In a flash it was gone. The last time I saw my camera was on Lunar New Year’s day 2016. It was speeding away on a Saigon residential street, hanging from the hand of the motorcycle thief who had just robbed me. Saigon and other Vietnamese cities have a really special atmosphere on Lunar New Year’s day and I’d spent all morning and afternoon visiting Vinh Nhiem Pagoda and strolling around the surrounding neighborhood. Beyond losing a valuable personal belonging (about $1,200 USD with the separate lens), I was really happy with the photos I’d taken that day and regretted losing them.
How to have your camera stolen? Or, how should we think and act when bad things happen to us?
An idea I keep considering in my own life and in this blog is how to think about what happens to us while traveling through this world. A key insight of Buddhism is that how we think about what happens to us is much more important than what happens to us.
After a negative experience, that experience has another, often much longer life in our minds. And, in many cases that second, completely internal experience of the trauma is much more significant, at least in cases where there was no actual physical injury. Whether we grow or are broken by bad things that happen to us depends mostly not on what actually happened, but on how the experience subsequently plays out on the stage of our minds.
During the period of intense emotion following a traumatic experience, what do we feel? And, once those emotions have cooled, how do we think and what do we do? What lessons can be learned and applied?
In another chapter in life I spent a lot of years in school. Had I actually paid for it the post secondary portion of that education would have been astronomically expensive. At some point very early on though some professors decided they liked the way I read books and talked and wrote about them, and they gave me money to do more of that. And, like a dog that gets a particularly juicy bone every time he catches the frisbee, once I learned that particular trick I never paid a dime for my education.
Getting paid to read interesting books and talk and write about them is actually a really cool gig! As with most things in life though, there are strings attached. To start, you need to keep your patrons happy. Had I submitted a haiku on personal finance or two equations (one for monogamy and one for polyamory) as class assignments (to take two of the more “out there” posts I’ve written in this blog), my academic elders would NOT have been pleased. And, unless I returned to the academic straight and narrow (where originality, within certain boundaries, is what’s generally expected), the money would have disappeared. This is as it should be, I think, as accountability is completely natural with money like this. It is a privilege and not a right to be given an opportunity like that. I will say though that, freed from the need to write for the “A” or the fellowship, and to express whatever I personally think is interesting and important, I’ve enjoyed writing this blog more than almost anything I wrote in school.
I really enjoyed those years but school is just one of the places we can learn, and it’s probably not even the best. Schools, at least the ones I went to, are not very good places at all to learn how to have your camera stolen (or to pick up practical life skills of any kind for that matter). Probably the most valuable things I’ve learned have been outside of the classroom, while traveling through this world. And negative experiences sometimes have the most to teach.
The camera episode was of course painfully expensive for a lesson that was over in seconds and took place in a very local and down to earth section of Saigon. How do you think and act in response to an experience like this? If you ask 100 people who were victims of this sort of street crime you’ll probably get 100 different answers.
Naturally, the first reaction with this and any trauma is emotional. Of course, that individual and I are not going to be friends but almost all of my anger in the moments and hours right after it happened (when emotions tend to run hottest) was directed at myself. The fact is, I acted quite stupidly. I was looking around for something interesting to photograph and I wasn’t paying enough attention to my surroundings.
I should not have been standing on a busy street corner with an expensive camera in my hand – at least not without a high level of vigilance of my surroundings. When the idea for this post started to form in my mind, an initial reservation was whether I wanted to admit to being that stupid on a public blog. I consider myself a relatively savvy traveler and being robbed in this way definitely wounded my pride.
An irony of this experience is that I’ve spent years living and traveling in places with much higher levels of this sort of street crime than Saigon. In places like Barcelona, Paris and Rio de Janeiro I was never victimized because of a high level of vigilance. I knew about these risks from the very beginning and took appropriate precautions (constant awareness of my surroundings and belongings, caution with strangers who approach in even the most friendly ways etc.). While living and traveling in Southeast Asia, I was not unaware that this sort of thing occurred but until that day I simply didn’t give it enough attention. In my own mind, the primary responsibility for what happened to me that day is my own. And the mix of anger and shame in the hours after it happened was primarily directed at myself.
When a mosquito bites you, do you blame the mosquito? No, you slap it and spray on some insect repellant. I find it helpful to just recognize that, unfortunate though it may be, there will always be some not very nice people who do some not very nice things. Wishing that were not the case, or hoping that some day it may not be, is in my mind just not particularly useful. We were born into a world with petty criminals, obnoxious politicians and vacuous, commercial filled television. And when we depart this world, it will still have all these problems and very likely some new and possibly bigger ones as well.
To my mind, it’s just not very useful to wish or hope for the world to be perfect. The key I think is to find a way to be happy and successful in the world as it actually is. And, in that world, people like the individual who stole my camera are not going away.
After the hot emotions in the hours or days after something like this happens, how do we think and how do we act? During this second wave response, which for me at least is characterized by calmer reflection and thought, there is a vast variety of ways to think and act. Some of these, of course, are more helpful than others.
After the initial anger and shame, mostly at myself, I began to think about how to think about this experience. And about what to do. Am I going to hide in my room? No, not even for a day. Am I going to give up street photography or never take out a camera or iPhone or the like in public? Definitely not. Or move to a new city? Well, actually…Saigon traffic can be a pain, but for now, no.
I think extreme views and reactions are are just that – extreme. There’s almost always a smarter middle road. I decided that I just needed to be much more aware of my surroundings and highly vigilant when taking out my phone or camera in public, and I’ve definitely done that ever since. I take my phone and camera out in public as much as before, but I always check my surroundings first and remain aware of them while the valuable is in my hand. Also, I make a point of standing away from the street.
When something bad happens, how long does it take to move from anger, fear and other negative emotions to the point where we can think about the experience in a helpful way and hopefully learn something? I think this varies wildly from person to person and there is no correct answer.
Emotion of course has a critically important place in our experience as humans. Personally I find negative emotion a useless distraction, but I don’t want to advocate too much for an overly quick moving on and processing of lessons learned. The emotional response to traumatic experiences of course has an important place and everyone needs to experience that at their own pace.
It’s worth noting though that the longer we dwell in fear and anger, the longer the experience controls us. Long after the actual trauma, we may continue to suffer because of the way we think and feel about what happened. I know I don’t want that sad individual to occupy my world for any longer than absolutely necessary.
How about you? How do you have your camera stolen?
Here are my favorite photos from when I returned on Lunar New Year’s day this year, unbroken and unbowed, to the same temple and neighborhood where my camera was stolen last year.
On the Way to the Pagoda
(Above three photos) Many parents dress their children in traditional clothing for the Lunar New Year period.
Outside the Pagoda
Inside the Pagoda