Addiction

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

It has been at least 2-3 years that I’ve given up smoking. I started smoking around the age of 16 and continued till 21, then I stopped abruptly. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t struggled for many years to abandon the addiction in vain. Still, I finally succeeded and I can consider myself nowadays a non-smoker.

Very seldom, after a drink or two, I can light myself a cigarette in case a friend is already smoking. It is some sort of cultural and fetishist pleasure for  me. However, some people and even friends have pointed out that my smoking occasionally is a sign of my self-delusion. As if I can’t truly consider myself a non-smoker.

Far from being a defense of my personal case, this letter will be a defense of a life choice, which could be shared by certain people willing to give up smoking. By defending this general model of a life choice, I won’t only argue for it successfully freeing some people from the trap of addiction, I will also defend the claim that people who liberate themselves from addiction in this way can be considered, from a certain perspective, even more “non-smokers” than those who have never touched a cigarette in their lives.

Obviously, I am not encouraging people to get into smoke (pretty much the opposite) and I am also not claiming that my way out will keep me forever safe from the threats of smoking and the like. Here and now, I will only argue for its efficacy for at least a remarkable amount of time, only with respect to certain people who, like me, could benefit from it.

I started smoking as a teenager because I thought it was cool. After a while, I realized that, when I was particularly stressed or nervous, smoke had the capacity of calming me down. Arguably, the addiction to smoke I grew, was also among the causes of stress and nervousness.

After a couple of years of being a smoker, I started trying to free myself from the addiction, without having any true intention to give up smoking all at once. I could resist the siren call of the cigarettes for one-two weeks, and then I surrendered again. I trained myself to the extent that I could stop smoking even for almost two months. I had the proof that chemical addiction wasn’t the true cause of the irresistible appeal smoke had on me. It wasn’t even the addiction to a certain hand-gesture or the thought that smoke could indeed calm me down (which I realized to be a delusion in my case).

I had to think better and deeper, but I couldn’t help escaping my dilemma. In the meanwhile, I was growing happier: I started travelling a lot, meeting many new people and getting closer to other cultures. The weigh I gave to my personal health was increasing as I realized that doing sports was a great means to keep sadness away. I eventually became vegetarian, thanks to the inspiration of a couple of American friends of mine.

The self-image I had of myself was slowly changing and I got to the point of questioning whether smoke was still belonging to it. I thought that, perhaps, what was keeping me attached to smoke was precisely that I couldn’t think of myself as a non-smoker before. I had an obscure conception of myself, as highly irrational and in constant need of a deterrent for my personal distress. Moreover, I was used to wear clothes in a certain way, show myself as a certain kind of person, the one that doesn’t care for the health of her own body, for it’s perishable and not worthy of care other than the one devolved to the outward look.

But I had changed. I was already becoming much more confident and the shift of values that had taken place in my mind, made me realize that I wasn’t the person of the past anymore. I was different and my self-image was of someone cultivating himself, not only mentally, but also physically. With this new intuition, I decided to stop smoking. And so I did.

It has been a while that I have been a non-smoker, but I think that what makes me a non-smoker the most is that I don’t fear smoke more than what is reasonable to do. A single cigarette won’t cause any addiction, not even two. In cases similar to mine, it is a certain mental asset that creates the addiction. The taboo of smoke or the absolute prohibition of getting close to a cigarette is, from my perspective, a futile self-limitation, which underlies the irrational fear that smoke will crush all our psychological defenses. This can’t happen if one truly conceives of herself as a non-smoker and gives oneself a reasonable threshold to keep away the addictive appeal of cigarettes.

This letter shouldn’t be read as a celebration of my personal (rather unsurprising) success, nor as a teaching I want to give to anyone. As I said before, it is just the defense of a life choice against people doubting its efficacy and reliability.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Savannah

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

This time I am going to tell you something unusual for me. It’s the story of a gazelle and his unlucky destiny, which came to my mind as I was contemplating arid landscapes, burnt by a merciless sun.

The gazelle’s name is Ego. He was one of the most majestic samples of his species. His legs were so strong and his movements so quick and agile, that he could even compete with cheetahs, the fastest animals of the savannah.

