands it over. The little fella steps on my hand and instantly starts licking it. The metro slows down. The girl picks up her many bags and walks to the door. The metro stops.
“What’s his name?” I ask.
“Félix des Trois Points.” (Felix of three dots).
“Ah… Félix du Pointain…”

She steps outside. Without looking back at me, she walks off and exclaims a long high pitched yell. Sounds like release. The cat is calm, still licking my hands. I lift its tale. It’s a boy. Okay, now what? For one thing, I won’t get out of the metro here. I call my housemates and ask if they mind if we have another cat. They’re surprised, but they don’t mind. Good. I send a message to a friend to ask if she minds if I stay over with a cat. Stations keep coming and going until we reach the final one. Well I won’t get out here either, so I just keep carressing this little cutie. The metro goes back. Stations go by.

Looking back, I still wonder how he knew. At some stop, I couldn’t tell you which one, Pointain – that’s how I call him from now on – gets very restless, as if he wants to leave me. All I can do leave the metro with him in my arms and walk up the stairs together. Maybe he wants to go somewhere in particular.
We meet a middle aged lady on the street.
“Awww… that’s such a cutie, why do you have it here?”
I explain the story.
“Ow, that’s very good of you,” she lets me know. “I always find abandoned cats in Paris and take them into my house. I’d welcome this one, but I have nine already. What are you going to do with it?”
I explain that because the friend doesn’t respond to the SMS, I’d hitch hike back, but with a cat that could be troublesome because I might not make it before sunset and it could walk away while I’m sleeping. Instead, we will probably go pay a visit to my mom in Luxembourg, that’s not very far. We could look for the closest railwaystation.
The lady answers that I should wait here, goes into the nearest shop and comes back with a bagfull of baby cat food. She gives me fifty euros for the train.

Wow.

On day one back in the Netherlands, Pointain explores the entire house.
On day two, he climbs a tree, but doesn’t dare to get out, so I pick him.
On day three, he climbs the tree again. This time I wait with picking and he clims out himself. Step by step, face down, from three meters height (Cats usually descend tale down because their claws piont inwards. It’s a control thing).
On day four, he drinks French wine from the ground. I notice he has three dots on one side. Aha.
On day five, he learns to climb a ladder, the steps of which are as far away as he can reach. He never falls.
On day six, he still jumps on the face of our other cat Willem, even though he has many significant bashes by now and will again.
On day seven, he walks on a 2,5 meters high ridge, looks me into the eyes, wondering, I say “try it”, and he jumps down. A one time stunt I’ll never forget.

I’ve lived with Pointain for a year. People ask me why I didn’t take him with me when I left. I think he belongs to the place. He steals food from the neighbours, goes on strides in the region, takes on the local dogs… He gets love from the students around him. It’s rural there. I couldn’t bring him back to the city and see him locked in a house or poisoned by a neighbour for his unstoppable attitude. He is not my property, he’s my friend.

I saw him again last week. It was same old. Carressed him a little, he climbed on my shoulder, we had a nice chat about our lives. Then he left to play in the garden. He’s fierce sometimes, but very sensitive to those he loves. Great tiny being. Today, my love goes out to him.

 

The Mysterious Bird Shit

Take a good look at this picture. What do you think the artist tried to show with it?

Four years ago on a nice summer day, I entered my room and found a little house sparrow flying against the inside window. I opened the window, guided the bird to the hole, and it was gone. It took a few days before I noticed the white stain it had left on my black booklet. It struck me that even if the booklet was only about 5 x 10 cm, not a single bit had dropped next to it. I liked the pattern somehow, so I chose not to wash it yet.

Some months later I interviewed a remarkable man about his spiritual experiences in city parks. He was all about synchronicities. One day, he was biking through Amsterdam when the thought occurred to him that he should adopt a White Buffalo. They are very sacred animals according to people from the Lakota tribes in North America. The instant this seemingly crazy thought popped in his head, bird shit fell onto his knee. It triggered him to crowdsource a trip to the wild west. When after five days he stood at a ranch of white buffalos with the stain still on his knee, the caretaker pointed out that it looked like a portrait the one he just adopted.

