I do not like surprises. As a matter of fact, I always like to plan things as early as possible and train myself to meet targets on the way to my destination. As such, I am the very opposite of spontaneity, and my life tends to be somewhat rigid. At the start of each day, I pretty much know exactly what I have to do. There have been times though, when I was genuinely surprised and taken aback by some unexpected twist and turn of events. Most of those twists were nasty setbacks, and what made them worse was that I had not expected them at all. They came to me as full blows. A few of them, however, turned out to be rather pleasant. In fact, they were such sweet moments that they seem to have affected me in quite profound ways. Here are some pleasant surprises of my life:
1) Movies: in the summer of 2003, I was preparing for my GCSEs. Those exams were not particularly challenging, though at the time they were every schoolboy’s nightmare. I was no exception, and I worked my socks off revising for them. It was also a very eventful and stressful summer for me, as it was the summer in which the Iraqi War took over much of the news (especially in the UK) and SARS took over much of mainland China and Hong Kong (where I am from). It was a pretty grim period for everyone involved. Looking back, I do not feel much warmth or joy. There was one episode though, which stood out as an oasis of joy. On a particular night in April, I was flipping through the channels on TV as I was getting rather sick of the usual grim news about Iraq and China/HK. I chanced upon a movie on BBC Channel 1. I saw this young girl whose family got mutilated by some serious-looking cops. In order to survive, she pretended not to recognise the corpses of her family lying around her apartment and pressed the bell of her neighbour, another serious-looking but somewhat odd-looking man with a gun pressed against his door. She started sobbing and begged him to ‘please open the door… please.’ After numerous brief and swift pleas, she was finally allowed to enter her neighbour’s apartment. And the rest is a beautiful story. Those of you who are cinematically astute will have realised that this was indeed the famous movie Leon: The Professional. It is a very well-known movie, well-embedded into our popular culture, though at the time I did not know much about (western) movies. I was intrigued by what I saw and started watching it. It was a fantastic story, a beautiful blend of action, suspense and romance. I was drawn by the ups and downs of the story, and was so touched by the tragic bittersweet ending. By the end of it I felt so relaxed. Those were feelings that I had not expected, not on a busy study night during a period of tense international (and personal) anxiety. What escalated those positive feelings was my not expecting them, as I really had not seen them coming, and when they came to me, they fully blossomed in my heart. Those feelings were simply indescribable. From then on, I started to be fascinated by western movies. I guess I was probably trying to re-capture those feelings again. This was how profoundly that unexpected event affected me.
2) Christmas 2012. 2012 was a difficult year for me. I was overwhelmed with work, so much that I actually contemplated quitting my academic career. I also suffered an emotional heartbreak when I broke up with my ex-girlfriend. It was truly a nasty, nasty year for me. Yet I could not stop. I had many deadlines piled upon me and I had to keep going, despite my girlfriend leaving me, despite my self-recrimination at what I could have done to savage my relationship, despite all the emotional pain that accompanied that nasty break-up, and all this was compounded by the stress of my professional life. It was a fantastic year for me in terms of personal growth, since I really felt that I matured a lot in that year. Nonetheless, the pain was incredible. Most of the days I was working my life away trying to meet deadlines, yet at the same time I was trying to put my ex-girlfriend behind me and forget that I had ever met her. Every day I was suffering from such emotional complexes which seriously harmed my mental health. On one particular day, however, I received an online invitation to attend a Christmas concert at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. I probably should have been stayed home and worked during Christmas, but I was so emotionally exhausted at the time that I decided to take a cheeky break and go to this concert. The Bridgewater Hall is a fantastic venue and they regularly put on some really good concerts there. That Christmas concert was no exception. It was spectacular. The Orchestra played some very familiar Christmas tunes, and the choir was sensational, especially their rendition of the famous ‘O Holy Night’, which almost blew my heart away. I had not expected that. I entered the concert with no expectations. I was just looking to escape from my stress and heartache. Yet as the concert went on, I started to feel shaken, energized and revitalised. That was not in the script of my miserable life then, yet it somehow worked for me. I spent the rest of the day feeling happy and relaxed, which had not happened to me since I broke up with my ex-girlfriend several months before. I’ll never forget 2012, not only because it was an incredibly tough year for me, but also because of that Christmas concert in the Bridgewater Hall which was truly the highlight of my year.
3) Braveheart. In 2014, I got in touch with my old tutor at school. My old tutor had recently retired and I received an invitation from him to have a meal in London. It was so great to see him again after all these years. He had aged a lot, but his wisdom was still very much intact. He had done his PhD on English Medieval history many years ago, and if I recall correctly, he had done his PhD on Henry the First. I have always taken a big interest in history and politics and I studied Classics at Oxford. We started talking about many things ranging from prehistoric Mycenaean Greeks to modern Britain. At one point of our conversation we talked about the Scottish referendum, which was a hot topic in 2014. We then added some historical perspective and started talking about William Wallace and Robert the Bruce (and the infamous Edward I ‘Longshanks’). I had seen the movie ‘Braveheart’ in 2005, almost ten years prior, and it had left a huge impression on me. At the time I was more interested in the cinematic qualities of it, as it was a fantastic action/drama movie with a huge motivational core. I had never considered the historical side of the movie though, and my tutor reminded me that the movie was historically very inaccurate. He started telling the historical background and details of the First Scottish War of Independence, and we started comparing them to the movie. I had never realised that the movie was so historically inaccurate, and from then on I started doing some research on the First Scottish War of Independence. I found some fantastic documentaries on youtube, and I was so illuminated on that part of British history. It was an idea, a casual conversation, which ignited my enthusiasm for a particular topic. Again, it was not in the script, but it turned out to affect me so profoundly.
What these experiences have taught me, therefore, is that sometimes having a bit of air in our lives is probably a very good thing. We all want to strive forward, we all want to achieve as much as possible, but sometimes the most powerful feelings/ideas are perhaps conceived when we least expect them to. There is only so much that we humans can do, and a little bit of inspiration is perhaps what we need to go that extra yard in order to achieve what we want. Spontaneity is hence a powerful thing, and taking a few breaks in our busy routines may help us to instill it. Don’t give up.