He spent most of his days running, jumping and looking for new challenges to test his extraordinary strength. He grew such a confidence in himself, that he started leaving his herd behind. He felt superior and refused to mate with the females, becoming lonelier and lonelier.

When lionesses were killing his companions, he started blaming their weakness. All the fellow gazelles were obstacles for his growth, because they couldn’t stand a chance against him in competition. Even when other gazelles suggested Ego to become their leader, he refused, thinking he would have been better off alone.

One day, as he was eating the leaves of a lonely tree at the feet of a rocky hill, a couple of young cheetahs spotted him. They were hidden in the tall, blonde grass, where cheetahs perfectly camouflage themselves. Ego didn’t notice anything, because he was too focused on regenerating after the long race he had that morning.

In the blink of an eye, the two cheetahs jumped out of the grass, aiming at the gazelle’s neck. A high shriek broke the air alerting Ego, who noticed the predators just in time and started fleeing. The scream had come from Abeba, a gazelle of Ego’s herd with a flower-like spot on his fur.

The two cheetahs started seeking the gazelles, who were already climbing the rocky hill. Even if Ego was slowed down by the fatigue of that morning, he still was faster than his fellow gazelle. As soon as a precipice was reached, Abeba turned abruptly, thanks to his extreme agility, right in time for one feline to fall into the scarp and die.

When the gazelles arrived at the top of the hill, they realized that they were trapped, with still one cheetah to be defeated. The chaser was now ready to attack but, as he jumped forward in Ego’s direction, Abeba got in his way, hitting the predator with his horns. The cheetah quickly poked his claws in the gazelle’s flesh.

Ego was so shocked by the friend’s altruism that, for the first time in his life, he decided to help someone, and kicked away with his potent rear legs the cheetah, who crushed his fragile back against the rocks and stopped moving.

They were safe, but Abeba had serious injuries on his neck and shoulders. Ego decided to take care of his companion and of his wounds. He remembered how fast and agile Abeba had been and thought to have finally found the ideal partner to train with in the future. However, as the days went by, Ego realized that the injuries had permanently compromised Abeba’s strength.

One day, as they were browsing together the grass in an open field, some strange, black creatures, looking like tall hairless monkeys, got closer to them. They showed interest for Ego and made clear that they would have employed his strength and trained him to a level he had never even dreamed of.

Ego was amused by the proposal and ruminated about it all night long. Abeba was visibly worried by those creatures they had never seen before. At the same time, he was aware of Ego’s longing to become stronger. He also knew that Ego would have grown bored of his weakness and finally told him to join the black creatures.

Ego was enthusiastic to work for the hairless monkeys. He had to carry very heavy weights for long stretches and was provided with shelter, food, protection against predators and safe spaces to train.

At the beginning, the other gazelles were full of admiration, but they soon understood that Ego was actually a slave and a traitor. The monkeys also started hunting them. They begged for his help, but he stayed at his place, unmoved. Even the sight of a gazelle’s pelt with a flower-like spot hung to dry out of one of the monkey’s houses couldn’t move him anymore.

When he grew older, the black creatures freed him. He was alone with no place to go and tired by the hard work, which had lasted for years.

Abandoned in the middle of nowhere, and with no strength to sustain him anymore, he eventually encountered an old cheetah. Inspired by the goddesses and gods of the savannah, the cheetah spoke: “I am not here to eat you, but only to re-establish the law of the savannah. You were provided with a strength so great that you could compete with my race, but you used it only for yourself. Not even love could move you to altruism. But your old friend broke the law of the savannah in the attempt to help you, and killed my offspring. The law must be re-established: I have to take the life of his most loved, for he took the lives of mine.”

Ego didn’t even have the time to cry or repent, because the old cheetah was already at his jugular, breaking his neck. Then she changed her mind, and ate the gazelle.

My princess, I told you it was an unusual letter and unusually sad. I still hope you enjoyed this short story.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Goat

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

This summer I decided to join a couple of friends for an alternative holiday. At the end of my last semester, I was very stressed by the university and I asked S to participate to whatever journey she was planning with S, without even knowing what it was about. It turned out to be a trip on the road, the so-called “Francesco’s way”.

