Epidemic Of Loneliness: An Essay.

Introduction

It’s a cold and drizzly afternoon when I’m making a casual stroll around the block with my mom’s dog. Through my hazy spectacles I scan the environment. I notice that the scenery of the neighborhood is rather Dutch; the yards of inhabitants are sharply separated from each other by wooden hurdles. Territories seem to be marked strictly. Every garden is personalized by different types of plants or decorations, like miniature windmills or small Buddha’s. Some of the yards have printed canvases hanging down the wall, depicting tropical shores of exotic lands. Sadly enough, some tarnished images of palm trees won’t improve the cheerless ambiance of today. 

On the background, I observe an indistinguishable row of modest red brick apartments. Housing of this kind can be found all over the Netherlands.  All homes have typically large windows, sometimes exposing the lives indoors. A young family can be seen, preparing for dinner. And further down the lane, a young man’s face is lit up brightly by the screen of his computer. He seems to be playing some sort of video game. And from certainly every second house’s windowsill, the dog and I are stared down by a drowsy cat. 

Light rain is multiplying the bitter feelings of coldness on this quite unwelcoming day. The first part of the walk leads along a gritty building. It might be a large retirement home, or perhaps a block of serviced apartments. Then, the pathway leads towards a downtrodden field, ideal to play catch with the dog. I’ve been walking this route countless times already. 

Over time, I started to notice something peculiar about this mysterious building. During every walk, there’s an elderly lady sitting in her living room, staring out of her large window into the distance. It’s a returning scene whenever I pass by. Whether it’s evening or afternoon, one could always expect her to be unaccompanied, sitting right there on the couch. Usually it’s quite a discomforting picture altogether. Especially on days like this, when the surroundings are pretty much shrouded in despair.

While the dog is far ahead and already chasing carelessly after some neighbourhood cats, the window of the lady appears. Feelings of curiosity take hold of me. Cheekily, I peek inside once again, but things are unchanged. She is still there, but doesn’t seem to notice me. Or she doesn’t bother, who will tell.

She must be somewhere around seventy. Her haircut is characteristically Dutch; well maintained and short. The humble living room is weakly lit by the glow of an antique lamp in the corner. As with other Dutch homes, her tiny front garden is sharply divided from others by wooden fences. In the living spaces surrounding the premises, I see people of a similar age. One level up, a bald man is reading a newspaper, right above the woman. It is evident that every inhabitant has an enormous amount of privacy. Upon hearing the dog’s impatient barking in the distance, I set off to the field, leaving the building behind. 

Meanwhile in my mind, a train of thoughts comes into motion, resulting in some solicitous questions. What had happened to her family? Where are her friends or acquaintances? Perhaps she’d lost all loved ones and has been grieving ever since. But that’s all sheer unlikely.

Of a sudden (while throwing a big twig for the dog to catch), I come to a more appalling conclusion. That it may be more plausible that she actually has family and relatives, possibly lots of them. But they have, apart from an occasional Sunday visit, forgotten of her. She had become too much of a burden and been sent to this grim place to spend the final years of her life. 

Whatever the specific reason for her solitude might be, she’s always alone. Whenever I pass by. In the morning, afternoon and evening. In the weekend and during holidays. Her joyless face is always apparent. More saddening; her striking case seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. Many other people may find themselves in situations of a similar kind. Citizens of all ages. The wealthy and the poor.

Worrying signals

Lately, a load of disturbing news came in from the Netherlands. And to keep it polite, it made my eyebrows wrinkle. It’s the kind of news that appeals to me greatly, for it is on an individual level. The level which, in essence, really matters. It touches me much more than the upteenth update about the everlasting brexit or another rhetoric tweet by Trump. The items in question generally state that in addition to the elderly, also young adults in the Netherlands are now suffering from severe loneliness. Added up, that’s pretty much our whole society.  One report stated that to escape their isolation, youngsters seek for refuge by calling out desperately for help, using online platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. Yet as much the news engages me, as little it surprises me. 

