Contemplations on ageing

I turned 28 last week. I was born on a Monday morning, at 7:15 AM (my mother has made it a tradition of waking me up at 7:15AM on my birthday every year). I was born in Jimma, a historical city 350Km away from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. My memory of Jimma is vague and doesn’t really constitute much more than bleak images of me playing football on the dusty streets in our neighborhood with my childhood friends Esrom and Aaron, the big compound we used to share with the 4 families, Asnaku who is the youngest daughter of our neighbor Ato Zekarias’ family and who loved and cared for me so much (she practically raised me, per my mom’s recount). I can’t also forget the shop of Bezabih where I used to be offered  candies everyday by the kind shopkeeper, Bezabih. Teka Pastry (my favorite place in the whole of Jimma as I still remember the sweet delicacies), the awetu river and the park where my mom used to take me every weekend. I only lived in Jimma until I was 6, as my family moved following my dad who already started a new job in Addis Ababa.

Addis would become the city of my living, my schooling and transformation into adulthood. When I was 14 going on 15, at the first year of high school, I met my 3 best friends, Melkam, Abel and Yared and life took a sharp turn to the better, to the utter joie de vivre. A more than 14 years of friendship never lost its flair, not even once.  I  sometimes wonder how my life would have turned out if my path hadn’t crossed with these wonderful gentlemen. Another grand change took place in my life once again when at the age of 24 I left Ethiopia and moved to the boot shaped southern European country (aka Italy) to pursue further education. A small norther Italian city named Trento became the place of my dwelling for the next two and half years. I then moved to the beautiful medieval city of Pisa. My reflections about life in Italy in general could simply take hundreds of pages, hence I prefer not to to get into it here except perhaps acknowledging the fact that some of the  most wonderful and meaningful friendships I have ever had were formed in this wonderful land. Having been for a long time in a small but extremely tight circle of friends close friends in the past, moving to Italy made me aware of the different levels of friendships, the value of good friendship and how much of an effort it takes to cultivate one. All in all Italy has been casa a lontana da casa. The intention of this small memo was not actually to narrate my upbringing but to examine my current life a little bit, where it is now (per my perception) and where it ought to have been or better yet where I wished it should have been.

Examining one’s life, though necessary, is an arduous endeavor. From the face of it, when one himself is the examiner, the defendant, the judge and the jury of ones own path through life, the whole process becomes dubious and the results that come out of it ought not be totally trusted.  However it must be done since it is the only practical way to obtain clarity about oneself. Though there might be so many ways of examining oneself my preferred method is engaging myself in a self-conducted Q&A over a few things which I think are important.

Question 1. Who am I ?

Besides serving as a title for one of Jackie Chan’s movies 🙂 this overly famous question had been and is being posed in an infinite places and ways in different scientific, philosophical or artistic works. By asking myself this overloaded question, my intention is not study my ancestry but to get a better clarity over the sense of myself. Has it never happened to you that after you thought you have a pretty accurate grasp of who you really are, sometimes (and usually under certain circumstances) you are completely taken over by another temporary “you” whose characters are diametrically different from what you had defined yourself to be? It is not uncommon for this new “you” to be more courageous, less bothered with uncertainties, more compassionate or the contrary to all these positive behavioral attributes. These are the moments where I pause and question where all my presumed sense of self came from in the first place.

I grew up with people. I work and live with people consequently a lot of my thinking has directly or indirectly been influenced by my surrounding. As I had not proved or carefully examined everything that was passed  down to me as truth or fact of life, my life is built upon assumptions which I take for granted. Relying on a external wisdom (that is gained from of other people through different ways) is important when it comes to saving time and effort to deal with complex reality but it is also very dangerous if this wisdom is used without bounds. For example without massive collaborations between different universities in the US in the 60’s and 70’s the Internet would not have existed. Collaboration implies trusting the veracity of the work of others (or the wisdom of others) and extending their work or making it part of some larger project. This does not mean the veracity of the work of others is blindly taken for granted and if need be (as it is always the case) it is open for scrutiny. The beauty of science relies in its openness for correction when err.  So getting back to my self-reflection, I understand that the basis for my sense of self is partly a composition of external and internal assumptions and “facts” I grew up being fed as the basis for how reality is or “facts” I used in order to construct a higher abstraction about everything I know.

Simply stated, the path to knowing who I am largely lies in the conscious observation of  the assumptions which I base each of my decision moment after moment.  The observation involves asking some very fundamental questions such as “Why do I want to do this”, “are these assumptions that I am justifying whatever it is I am trying to do correct or how do I know if they are correct”, “is there anyway my assumptions could be wrong or perhaps more interestingly, how will things play out if I choose a different set of assumptions” etc… Questions like these would eventually expose the system of thinking one has developed over many years and one uses to define oneself consciously or unconsciously. They also have the power to correct or at least identify a problematic way of thinking.

Over the past years I must admit I have made progress on questioning my own thoughts, external assumptions and suspending a verdict over the veracity of thought until I have enough evidence. As living an active life is demanding, I sometimes slip into old habits of taking things for granted.

Question 2: What are the natural forces which are against me

Through civilization, mankind was able to diminish the domain of the fatal natural forces from what they amounted thousands of years ago. Today, the natural forces which still remain in the high end of the fatal spectrum, though perilous, have at least been rendered predictable. An asteroid is as deadly as it was 10000 years ago but now it’s descent to the earth can be tracked way before its impact. To a certain degree it can be said that the major concern in modern life, with regards to natural forces, is more about meaningful existence than it is about survival. So what are the natural forces we are up against in our time ?

One of the most abundant natural force which is posing a threat to a meaningful existence is entropy. But first what do I mean by entropy? The second law of thermodynamics states that

[Part II] to be continued

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