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Black and white

Black and white

yinyangcandleWhen I was young the life was black and white. There was only wrong or right. There was one truth, and that was absolute. Heroes and villains. And you chose. That was all there was to it.

In my mind I was the hero. Oh, the volumes I could write about the gleaming sword, the shining armour, the white faithful steed and the rest of the accoutrements that I put on every morning… In my head, you see, I wasn’t taking the bus to school, I was riding for justice. And learning. Six hours a day, except for sports class, which didn’t really count, but it was fun nevertheless. After all, heroes are allowed to have fun, aren’t they?

One side-effect of being a hero is that you tend to be very judgemental toward people. The process is quite simple – it begins with “If I was in their place…”, then sword! armour! shield! ride to save the day!, and it ends invariably with a look halfway between pity and disgust towards the unsavoury compromises chosen by said person. Chosen in place of the “full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes” approach that you envision yourself doing. It is the privilege and pleasure of young people everywhere to save the day, sometimes even more than once, be the hero and maybe get the girl. In their heads.

Of course, as we get older, things get much more… gray, shall we say. You make mistakes of your own, ones which you cannot readily justify and absorb inside your hero persona. You make compromises. You live with them. And you begin to understand the world a little better.

Because, you see, when the hero slays the dragon, he gets to ride off into the sunset and out of the story, sometimes accompanied by the girl of his dreams. And we never find out how it really turns up. Like, for instance, when he realises that the dragons were an intelligent species that could have lived quietly alongside humans, enriching both our lives and theirs, only they never got the chance, because the hero killed them all. Or that time when the princess, sick and tired of his heroing around instead of helping take care of the kids, goes back to her mother and takes said children with her. Or when he hung up his sword, promising never to use it again, only for his children to hate him for it – because there’s this ogre, you see, and he could easily have taken care of it, but he promised his wife he’d never… And so it goes.

So next time you’re in a rush to judge somebody, allow at least a tiny little doubt in your mind, saying you might be wrong. Saying you might have done the same, had you been in their place. It is quite easy, being the hero.Much harder, being human.

Just drive

Just drive

car chase When you get your driver’s license and you go driving on your own for the first time, you’re three parts excited to one part scared. Everything is new, everything happens at once, you have to pay attention and you are doing an amazing thing, it’s an achievement, LOOK OUT! TREE! phew that was close. Where was I? Oh yes. It’s a wonderful sensation, a whole new universe you’re discovering, boundless and filled with joy.

Then, come Monday morning, you decide to drive to school (or work, as the situation may be). You sit in the traffic for an hour and you still do not mind, because it’s your first hour of traffic and you’re so absorbed by the fact that you remembered how to use the clutch pressed halfway just so, and never once stalled the engine that you fail to get irritated at all by the snail pace and the fumes and the noise. Indeed, you’re getting out of the car still smiling, like you used to smile after getting a good grade in physics class in your 7th grade, and you decide there and then to have a great day as well. Even if it still is a Monday.

This is how you start learning how to be a driver. Because you’re not a driver yet; you’ve only just learned to move a car from A to B without having bits of it fall off. In the next couple of months you will slowly become accustomed to "feeling" the car, the engine, knowing what shift you’re in (if you’re driving a shift) without looking down at the stick. You learn where your boundaries lay when you’re at the wheel, and your parallel parking improves. You begin to know where is your car in relationship with the road and the other cars. And you realize one simple truth: this driving thing is EASY, you were scared for naught, why did you put it of as long as you did is really beyond you. You discover that you enjoy driving; it’s fun, relaxing, and it gives you a simple sense of grown-up purpose and control that  few other things did until now.

As days and months go by, you’re becoming more and more confident in yourself and your abilities. You learn to know your car and its limits. You might even get a ticket or two, just because you got curious at the wrong place and the wrong time. But that’s normal, isn’t it? Everybody gets caught every once in a while, and you know you weren’t in any real danger, Officer, it’s just this stupid law, why, in Germany they don’t even have speed limits! Your car does everything you tell it to, it is now more than a car, it’s your personal space, you have your music, your pine-shaped air freshener, your lucky dice (or maybe a cute furry animal) keep you company on the dash. You’re a driver, hands down.

And this is your turning point.

It usually comes about 2-3 years after you got your license, for some sooner rather than later. If you’re lucky, it’s going to be just a small accident; nothing beyond a few scratches and a wounded ego. If you’re not so lucky… well, let’s not go there now, shall we?

For this to mean something, you have to be in that special state that the ancient Greeks called "hubris" – defiance of the gods. And that comes to us all after a while – especially to those who love driving. It’s a feeling of supreme confidence in your abilities. You think you can control your car in any circumstances; you notice (sometimes out loud) the people that make mistakes on the road; you can drive and talk on your mobile or drive and read a map or drive and eat a sandwich at the same time, because that’s how awesome you are. And one day you do something stupid and you don’t get away with it. You can’t believe your eyes; this is not happening, you are a really good driver, really, and maybe the other guy just hit the brakes too hard, and how could you have known that? There was rain that day, or you were tired, or the phone just rang – a million excuses come forth, ready to be used. And you should shun each and every one.

Every good driver I know has had an accident like this in his past. And what made him a good driver instead of a reckless and dangerous road menace was the fact that he assumed his mistake. He was able to tell himself: "I was really stupid that day. I should have kept my distance. I should have slowed down. I shouldn’t have assumed that the guy would stay in his lane." His lesson was hard, but fair, and once learned, was never forgotten again.

And the lesson was this. Just because you’re at the wheel doesn’t mean you’re in control. Life is full of surprises, some good, some bad, some downright ugly. There is no way you can predict and avoid each and every one of them. You make a mistake, you assume it, you learn from it and you move on. That’s the best thing you can do. Indeed, sometimes it’s the only thing you can do.

Just drive.

Happy Stanislav Petrov Day!

Happy Stanislav Petrov Day!

Stanislav_Petrov1On September 26th, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Defence Air Forces was in charge of observing the satellite early-warning systems at Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow. When the computer malfunctioned, erroneously signaling a nuclear missile launch from the U.S., this man went against Soviet military protocol and did not retaliate, preventing thus the outburst of the 3rd World War – which, if we consider the number of nukes each side had, would have been a very short war indeed.

His commanders repaid him by sending him into early retirement, on a meager military pension. His act remained unknown until 1998, when a book written by one of the officers present at the bunker that night recalled how the actions of this man prevented a catastrophic confrontation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

This is what a true hero looks like.

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Update: His heroism was eventually recognized, and in 2004 he was awarded  world citizenship – along with a substantial prize – by the Association of World Citizens, a San-Francisco based organization.