The Francesco’s way is a long walk in central Italy, following the steps of Saint Francis, the famous founder of the Mendicant Order of the Franciscans, as he moved from town to town, spreading his teachings of poverty and the love for nature. We changed our train in Rome, heading to Rieti, where we started our adventure.

From the beginning, my two girls realized how hard it was to move on the Appennines, but I was trained on the Alps. Apart from the burning sun of late august, I found the trip lovely and the landscapes breathtaking. Getting lost on the mountains of the northern border of Lazio was exciting for me, less for S and S. However, by the time we reached the lake of Piediluco, we all had time for deserved relief.

The day after, we learned the story of the “Marmore waterfalls” and of how in ancient times, the Romans were used to regulate their stream and eventually flood the populations in the valleys below, before conquering them in later times.

We moved on, walking along the Nerina Valley, called after the river Nera, through the lands that were once covered by the waters. You still can see the myriad of lake-fortresses, roosted on high rocks in the dry land of today, inhabited by few old people, fewer tourists and many cats.

By the time we had to cross more mountains to get to Spoleto, my friends decided to take a bus, whereas I continued on foot. The path was challenging and I enjoyed it a lot, especially when I had a short break in the ghost town of Sensati, hidden in the mountain forest, or later, when I walked through the sacred wood of Monteluco.

Finally, the gigantic Roman bridge of Spoleto was ready for me to be crossed, but it had been very unfortunately closed due to investigations after the last Italian earthquakes. Even more unfortunately, I had no time to walk around the whole valley and climb the mountains on the other side. So, with a little prayer on my elbows under the fences, I found myself suddenly and surprisingly in Spoleto.

The journey proceeded quietly the next day to Poreta, where we had dinner and slept in the town’s castle, under a red moonlight. We woke up early, departing from our beloved waiter Alessandro, who should be listed in the highlights of the region Umbria for how a masterpiece of Italian culture he represents.

S had a hard time walking through the olive groves that day. I even offered my help to carry her rucksack for a short stretch. She refused and carried on, filling me with admiration.

We continued our journey in the Umbrian countryside, which is a georgic dream come true, full of interesting places enriched by nature, art and architecture.

The final stage went from Spello to Assisi and we got separated again: the girls would have walked the low path in the valley; I would have taken the middle one across the woods of the mountains. The receptionist of our hotel warned us one last time against the summer heat and told me in particular to watch out for “beasts”. “You have to be a goat to climb those mountains” she told me, even if I reassured her that I wasn’t going to take the highest path.

Carefully observing the guide, after a couple of hours of marching, I found myself back at the starting point. I was also a little annoyed by the labyrinth of tracked paths on the mountains before Assisi. I took my decision: “Goats gotta be goats, I’ll climb to the top and get things straight”. So I did, and the view from the bald edge of the mount was spectacular. From that height, you could neatly distinguish all the houses, churches and bastions of Assisi, like a Medieval cartographer.

I got a little emotional as I reached my destination and I even found an Austrian biker studying in Vienna, with whom I had a talk about the respective journeys. Europe is becoming more and more manageable, my princess. You are in the vast world I can’t wait to explore.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

 

Tolerance

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

You have probably heard of last week-end’s white supremacists rally in Charlottesville (Virginia). When it comes to such shameful events, especially regarding the US, I’m known to always condemn liberal individualism as one of the main sources of such modern evils. I am like that conceited aunt everyone is annoyed of, the one you guard yourself from inviting at your party because she will always start a never-ending monologue about the disgrace of her century and make all other guests flee as soon as possible with the excuse that their cat suffers from short-term nostalgia.

This time, I’ll try to suppress the inner aunt I usually carry within myself by avoiding my focus on individualism. Instead, I would like to talk about a very common reaction of the “good, liberal world” to happenings like those of Charlottesville, which are way broader and concern indeed most liberal and democratic countries on this planet, politics, as well as religion and many aspects of social life.

“Let’s be honest, they need to leave America, because they are not Americans” was the comment of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (CNN). What does it mean that white supremacists are not Americans? What does it mean that “Italians are not racists”, when other Italians are found guilty of refusing to employ people, explicitly depending on the color of their skin? What does nobel price winner Malala Yousafzai mean, when she said few months earlier, in front of the Canadian Parliament, “I am a Muslim and I believe that when you pick up a gun in the name of Islam and kill innocent people, you are not a Muslim anymore”?

