Edwin Okolo: Circumstantial Ownership

Republished with permission from uueirdness.wordpress.com

I’ll start this post with a scenario:
Imagine, if you can, that you walked out of your house one day and found a wrecked car outside your door. There’s blood and glass and sharp scary pieces of metal everywhere. You have no idea how it got there, who owns it or who might have died in it. However, everyone is staring at you with accusing eyes. You’re confused for a moment, considering whether you may have been involved in it in some way but then you remember you don’t have a key or a driver’s license and you did nothing remarkable yesterday. Then your neighbour says:
“Why are you just standing there? You’re making everyone uncomfortable. Clean up that shit.”
You immediately feel the urge to protest “But…”
“But nothing. Handle your responsibility like an adult.”
“But I don’t know whose…”
“It’s in your compound, so it’s yours.”
“Yeah,” another neighbour says. “I found three men in my yard yesterday. I have to go do their laundry now.”
“I found a pot of gold in mine,” a third neighbour says. “I’m above all of you now, so treat me with respect.”

You’re still confused about everything, but after another five minutes of enduring disapproving glares, you spend the rest of your morning deciding how to go about handling your “responsibility”.

This scenario seems ridiculous, but it’s a good parallel of how we come to construct reality around ourselves. Many of the things we claim ownership of and sometimes guard jealously, we have absolutely no idea how we came to be in possession of them. We’re born into families with no choice in our parents, siblings or neighbours, yet we feel some sort of visceral need to be impressed or disappointed in who they are or what they do as though they are people we decided to be around. We come to uphold ideas of beauty, culture, ethnicity, class and country as though we made calculated decisions to belong to any of them and should flaunt the fruits of our intelligent choices or be eternally ashamed of our bad gambles.

We ordinarily wouldn’t feel this way about any of these things if we weren’t born into particular social settings. It’s not like our brains invented the ideas of race and tribe and patriotism. We come into a world where these ideas are thrown into our faces at every turn and after a while we accept them and fall in line. But once we’ve agreed to our alignments, we often start to act like these circumstances are more than what they are, like we should uphold and defend them with all our strength. We see any commentary on these circumstances, whether positive or negative, as things we should be proud of or upset by. We take personal responsibility of things beyond our control, and sadly, let these circumstances dictate how we should live our lives.

There’s little we can do about our circumstances. And in a world where others have agreed to be aligned with theirs, it seems like common sense to simply do what others are doing, because it is by these same circumstances that we are often appraised and judged. But when you realize that everyone is basically a victim of the system, it becomes just a little easier to understand their wildly different perspectives. But there’s another dimension to this understanding: an awareness of the social cage being imposed on us, one we have taken for granted and often have used as a decision-making guideline. But if we can learn to see these circumstances as just that, we can control their limitations on our existence. We can stop trying to fulfil expectations based on them and possibly start to see things based on what our personal values, preferences and interests actually dictate.

If you were in an environment all by yourself, without culture, country, race, tribe and all the other circumstantial categories to define yourself, who will you be? Would you still act the way you act? Will you still enjoy the things you claim to enjoy? Will you choose to have experiences outside your current socially acceptable “norm”?

Who are you, when you stop listening to your neighbours?
You can spend your life being what everyone else tells you to be, or you can decide to be a version of you without categorization. That’s the real choice here. Your circumstances are just that, and there’s a real person underneath all the labels and definitions.
You did not keep the wrecked car on your lawn. But you can decide whether to let it dictate your life, or plant flowers around it and make it part of the scenery.

I recommend black orchids.


Edwin writes to explore concepts that he seeks to understand but cannot directly experience because of gender and genetics. He used to run the experimental fiction column ‘The Alchemist’s Corner’ and created the YA series Seams at The Naked Convos and serves as a fiction editor at Stories NG. He has written for Thelonelycrowd, Sable Lit Mag, Omenana and the Kalahari Review and was longlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize. He is obsessed with children, cats and Paternak, exactly in that order.

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