That night I looked at my spot again and started noticing shapes. First, there was the skull with big black eyes and a strange short trunk, out of which it shot two little orbs. Then, a shooting star propelled out of the upper jaw as a tooth after sudden pressure. Its tentacles then turned the whole creature into a medusa swimming through a big void with shiny stars in its surroundings. It was only when I took its portrait that I realised that between its gaping eyes, on a spot that had dodged my attention thus far, shone a massive flaming third eye.

In some eastern and esoteric traditions, the third eye is an energetic point in our forehead that functions as a place for overview beyond physical thought. To me, it is a place out of which you can let your fantasy flow between the shores of knowledge and overflow them if you want. You can splash them violently, erode them gently, reaching out for new perspectives on things that have been observed forever.

Ever since I’ve redefined the bird shit stain this way, it reminds me of my relationship with it. Think about it yourself for a while. Where did this picture come from? Out of the air? Out of the berries that our flying fellah ate? The further you let your imagination reach into it, the more meanings you’ll find until, ultimately, you’ll know that somewere in a distant galaxy void, a lonely medusa skull hovers around and finally has the chance to look at you.

What does it see?

Spirals

I have to slow down to blow my nose. The napkin bill is going through the roof. It’s the time of the year. I’m on a two-hour drive to the sea-shore because I had to get out. The house is too small sometimes, the city too loud. My mind clogs together with the decor of my days.

The roads are narrow and curvy. Red and grey rocks lay spread over the landscape. Some edgy pinnacles rise out of the surface, giving testimony of more violent times. All that grows here are lichens and dry shrubs, stuck close to the ground to seek protection from whatever dangers threaten them. Plains are alternated by enormous rock formations as far as the eye can see.

As I drive, my mind wanders off, back home, where my habits and shield me from the fact that nothing is for certain. I am suddenly aware of the dusty corners of the house and visualise cleaning them. It presses on me now, but there is nothing I can do. The relationship with Isabella has taken over five years. The past week hasn’t been good. Strange fights over the least important things. Where the Indian cuisine originates from for example. Or whether we should or shouldn’t exchange the forks with the spoons. I saw a side of her I did not know so far. Childish, irrational, as if some force has come out that had been locked in there for years. It’s a new burden.

A tree, lonely in the barren landscape. It grows sideways, as if pushed down by an invisible hand, punished for its continuous urge to take more space from the vast and endless nothingness, which it mocks by its presence alone. Its print on my mind’s eye keeps ridiculing this whole site in the same way as the appearance of Isabella’s new face mocks her infinite beauty. How did this tree get here? Were did the seed come from? Was it blown from the outside? Has it always lingered, awaiting the moment where the rocks were softened enough by the rain? Perhaps there was a forest here before.

Shots of thought rush through the space in my head. The fights were disproportionate. They opened up paths to some long forgotten sides of who we are, pulling the rug from underneath our feet. We fell. The extent of it is still as unclear as are the consequences. The red stones around are merely observers of these whirling motions in my mind. They don’t know what’s going on, let alone do they take part in it. They’re old. Lay there, serving lichens and shrubs that eat them away in steady, painful perseverance. I wish they grew upon my mind, undoing it from all the random crap I don’t need. Perhaps they do. Maybe I should just water them.

Meandering, the road carries me further and further away from the inhabited world, nearer and nearer to the place where the land meets the sea. I turn on the radio, but all I hear is a distant and distorted version of the Ride of the Valkyries. I turn it off again. A pull on the wheel makes me hold it stronger. The fight goes on for a while, until after a few more bends, a fire tower stands out on the horizon. It has diagonal red-white stripes painted over it. It says: “here I am! Do watch me!” At its foot stands a little stone house with broken windows. Its brown wooden door is rattling. Some of the roof tiles have disappeared, revealing light wooden grid-like structure that once held them up. I park on an uneven rocky spot along the ending of the road. I grab my coat and my hat, and open the door which instantly gets pulled away, and I’m standing outside in the storm. It takes an effort to close the door. My coat flies out of my hands and gets stuck behind a rock, 33 meters ahead. I run to get it. Pulling the sleeves over my arms turns out to be no less of a hassle, but I finally succeed. I grab the keys out of a bush and walk back to lock the doors. I wonder why, but do it anyway. I don’t let go of my hat.