We are trying to defend our communities. We say that evil doesn’t belong to our family. We say that cruelty, hate and violence are not part of what we consider our culture. Don’t we feel any dissonance between these words and what we observe? Don’t we find disappointingly unsatisfactory that many atheists blame religion for most evils in this world, as if without religion the world could suddenly turn into a better place? Aren’t these answers all easy, comfortable forms of escapism?

Isn’t it more terribly true that white supremacists ALSO belong to the US? Isn’t it more uncomfortably true that racism is ALSO part of the Italian culture? Isn’t it more provocantly true that violence ALSO belongs to certain (truly) religious people? Isn’t it more sadly true that bigotry, ignorance and blind faith can be ALSO found among the most strenuous atheists?

Yes, yes, yes, yes. I find no other way to answer to these questions.
The first step to challenge nazism, racism, fundamentalism and bigotry is to aknowledge that they are part of our own communities. We can’t misrecognize a rotten part of society as belonging to our social group or the socio-cultural phenomenon we participate to, just because we loathe what those people believe and do. It is an unforgivable mistake to say “they don’t belong to us”, because they actually respond to the criteria of being Americans, Italians, Muslims and atheists.

As I have been stressing elsewhere, all these large social groups can’t grant morality per se. In order to be moral, a person MUST be moral. It is not enough to say that one belongs to a certain social group.

Even if I would be in the need of summoning my inner aunt to say a little more on what I think is the cause of such liberal responses to nowaday’s evil, I can at least attempt to indicate the direction of a way out of the “tolerance paradox”, namely that a tolerant society can’t tolerate intollerance. As far as I can see, if we take tolerance to be based on relativism, i.e. every opinion has value only relatively to a certain context, we will fall eventually in the paradox and we will be left with the even more paradoxical solution that “they don’t belong to us”.

On the other hand, if our tolerance is based on social principles of morality, freedom and democracy, which are kept as general as possible by constant intercultural dialogue, we obtain criteria to fight every single white supremacists rally, racism, fundamentalism and bigotry. Those criteria justify opposition to anti-demoratic and anti-libertarian opinions, even if they come from within our own communities. Even if they come from within ourselves.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

 

Reading

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

It is especially in these times, the era of mass media influence and orientation of public opinion, of fake news and “alternative facts”, that healthy information should be sought and valued the most. The hard question concerns more precisely, how to find sources we can hold as reliable. As a matter of fact, conspiracy theories abound to the extent that it has become difficult to distinguish between truth and falsity.

I consider retreat into skepticism a dangerous path to undertake, for it leads to estrangement from reality and it reduces us to passive observers. To my understanding, it is always better to consciously hold a faulty position, being aware of its narrowness and ready to change our mind in case of a better alternative, rather than not to hold any position at all for fear of falling into theoretical fallacies.

It sounds like as if I am suggesting to strive for critical open-mindedness. But this is to add nothing to our starting dilemma. Open-mindedness can be considered the purpose, but a good solution relies mostly in the means to follow a chosen direction, and in the clarification of the aim itself.

Good readings, journeys and sociability are often said to be sources of open-mindedness. In this letter, I will focus on reading, because I take it to be the most widely available means of the three – sociability depends too much on one’s subjective character and travelling is not always affordable.

First of all, we need to understand the relevant meaning of “good” when talking about readings, which are supposed to open our minds. A lot of people say proudly how “good readers” they are because they devour plenty of novels about kings, dragons, vampires, witches, romance and so on. Indeed, there are many excellent books and short stories about such themes, but they will hardly be of help in our quest for open-mindedness.

I don’t mean that good readings should necessarily be boring essays or highly complicated articles about the Stock market. Good readings in the sense I am talking about could be even fictional books, but grounded on facts or on solid arguments.

Apart from obvious exceptions, most literary genres are good to enhance our ability of freely thinking, but not all books and articles of each genre will do the work. Some books are good to enhance our literary and esthetic sensitivity, to reinforce our imagination and creativity. But it is important to remember that we read them in order to entertain ourselves or to be inspired. When our aim is to become more open-minded, we need to select accurately what we read.

