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MIT student blogger Vincent A. '17

Closer Calls by Vincent A. '17

and rising unease

Emab Plaza is a busy shopping mall located in the heart of Nigeria’s capital. I frequent it often for my electronic needs—to replace printer ink or buy new paper sheets, to upgrade my iPad’s internet plan and most recently, to get a small phone to use while in Nigeria. It always pulses with its own life. There’s always a crawl of congested traffic at its entrance and exit gates. Within the plaza itself, paint-peeled buildings stand side-by-side, each one holding three or four floors. Each floor is made up of shops that look onto the streets, small shops always abuzz with the vibe and chatter of people searching for anything from clothes to phones to mobile network recharge cards.

Wednesday is usually an unremarkable day. It’s the middle of the school week. Adults are adrift at work. And this past Wednesday should have been no different. I spent it at home, teaching a close friend taking a gap year SAT Math. My siblings would be back from school anytime soon, unloading stories about their funny teachers and weird classes. I would have made all the right absent-minded noises in response while working on a short story that looked funnily absurd. Night would have rolled along, with its familiar, familial pattern.

But people elsewhere, a small, nefarious group, had other plans. Less than a mile away from home, a bomb went off in Emab Plaza, killing 21 and injuring 17. The news spread fast, wildfire chased by the wind. I was talking with my mom when my dad, who had recently traveled, called, wanting to make sure we were okay. We were stunned on two levels, first by the news, and second by the distance. We worked ourselves into a frenzy trying to verify it. But tweets about the bomb were popping up. Facebook and BBM Status Updates were alive with pictures, dark smoke cuddling a gray sky, blood in patches on the floor. Phone calls kept coming in, friends and relatives asking if we were okay, if we were anywhere near the site.

The day grew so small. I walked in circles and circles, sick to my stomach. Later, on the news, we saw the sight, charred buildings standing like sinister demons, wrecked gates and lines of burnt cars. We saw the hospital victims, bandaged, sedated, comatose, in tears.

The calls of concern continued into the next day, and a blanket of deep unease fell over the city. Rumors floated about—schools would be next, kids were in danger. And the feeling of wariness that always sat deep inside me felt much bigger. A microscope over the things my mind constantly grapples with will reveal a list of dreams and worries—stories to write, classes to pass, codes to debug, friends with whom to catch up. But in the face of this blast, I seemed to float over these concerns, and they seemed so small, so trivial. What felt worse was the deep-seated unease, the discomfort I suddenly felt in public places. I would be stuck in a traffic jam, and my mind would imagine a buried IED suddenly detonating. Malls bore this air of imminence—in the cacophony of noises and people, it felt like we were occasionally looking around, certain that death was about to rear its ugly head. Whenever I was just outside home, within the city, I went about my business, but some constantly alert, constantly uncomfortable part of me was searching, roving, waiting, frightened.

It sometimes feels like there’s something inherently judgmental about trivializing worries about what to make of your life, how to pass classes and figure out your dreams, in the face of greater fears about simply surviving—living and avoiding an early death, a terrible injury. It’s probably because for some, the uncertainty of fulfilling a passion is the height of worry—thankfully so—and for others, the uncertainty of making it to the end of the day alive is the mere surface of worry. We all worry about these things anyway, on some level or other, and we’re all at risk of dying at any point, from disease, from an electrical shock, from a plane crash, and there’s no point psychoanalyzing these fears if there are more fruitful fears to psychoanalyze.

But I think, in the end, it boils down to gratitude. There’s always someone that has it worse. Whether it’s the self-doubting Wall Street intern or the surviving car-crash victim, there always seems to be a lower layer to which life can kick us. So the drabber, grimmer, more fruitless thing to do is talk about how bad things can be, especially in the face of darkness. No, when the lights go off, what we need is a shimmer, a glow, not a black hole. And the light exists in the things we have, the things we are proud of. I think there’s something fulfilling in staring at the light. So the point of this blog post is twofold: first, that you keep me, and my country, in your thoughts or wishes or prayers or goodwill. And second, that you hold on to the light, to the dreams you’re proud to have, and the family you’re proud to cling to. The blur between life and death, between happiness and disaster, between “meh” and utter horror is thin, no thinner than the moment it takes to flip a coin. Heads turning to tails, families turning to rubble.

So, even if it’s for a moment, look at the light, and smile.