Hubris

Hubris

A Story by Philip Muls
"

From heaven back down to earth

"

I wake up to yet another day without a solution to my mortality problem.  


I know it sounds funny and it would be if only it weren't sad. Most mornings I wake up in great spirits and feel fine for a couple of minutes. Then the sudden terror comes, about all things ending.


Today, before the familiar dark mood can take hold, I go up to the 47th floor Octave Rooftop Bar of the Bangkok Marriott where I’m staying. This lounge has a fabulous 360 degree view of downtown Bangkok. The luminous circular cocktail bar has no customers at this early hour, but Josephine by London-based trio Ritual is playing and that feels exactly right to me. The song’s unforced, elegant, and understated sound is the perfect backdrop to the noise and pollution of the metropolis below. At daybreak, the city’s skyline looks golden below a glorious sunrise. For the true believers, I’m sure you could reach out to heaven right from this spot here, a gateway if there ever was one.


Ironic, that in the midst of all this beauty, the thought of life’s transience has me gasping for breath yet again. ‘Fallen’ describes best the sinking sensation in my stomach, feeling like Adam waking up to discover he’s been thrown out of Eden.


Shoshin is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind.” Like a child, you’re discovering things for the first time. Well, it seems that every day I conceive for the very first time that my life will eventually end. This literally weighs down on my chest, like a foot of fresh earth on top of a coffin. My coffin.


A circuit breaker in my brain has to step in every time and halt all existential thinking when confronted with the ultimate contradiction: life instinct telling me to avoid death at all cost while my brain points out that all such effort is futile.


Eros and Thanatos, A Daily Production In My Head.


Often, I think the whole end of life concept must be an epic misunderstanding, an unfortunate misinterpretation of some biblical allegory, or a mass marketing campaign that went terribly wrong.


Sure, the universe wants to keep us on our toes, I get that. Hence the occasional casualties, caused by natural disaster or even war. But dying as the unavoidable last page of the book of life? No thank you, that would be cruel and unusual punishment. While animals do not realize they will perish, human awareness of what’s coming has been tuned to perfection. Why for God’s sake?


Taking a deep breath of the crisp morning air high up here, I finish my coffee and decide to get moving on my day.


Riding the elevator down, I am confronted with a young Russian glam couple in the process of seriously making out. For sure not holding back on my behalf, their hands are all over each other. He in black Boss shirt and trousers with handcrafted Italian shoes, no socks. She in sky-high heels, a glittery miniskirt, and a short white fur coat. A natural beauty with light eyes, blond hair and impeccable make-up, she smiles at me when she sees my discomfort and whispers: “позольте ему наблюдать ”: Let him watch. The guy laughs and says: “'ы дразните его”: You’re a tease.


I have a basic understanding of Russian and try not to blush.This must be their grand finale to a hot night out in Bangkok: forbidden sex in an elevator while riding up to the highest rooftop bar in the city. A total stranger watching only adds to the excitement.


They stay in the elevator all the way back down with me. I notice all of a sudden that lover boy has been holding his date's panties folded in his hand all this time. She looks at me and I know she knows I know. I can't help myself and feel embarrassed and aroused in equal measures.


While stepping out, I can't help but notice the closed circuit TV cameras in the lift and it occurs to me that Thailand has ridiculously strict indecent exposure laws. I am sure the couple is equally aware of the CCTV and that fact just enhances the experience. Russians are known not to give a damn and that stereotype just got reconfirmed.


Recomposing myself, I grab my briefcase from my room and ask reception to call a cab to take me to my customer meeting. While going through the motions, I think about my objectives for the day and my personality features switch to their corporate settings. Funny how focusing on professional stuff so easily pushes out the harsh existential reality which filled my brain just minutes ago. The pristine concepts and best practices that govern the world of business have a cleansing effect on me. I can hit reset and enter this whole new universe, one which I control. No unwanted endings here, only continuous supply & demand. Life as a spreadsheet.


When in business mode, I feel liberated. No need to ponder life's impermanence when you can always count on the market to open the next day. With elegant precision, the stock ticker shows green or red and the company balance sheet has the assets and liabilities neatly in their appropriate columns. No contradictions here, all the numbers add up.


I realize of course that this whole world of commerce is a fake empire, a collective immortality project to deny the very existence of death by a never-ending wheeling and dealing in Dollars and Yen. Nothing but a domesticated battlefield, where egos can be heroes without bloodshed.