Already for several decades, severe loneliness amongst the elderly is a widespread problem in the Netherlands. Unsurprisingly, signals addressing similar issues arise from neighbouring countries too. So, except roughly middle aged citizens and children, loneliness is fiercely prevalent throughout multiple groups in Western societies. It seems to affect citizens from all layers of society. The ones for whom loneliness is dominating life, have told that they experience social exclusion. For them, the absence of contacts or community often results in an agonizing depression and an overall feeling of dismay. 

The most alarming signs have emerged mostly in the past years towards the upper echelons of publicity, but the process wherein loneliness became an undeniable problem was already unfolding for years beforehand. Perhaps for fifty years already. Over time, loneliness became a symptom, or more precisely, an inextricable characteristic of our society. It became integrated into our capitalistic system. Therefore, what is being covered in news reports right now, barely surprises me. As a social worker and as a citizen.

Yet what does, is that loneliness and all of its dismantling consequences had been noticed so late by the involved institutions. How could it be, for goodness sake, that people in such an (acclaimed) wealthy and socially developed country like the Netherlands have to scream out for help? In what follows, I shall make an attempt on describing some of its main causes. To do so, I use my experiences of living in Russia as a counterweight. The interesting comparison with this ice cold and gigantic country will promise to give some heartwarming outcomes.   

Scattered community

I have had the privilege to live in provincial Russia for a while. It was a privilege, but not specifically because of its breathtaking architecture or astounding wealthiness: less material wealth is the reason for many Dutch to make fun of former soviet countries. And that is slightly presumptive, since in the Netherlands, we have enough troubles ourselves, though masked by cultural blindness. The privilege I had living in Russia revolves more explicitly around unmissable emotional aspects, rather than a large home or expensive cars. 

My small country is considered to be rather progressive and tolerant when described by foreigners. It is listed as ‘very high’ on the human development index. In Russia or Ukraine, I often get jealous looks when telling I’m from the Netherlands. If we could exchange passports, they’d be definitely up for it. Furthermore, the economy is seen as prosperous, with the Netherlands ranking relatively high on most global scales, ‘beating’ states like Switzerland, Singapore and Turkey. 

Overall, the living conditions in the Netherlands are regarded as pleasant and comfortable. Even when annual happiness researches are conducted by the authorities, the outcomes are that Dutch citizens are ‘generally satisfied’ with their lives. (note: such results expose painfully precise the weaknesses of statistical surveys in order to understand the flaws of an entire society. They reveal a lot, yet they don’t reveal anything.) 

Provincial Russia obviously proved to be totally different. Perhaps it’s even the last place where Westerners would search for human warmth. But living in a place that opposes my own culture in so many ways, stimulated me to shift perspectives on my home country the Netherlands.

As if igniting a torch in a dark cave, residing in Russia denuded quite some poignant social flaws in my home country. Amongst them; some of the causes (and solutions) for our loneliness. Whereas the Netherlands may have the favour of the larger audience when it comes to living comfortably and wealthily, a period of time spending with a Russian family unveiled more and more cracks and holes in the seemingly impregnable upsides of living in the Netherlands.

When I lived in a provincial city in the Ural region, I started to learn many crucial things. But not that much about the Russian as about the Dutch culture. Although Russia surely knows some flaws (which has to do with corruption and annexations), loneliness is, in my experience, not particularly one of them. 

Firstly, because family bonds are much tighter. Privacy and personal space are not considered to be as important as they are in the West. Throughout the gross of Russians there’s a good reason for all this; survival. Life is tough, especially in mid sized industrial cities. And when things get tough, people stick together and help each other. It’s traceable far into Russia’s history.  

Families fulfil psychological basic needs such as human closeness. Often, there is no possibility, other than to share a two bedroom apartment with four or more relatives. Next to these motives for sticking together, it’s also just connected to the Russian culture, which emphasizes the importance of unconditional family bonds. 