A good strategy would be to start asking ourselves “what do I want from this article-book-essay-story? Am I just relaxing and in the need of escapism? Or do I want to know something about the world? Something factual or a well-grounded opinion? New ideas or a good interpretation of others?”

Wondering what we are looking for in a text before or while reading it, is the most fundamental step to “good reading”, because our degree of attention varies from time to time, our interests may induce us to focus on some topics and neglect others and we may be differently skilled in judging different kinds of opinions. The inquiry in ourselves is an often underrated part of the reading process, but the most fundamental, for it rules out the possibility of being easily influenced by poor and uncritical ideas.

The second question we shall ask ourselves, in my opinion, is “what does the author want to tell me?” and figure out if our expectations on the writing reflect the author’s intentions. A follow up question would be to know who the author is and if she has any sort of authority about the things she says. Is he an expert of geopolitics? Is she an affirmed novelist? Or a journalist who’s been on the field she is talking about? Is he a boy writing nostalgic letters to his beloved princess?

Of course, the good fame and authority of a writer won’t always grant objectivity, but they will surely help us to contextualise and better understand our relation to the object addressed. Most importantly, if we are striving for critical open-mindedness, we need to be aware that it has very little to do with relativism about opinions. We shall never forget our objective, which is to become better informed subjects, and not subjects holding whatever opinion with the excuse that truthfulness can’t be achieved. That would be even worse than complete skepticism, for it may allow the spreading of absurd, anti-scientific or even discriminatory ideas.

“Few books, but good” is a famous idea attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca. I think we could now interpret it in the conceptual framework I’ve been now sketching: it doesn’t matter how much you read, insofar as you are aware of the author’s intentions and expertise, but mostly of what you are looking for in the first place.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Veggie

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Conservativism backlashes the most when a progressive practice threatens to become mainstream. It happens in politics, philosophy, fashion, art and many other social environments. However, I have very seldom seen a conservative reaction as argumentatively stupid and uselessly brute as the one against vegetarianism and veganism.

We are not in Kindergarten anymore and we can’t dig our heads in the sand to avoid facing our toxic (even if comfortable) eating habits. I am saying “toxic” in a metaphorical sense because, independently of possibly being unhealthy, our eating habits are surely ethically questionable.

First of all, eating meat means taking the responsibility of the death of animals for the satisfaction of our palate. To my understanding, that is already a strong enough reason to start doubting that there’s nothing wrong in the way we eat. But there will always be those Einsteins telling that they don’t care because they just “like eating”. No, girl, it is not that you don’t care. You don’t understand, and that makes a huge difference! Do you understand that you value the life of a sentient being, like a chicken or a pig, less than the satisfaction of eating something you could easily avoid without even missing anything in terms of pleasure? It is not that “you just like eating” it is that you are a damn egoist, and a pretty pig-headed one!

The value of sentient life doesn’t convince? Why not talk about the sufferings inflicted on animals for the mass production of eggs, milk and meat? Not to talk about crisis of overproduction, with the consequent mass suppression of animals in order to follow the demands of the market. But I am being too emotional and empathetic, am I not? Yes, because the convinced carnivores are proud of cherishing at the thought of unnecessary pain inflicted for their pleasure’s sake. So many hedonists out there! But very poor hedonists indeed, who struggle to defend what they are accustomed to, more than to actually explore more sustainable and equally enjoyable eating habits.

Are sufferings and utilitarian ethics overrated and not your thing? There is the environmental issue. The breeding industry has one of the greatest impacts on global warming, pollution and exploitation of natural resources. And here they come, the champions of the new Marxism-to-go, with their motto “no ethical consumption under capitalism”. These hipsters of philosophy are telling us that even the cultivation of cereals and other non-animal products is highly harmful for the environment. And, in the capitalistic machine, everything you buy and consume is the result of exploitation. So far so good. Conclusion: you are allowed to eat whatever you like and just don’t care.