It’s hard to tell if it is stormiest inside or out of the run-down house. There is a broken furnace here and a gas bottle with a hole in it. A ray lights a closet. A bush grows through its bottom plank. Its branches eagerly try to reach out for some more sun in the room. Its roots hold on to the splinters of the broken pots lying around. The memory. Sudden flapping wings make me jump, and I see an owl fly off through the hole in the roof. “Odd. Its daytime” I hear myself think and a cloud casts a shadow over us.

I too go outside. The hair blowing in my face stings me a little. I try to get to the tower, but blasts of air hold me back with irregular force. Breathing is hard when the storm squalls into my throat, or when it suddenly pulls the pressure away from me. When, after battling the elements, I finally reach the towers door, I feel victorious and exhausted. Stairs spiral up, and I follow them to the lantern room.

“You always make me feel like shit” pierces her voice through my head. I see spit shoot out of her mouth. Disgusting. That issue wasn’t even worth mentioning either. Some conversation about the medicinal use of Melissa. What followed was increasing tension with accusation after accusation, reaching a scale that I couldn’t oversee. I tried to search for truth inside her words, but was blinded by the anger they conjured. Despair about her, about us maybe, and myself. The thought has taken hold of me. I cannot release the dark look on her face, as if she deliberately wanted to break the trust we’d built in all these years.

Near the top, a new gust surprises me, taking me back into the struggle of this place. The sea stretches further than I can see, though I have to close my eyes against the stingy air. I scream from the top of my lungs, but a new blast pushes my voice back into my throat. “You cannot get me!” I scream once more. For a second, I look the elemental force straight into the eye. Then, the fence I lean on gives way, and I am on the fastest track back to the rocks. My fall leaves me no time to think of any plan, and I would crush if it were not for the twister that captures me right out of the air, pulling me back up in direction of the sea. While my limbs whirl and twist, I am not sure if this unexpected salvation is fortunate or not. I try to pull myself together and move along smoothly, but the storm keeps shaking the confusion into me.

I can reorient when I reach the top of the twister. I am now well above the tower, very hard to tell how far. The grey red endless landscape looks less meaningful on the majestic blue background of the sky. I have no time to ponder that because I’m interrupted by a changing pressure, launching me further away from the land. In a glimpse I see that my car is lying on its side. That worries me. My face gets wet and cold in the moist I’m pulled through. I don’t understand why I don’t fall. It seems as if I’m going up instead.  Whatever I try, there’s no chance that I can steer. I’m subjected to the will of the storms. So I fly.

The doors of my house are open. Windows too. The furniture moves through the living room. Papers fly all around and so does the laundry. Plants in pots are either ripped or they have scattered on the floor. The cat has disappeared. The scene disrupts me. That mess was mine to clean. Then again, who am I to speak, I’m up in the air. A snap. I spread my arms. It dawns on me that I have never been this high in the air on my own. It may be cold and unnerving, but the view is beautiful. I feel a wave of respect for the thunderclouds that roll in my direction. Isabella’s insecurity feels easy now. Cute, even. There are no other pressures than the movements of the tides. I am weightless as a feather, dancing through the wind. A shoe spins through the air. It used to be mine. Just like that coat over there, with the napkins. Is that my hair circling around my head? One moment, the sun is up, the next, there’s sea above me. And then she’s down again. I can’t keep track. Different parts of me each take their own direction, whirling along with the motions that carry it. Words, feelings, body parts, sensations and thoughts fly by. None of them attached to one another. It tingles.

The lack of radio signal on the Actarius II caused some trouble on the open sea. It took a few hours before someone was bright enough to inspect the antenna on deck. A complete outfit covered it, the owner of which was never found. The clothes were taken to a farm, where they still serve as a scarecrow.