But man, it feels good to be in control of my destiny. Or at least it is a sweet and welcome illusion.


My hotel is located in Thonglor, the most trendy neighborhood of sprawling Bangkok. My customer’s offices are on the other side of the city, though, so I tell my taxi driver to hurry up because I’m already late. Last night, I strolled outside the hotel to explore the many art galleries and funky boutiques of local Thai designers. But here and now in this worn-out taxi cab, I only see busy streets and traffic jams prohibiting me to get to my destination. 


I am preoccupied, my mind seems determined to take stock, to make an appraisal of where I am exactly on the lapse of time between beginning and end. The irony of life is that you get better and better at it and then you expect it to further build up. When you get to marry the girl you love, when you get promoted up the corporate chain, you actually start to believe you have superpowers. That eventually you’ll be able to also dodge the final bullet and get away with not dying at all.


And the crazy thing is, my subconscious actually supports this wishful thinking. If my mind is an iceberg, the part below the water surface actually believes I will not die. How funny is that?


Our subconscious harbors ancient truths and archaic fantasies that have taken hold in our genes over millions of years. Those deep instincts are timeless and entirely focused on the survival of the species through eternity.


That deep intuition has me believe that I am too clever to die, that only a freak accident or an outside attack could kill me. Something as prosaic as old age or ordinary sickness cannot get to me. I should just not be stupid and go and travel in Ebola territory or buy a one-way ticket to Mars. If I only respect these basic rules, I should be fine.


I recognize the arrogance in this: to feel entitled and consider it my eternal birthright to be alive. My dying would mean somebody is rigging the game, because when it comes to mastering life, I am an expert. No one does it better, or so I think. I am a fixer. Put a roadblock in my path and I will find a way around it. Sublime logic, the basic design code for the universe, will protect me against all randomness which fate can throw at me.


This is the way I do it. I wrap my thoughts into fantastic concepts and abstractions which let me reach multitudes with my mind. The more sophisticated the ideas and the more multi-layered the symbols I use to describe my world, the further I move away from death and decay. I can compartmentalize reality into small conceptual bits that are not frightening at all. I multiply my chances of survival by leaving a trail of thought that cannot be erased. My schemes are too big to fail.


Wow! I am torn here. Despite this grandiosity, this self-glorification, I have never felt more insignificant and vulnerable in my life.  Why do I feel it can all come crashing down any time now? I feel fake, this is not who I am. I am not my thoughts.


God, I need to break this ruminative cycle before I go crazy. To distract me, I look outside at the locals weaving through traffic on their scooters and the unavoidable tourists in tuk-tuks. Originating from an old-fashioned rickshaw during the second World War, a tuk-tuk is essentially the same but with a small engine fitted in. A tourist trap, and a dangerous one at that.


I look at the Raymond Weil watch which my wife got me for my birthday on a trip to Geneva and I realize that indeed I will be late. This is unnerving because it will mean a bad start to the meeting. My customer, a man of tradition appreciating old-fashioned punctuality will see this as a sign of disrespect.


I tap the driver on the shoulder and tell him in a stern voice to find a faster route. I can see this makes the man extremely nervous. The guy is probably used to driving tourists at a leisurely pace through his great city and now he has to take this business man in a suit all the way to Silom, Bangkok’s financial district. He keeps mumbling something incomprehensible, clearly upset.


I curse myself. Why did I not take the Skytrain, the elevated rapid transit system recommended strongly by the hotel? Bad decision, but too late now. We are on Sukhumvit street, the main traffic artery to the financial district. There is no shortcut, I will just have to sweat it out.


My driver agitatedly looks left, then right, then left again. I see he’s soaked with sweat which is unusual for a local. I notice now how his pupils are dilated, betraying mental turmoil. I feel an urgent need to get the hell out of this vehicle.


But then, out of the blue, the cabbie takes a wild turn to the left, and accelerates up into a small side street until we reach the main crossroads at an insane speed. I’m opening my mouth to tell him to slow down when I see her.


The little girl on the bike. The little girl in the red dress.