Now wait! I was following you, I was enthusiastic of your argument (Marxist references can do no harm, after all) but then, you threw everything in the trash can with the garbage you hold as a logical conclusion. It is like saying that, “since smoking is bad for my lungs but air pollution could be even worse, I can smoke as much as I want”. Kindergarten! Of course capitalistic exploitation – which is often indistinguishable from capitalism itself, is one of the greatest issues in our modern world, but you won’t defeat it with a dumb slogan!

Buying fair trade products is a great idea, just like spreading the practice of eating local and home-grown biological food, not to mention funding and supporting NGOs fighting for sustainability. But only if you hold your mouth shut when it comes to poor vegetarians and vegans, who are just trying to do their best to help.

My beautiful Princess, I am sorry if I have been so harsh this time, but I badly needed to pour out a little, because certain argumentative catastrophes make me sick. I really don’t care if anyone eats meat, goes to McDonalds, is vegan, vegetarian, a saint, the pope or his horned companion. All I care for, is that certain people start thinking and do not blindly follow simplistic mottos, or bury themselves in their bigoted comfort.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Sea

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

My trip to Düsseldorf has been terrible. I lost my camera – to be honest, it was my father’s old one, but still… and I realized I booked two non-refundable tickets for wrong destinations, and had to buy them again. The city was lovely, especially the astonishing contemporary architecture. None the less, that didn’t spare me a pseudo hysterical breakdown towards the end of the day, as I moved to Cologne with my friend M.

After landing, I had the time to stroll around in the city center on my own, because M’s train had almost one hour of delay. I went straight along Bismarck Straße, as suggested by my guide, until I eventually reached Cornelius Platz, the one with the Triton fountain. Malls and luxury boutiques everywhere. Beautiful. A little intimidating, perhaps, but still charming.

I walked in a circle, following the square’s borders, because the central part was cordoned off for work in progress. A particularly eye-catching building drove me to the north-eastern corner of the square. It was made of blocks giving the impression of sliding into one another, alternating glass and white vertical surfaces. A geometrical game of darkness and light. Art made to contain shops, banks and offices.

I took a step back to take a picture with the now-lost camera. Something was going on at the feet of the building. People where gathering around what looked like street art, a performance of some kind or an exhibition. I got closer. Several posters were lying on the ground, with windproof candles. Some churchy thing?

There was a vertical panel. And the story of the immigrants who die each day in the Mediterranean Sea written on it. The posters were photos of the gravestones in Sicily, where most corpses are buried. I kept walking. Slowly. Some of the tombs had only a date and the word “migrante” written on them. Others were reports of the way the dead bodies were found. I read a couple of them. The rescuers narrated the miserable conditions of the migrants’ journey, which found an end for many in the merciless sea.

It was the accuracy of the reports that struck me. Or maybe the brief and simple descriptions on other stones, something like “here rests a migrant, passed away in the search of a better life”. Why did the Sicilians bother so much to give recognition in death to those nameless outcasts? Why didn’t the rescuers write a book on the migrants’ tragedy, instead of writing on their gravestones?

Because each one of them is just like each one of us. They are poor and desperate, whereas we go to Düsseldorf, we enjoy shopping, we have “pseudo hysterical breakdowns” for cameras and wrong tickets. But, at the end of the day, they are no less human than us. They have been deprived of everything, even of their names. But Sicilians and rescuers remind us that we can’t look away. Those gravestones tell us we can’t.

We usually have in mind beaches, sand and games when thinking about the sea. But the sea is much larger. It is so vast that it can contain both our wealth and their misery, our happiness and their horror, our relax and their hopes. We are like the citizens of the Capitol in “The Hunger Games” saga, living on our pacific isle, where we get drunk to escape boredom. They are the rest of the world. We might think that they are exceptions, that most of the people on this planet live just like us. But that’s not true. And to convince ourselves, we reduce them to aseptic numbers. You can’t feel any empathy towards a number. You don’t apply moral principles to numbers.

I think that Suzanne Collins, the author of “The Hunger Games”, perfectly depicts our stupid blindness in the spoiled people of the Capitol. Stupidity doesn’t make them necessarily bad and, in the end, you feel pity and you are saddened when they start experiencing meaningless deaths on their part. You say to yourself: if only they had opened their eyes when it still made sense!

Forever yours,

‘Miasha