Reflections on being near the terror attacks in Brussels

It was only a few days ago when I had a great conversation with a close friend. We covered a few difficult subjects, and I told him that the only way to solve the biggest problems of our time is to come up with good, macro-level solutions, by removing the wrong incentives and by instilling virtuous ones. And that we mustn’t forget that. He replied: “Perhaps some people just want to do what little they can to help make things better, even if they know it will not stop the problem from happening again. Is that futile?” I thought he made a good point. Little did I know exactly how right he was, until a few days later Brussels was attacked by terror. I was two streets away from where it happened, when it happened. It struck in a place I frequent and on a metro line I often use.

We prepare for the worst, but no one is ever prepared for the worst to really happen. Things happen. Sometimes bad things happen. And when they do, people react instinctively. I’m glad to see that the people who were directly involved, directly affected, did whatever they could to prevent a terrible day from getting worse. Lives were saved. Strangers helped each other, because that is the very definition of humanity. To quote the Quran: “To save one life is like saving all mankind.”

What gives me hope and makes me glad is that despite generational change, the rise and fall of religion, social upheaval, and war and peace: we can rely on our instincts to preserve our humanity. Our subconscious knows what is right. Some call it our morality. But morality, however, is a much more conscious and deliberate awareness of right and wrong. It is often defined quite rigidly, which can lead to moral dilemmas.

Conscious thought is often an excellent guide to action. Morals can guide us to do what is best. But when the worst really does happen, do we stop, pause, and think about what to do? No, we rely on our instincts, our humanity, to do what is right. Often without thinking at all. The world is not a rotten place because the basic fabric of what makes us human is intact. And it has been demonstrated time and again in the face of immeasurable adversity.

So what do we do with our thoughts? Are they obsolete? Or at worst, counterproductive? Conscious thought can be an excellent guide to action. The Age of Enlightenment, so well known and documented in all European cultures and beyond, led to some of the biggest moral and philosophical advancements humanity has ever seen. And all of it was fueled by conscious thought. It was the age of reason, and we embraced it.

We live in a fast paced, reactive world where ‘time’ is often a luxury. We are inclined to give ourselves little time to think, little time to enjoy, and little time to spend doing things we hold dear. Why? The answer is difficult. But I believe the root lies in our attempts to try to turn something subjective into something objective: the definition of human value.

Work long, work hard. Be productive, we say. We often measure ourselves and attribute value in relation to what others are doing, as opposed to comparing like with like: to compare yourself with your past self, and to see how far you have come in life. It is a cynical perspective that ultimately makes us unhappy.

What are we to do? The essence of limited time does not mean that we should try to do everything in the most productive way possible. The essence is that we should choose carefully what we spend it on.

No one ‘has’ time, no one ‘owns’ time, if anything, time owns us all. We can only try to capture time, or rather some of it by creating worthwhile memories.

So let us capture time. And by doing so, recapture reason. Capture time to think, to enjoy, and to do what you hold dear. Refuse to be reactive, and refuse to chase everything, because it is the only way to preserve our reason, our agency, and ultimately, our happiness.

I refuse to be cynical because the world is not rotten. And to my friend — you were very right. I will try to do what little I can to help make things better, even if I know it will not stop the problem from happening again.

Perhaps my thoughts will get in the way of what is right, sometimes. But when they do, I hope I can rely on my instincts to preserve my humanity and to do what is right.

Take the time to think.

And take the time to smile, even if it’s not always easy.