The fiery red color of the dress right in front of the car is instantly burned into my retinas. I cannot make a sound. I think I am pointing my finger at the girl on the bike but I cannot be sure. In my peripheral vision, I glimpse the face of the driver now with an expression of pure horror, overcome by the knowledge that bad karma is upon him. My heart skips a beat and then another. My mouth feels ultra-dry, I do not have not enough saliva to swallow. I see the hair on my arms stand out while I grip the front seat with both hands as if I can stop the car that way.


In this one instant before impact, I see everything with absolute clarity. It all makes dreadful sense. I’ve been on the wrong track. And this is what it has led to.


Exactly. What. I. Deserve.


The driver is now on auto-pilot and pure adrenaline makes him try a desperate maneuver to avoid the girl. Defying gravity, he succeeds in swerving just an inch so he does not hit the child’s body but only the rear of her bike. The collision catapults the child away with a velocity that I am certain will kill her. I try to see where she goes but then our car hits a solid structure in the street.


My brain finds this a good time to point out that this is much like the unstoppable force paradox: “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” We're not going to solve that here. The crash is forceful and propels the taxi driver through the car’s windshield out of sight. His right shoe is left sitting on top of the dashboard, as the last reminder that this was his taxi. And his life.


I am in the rear wearing my seat belt and feel several ribs break on impact. My face smashes against the back of the front seat and I taste warm leather. I try to see, but blood is running in my eyes and everything is a blur.


A nasty thought pierces through the fog in my neocortex: “This is one obstacle you did not find your way around, did you?”


The car has wrapped itself around what turns out to be a Buddhist shrine, one of many in the streets of Bangkok. This fact does not help matters at all. I know the Thai are very sensitive when it comes to their places of worship.


I try to open the car door but it will not budge. I smell gasoline fumes and start agonizing whether I will burn alive, stuck in this car wreck in a city far from home. I am nauseous and rest my head for just a moment against the front seat to find my bearings.


But immediately I feel hands pulling at my arms and legs. People are trying to save me! is the rather naïve thought that pops into my mind. Next, a clenched fist hits my jaw. The surprise of this event has even more punch than the actual pain it causes. This does not make sense. No sense at all. I am a victim.


Before I can ascertain who has hit me and why, I feel a sharp object stabbing me twice in the left thigh. Two thrusts in exactly the same spot, that cannot be good. It occurs to me that I’ve never felt a knife into my flesh except for the harmless cut on a finger while cooking. I can now confirm the pain is excruciating. It feels like nothing for a second until the red hot pain sears through the wound. I cry out in pain and anger.


I wonder whether the blade is still stuck in my leg? I need to know, this seems essential.


I hear police sirens very close by and the angry crowd seems to hesitate for a moment but then moves closer again. It seems to pulsate in and out of my view. People are shouting: “”นักฆ่™เ"็ก“. The police will later tell me this means child killer.


My hand instinctively tries to stop the bleeding of my leg. I do not feel the knife but I feel blood gushing out of the laceration. I black out for a second or so. I open my eyes again and see a Thai police officer standing close by but with his back to me. I move my head slightly to see more but this sends a bolt of pain all the way down my spine. This opens a new avenue of agonizing worry, am I paralyzed from the neck down?


I notice now that the cop is holding a gun and pointing it straight at the mob of people surrounding the crash site. He’s shouting quick words in Thai. I can sense from his tone that he is alone and way out of his depths here. Not confident at all that he can keep the crowd from tearing me apart. His short warnings are met by the most guttural outbursts of anger I’ve ever heard in my life. These people want me dead. A memory of reading about lynch mobs at crash incidents in Thailand flashes though my brain.


All of a sudden, I hear a gun blast very close to my left ear when the officer fires a warning shot. My ear is ringing, my head hurts. I worry again about the leaked petrol catching fire or the angry posse finally pushing through. Whatever gets to me first.


This is when my consciousness says enough already and I pass out.


I drift in and out of an uneasy sleep. The moments I am awake, I think I am in a hospital, I am not sure. It is difficult to describe the deeply feverish nature of the dreaming. It feels as if continental drift below my surface has caused my tectonic plates to collide. A tidal wave of unsettling images is flooding the seaboards of my sanity. This is a fragment of a dream I remember vividly.


A massive battleship fueled by a red-hot reactor engine cuts through the ocean. Out of nowhere, the war cruiser is hit amidships by a ridiculously small torpedo. The ship is so large that at first the hit almost goes unnoticed, just a light tremble rippling up and down the five gargantuan decks. Normal operations are barely disturbed as the crew executes the emergency procedure for this type of minor incident. The ship itself seems to mock this poor attempt at a threat and after short repairs, the captain confidently gives the order to resume cruising speed. But then, hours later, the pipes with cooling water unexpectedly show leakage and have to be shut down. As a consequence, the core of the reactor heats up until it finally melts down and deadly radiation spreads from the belly of the ship. Other vessels are hours away. Instead of a green EXIT sign, the word HUBRIS is displayed in red neon above the only emergency gate.


I wake up in a sweat with a deep-rooted feeling of foreboding. My leg hurts like hell, my nose feels broken. It is hard to breathe.


I hear noises surrounding my bed. I open my eyes and the first thing I see is the little girl. She is standing at the left side of my bed and she's holding a small bouquet of wildflowers. Her face is serious but she does not look angry. This time she's wearing a bright green dress. I blink to make sure I am fully conscious. The girl is holding the hand of her mother who's smiling at me. I look up and down at the girl. I notice she has a band aid on her knee. I do not see any other signs of injuries.


Never before in my life have I felt such relief. It turns out that Kannika, that’s the girl’s name, was indeed catapulted from her bike but then landed just meters further in a makeshift clothing stall in the street. The racks full of colourful textiles broke her fall and she was unharmed, apart from a nasty cut on her right knee.


While I was unconscious, more police had come to cordon off the car wreck. Within that sealed perimeter, they succeeded in freeing me from the demolished cab. An ambulance then swiftly evacuated me to Bangkok’s Bumrungrad International Hospital at the far end of Sukhumvit Street.


The taxi driver had died instantly upon hitting the monumental shrine, head first. The autopsy which was performed yesterday revealed he had been under the influence of opiates and so he was found guilty of reckless driving. If he would be still alive, he would get the death penalty under Thai drug law.


The perpetrator who had knifed me twice had not been captured, he ran off into the crowded streets. Same with the guy who broke my nose.


Four days later, I find myself aboard a Lear Jet 55, a Medical Air Ambulance, hired by my company to repatriate me back and continue treatment in my home country Belgium for the sustained leg injury and mild concussion.


On a hospital bed in the private jet high up in the air and with a dedicated nurse to attend to me, I really feel good for the first time in a long while, like I got a second lease on life. I'm determined to cultivate this newfound joy and try not to waste any more precious time on futile ruminations.


While flipping through Bangkok's English newspaper The Nation, I cannot help but smile when I recognize the pictures of Katya and Vlad, the Russian couple apparently taken into custody yesterday at the Bangkok Marriott hotel and brought before the city’s Court of Justice on charges of indecent exposure and sex in a public place. A German woman who found herself trapped in the elevator with them filed a complaint and the rest is history.


© 2016 Philip Muls



Author's Note

Philip Muls
Thanks for your honest review. Please stay with it as it builds up.

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Featured Review

I get so little time lately to read. I skim a lot. But not this. The story itself technically is spot on. Great pace, lots of nail biting moments - darkly comical, but what really grabs me is the thing I relate to viscerally - that we are finite. That thought keeps me awake at night. Often.

Posted 11 Months Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.




Reviews

I will learn from your writing. In particular I like how you capture noticing and wonder. I like the balance between those two in your work.

Posted 8 Months Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

I get so little time lately to read. I skim a lot. But not this. The story itself technically is spot on. Great pace, lots of nail biting moments - darkly comical, but what really grabs me is the thing I relate to viscerally - that we are finite. That thought keeps me awake at night. Often.

Posted 11 Months Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

"Hubris" is our tragic flaw; pride. Often I associate this word with literature so I was not sure what to expect from reading this story. I was not disappointed in the least. In fact, I received more than I asked for.

CONTENT AND FORMAT

The speaker is a comical philosopher; he blends in philosophy, culture, and narrative. Longer works are sometimes overlooked on this site so I am pleased to see that people read its entirety. The scene with the elevator resonated with me. I have never traveled to Bangkok so I am interested in their lifestyle. Frankly, I think America is uptight with sexuality. I admit I will blush if there is a couple having sex in front of me. However, there is such a difference between culture.

The introduction had me hooked. It lifts the curtain for the audience to share in the protagonist's journey rather then remaining an informative essay which I expected. He captivates us in this narrative by adding activities of daily living such as drinking coffee.

Existentialism is the dominant philosophy of which he lives by; he gives himself his own meaning. He finds a reason for everything he does. Climbing the corporate ladder will lead to arrogance or hubris. I have seen this happen to people I know for it changes people and to some degree, it becomes their Shakespearean downfall.

All I can say is that I knew there was going to be a downfall in this story and my heart dropped when I got to the girl in the red dress. "Child Killer" is not something you can ever shake off. There was a sense of relief that Kannika was fine but clearly the protagonist had a wake up call.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Morality is the prominent theme; it is foreshadowed in the very beginning. There are references to philosophical doctrine but this is a tale of morals from sex in the elevator to almost killing a girl. Thank you for sharing this incredible and honest story. It must not have been easy to write.

sincerely,
ria

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Wow what an experience! Perfectly told as usual. The beliefs, traditions and actions of other cultures can be a devastating blow if you happen to get on the wrong side of them but to call you a Child Killer and try to kill you for something you had no control over is, to put it mildly, a bit much.
Another well written account of your international lifestyle. Well Done.

Your morning problems are my nights. I have trouble going to sleep because I stress over the things that I may have to face, brought on by the powers others can have over me, as in the government making things harder or doing something that makes us all look stupid, and events that I have no control over causing me problems I have to deal with that I don't want or need.

Regarding your life concept, I sometimes I think life is a good intentioned project gone horribly wrong then abandoned, leaving us to try and make something sensible out of the mess we've created.

Dying may not be the last page of the book of life, it depends on what you believe I guess, but we won't know until we get there.

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Thanks Motherless for the relevant feedback and your personal view upon the big questions. Kind rega.. read more
Motherless

1 Year Ago

Happy to share with you Philip
This story was quite insightful and pensive, I like the theme and I've had the mortality question bug me too. So, I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the story, the build up and all. I like the touch of philosophy (something for the brain) before the thrill (something for the heartbeat fluctuation, haha). I like the message that's subtly put across in the end and all the dots are well-connected. It's good!

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Very well done and quite exciting.

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Hi Philip. Once again I'm in admiration of your skills as a writer. Not for the first time I'm impressed with the detail and credibility of all that you write. I'm reminded of Frederick Forsyth. All that said, I'm with others (and indeed your own author's note) in feeling that the tale becomes more engaging once we're in the taxi. Naturally I'm glad the girl survived, but I'm intrigued about the other possible ending, i.e. if she'd died. How would this rather cold arrogant business traveller cope with the evidence of his partial responsibility for her death. How would that impact his mortality ideas? Maybe he'd go back to the tower and throw himself at the reinforced glass as a sort of Russian Roulette he was confident of winning, then discover too late that some cheapskate sub-contractor had skimped on that aspect ... Ah well. Good job!

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

I read at a pace, then, gulped at the LIFE attack, so many incidents, so many people, so many memories. Then, i read slowly, slowly, creeping silently or aloud according to... mood of words.. and moody they were at times. Seems your life, factual or otherwise, grabs you by the guts and yet, you write elegantly, phrases laid neatly, fluidly, yet somehow wanting to stir your readers' sensibilities.

That said, sitting here, am wondering why you doubt what time's left to you in this Life. Your adventures, experiences surely hold so much power, so much a sense of achievement, can't you see that it doesn't matter. Life has you firmly in your hands, if your light goes out this very minite, you will have lived.

Your final lines made me laugh aloud only cos i thought there might be a twist... there was.. Humour is a remedy for whatever hurts.. If i speak-write out of turn, forgive me, but..

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

A beautiful story, Philip. You can see you've seen a great deal of the world. Well done, I liked the story.. :) Rudi

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

I very much enjoyed your story, Phillip. You told it in a clean and professional manner. Your thoughts on life and death, your singular role in the universe, set up the dramatic climax by turning the tables on your characters beliefs. I like the way the story evolved, in a sure and balanced flow. Your story was polished and well told.
Richie b.

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.


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Added on July 1, 2016
Last Updated on July 2, 2016
Tags: Bangkok, death, opiates, sex in elevator, Russia, hubris, fallen, red dress

Author

Philip Muls
Philip Muls

Grimbergen, Belgium



About
Living in Europe, but travelling frequently in US and Asia. I love to combine what I experience during travel with observations and thoughts about the human condition. more..

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