Those unconditional family bonds are a noteworthy difference in comparison to the Dutch culture. Especially in practise. The frequency of gatherings of the Russian family appears generally higher from what I’ve seen. This also applies to the intimacy between parents and children after eighteen. And even to the deepness of friend’s connections. Due to the overall harshness of living in Russia, people simply need each other more. 

Deserving friends

How different is it in the Dutch and Western culture, where people tend to rely more on large circles of ‘friends’ but still want their portion of personal space, demanding the best of both worlds. From a psychosocial perspective, this way is more challenging and thus more liable to failure. Quality friend contacts and deep connections are believed to be established chiefly by oneself. This uncriticized fixation on friend circles is even praised by some Dutch anti-loneliness movements, ironically bypassing the importance of family and community. Family support is simply forgotten, as it were. In the Netherlands it’s out of the question that friends are naturally and almost exclusively of enormous importance. 

This mechanism requires excellent social skills. Ideally you would be an assertive person, socially active and capable of establishing quality friendships, partly replacing the need for reconciliation by family. The problem now becomes evident. What if you’re slightly an introvert, and a little shy? What if you are somehow unable to obtain a fulfilling group of ‘friends’ around you? Or, also poignant, when you don’t have the money to participate in social activities and are subsequently too ashamed to admit it?

Normally, a Russian in trouble -such as loneliness- would turn to his or her family in suchlike circumstances, to be resupplied by a feeling of community and closeness. But for many youngsters (and elderly) in the Netherlands it’s the preferred endeavour to be independent and self sustainable. To be able to handle life without needing others too much. It can, for some, be rather shameful to live or stay for a longer period at their parents house after the age of eighteen. But in fact, we always stay dependent on family ties up to a certain degree, functioning as a safety net for unconditional support. You might conclude that the independence ideal went a little out of hand.

I am independent!

I am painfully familiar with this independence-borne loneliness myself. For years I lived in a small studio, where I was deprived of human contact for most of the time. At most, I have seen my neighbours maybe three times in three years. We all lived in our own shell. The obligatory, formal greeting in the corridor formed the peak of our interaction.

A great deal of these years I felt depressed, but its cause was initially unclear. I considered myself to be rather independent and self sustainable, and I regularly attended an evening of drinking beer with friends. On Sundays I would pay visits to my mother. And, I considered myself to be an averagely social person. Whenever trying to explain depressive feelings, I wholeheartedly excluded the possibility of loneliness. Loneliness compelled my life, even without me being aware of it.

Nonetheless, something was nagging me, and I couldn’t get my head around it. When, some years later, I visited a Russian family for the first time, the puzzle pieces started to fall into place. There, in cold Russia, I experienced a communal warmth not often felt in the Netherlands. Witnessing the antithesis of loneliness uncovered that I was suffering from loneliness after all. Most of the foregoing years I had lacked human closeness. In the Netherlands, depression had struck me multiple times and it appeared to be always more or less connected to insufficient social interaction. 

There appeared to be some additional downsides when relying solely on expansive circles of ‘friends’. Most friends are, in contrary to family, interchangeable. Only a fraction of them could be counted as valuable in times of need. On rare occasions, perhaps twice monthly, I would hang out with closer friends who I knew from childhood. But most other ‘friendships’ appeared and disappeared, depending on my own pace of development, interests and (re)location.  For the most part, I gathered with acquaintances on Saturday evenings to have a beer. Likewise, the majority of my social life revolved around meetings of this superficial kind. 

My social role on a peripheral level demanded much of me: to be energetic, funny and sharp all the time. Therefore, whenever I felt slightly unsociable, I started avoiding such gatherings. Paradoxically, avoiding these social activities pulled me down even deeper. Slowly I withdrew from most of them, and depression had swiftly taken hold of me. As a consequence, I also frequented my closer friends less regularly.  

Even though family would be glad to host me for some while, I was too proud to admit that I failed in sustaining a circle of friends. That I failed to be independent. So I kept my mouth shut about it. I was too ashamed to admit that I was actually not that ‘independent’ as I would’ve liked to see myself. It went on like this for months. And these appeared to be the aspects on which loneliness thrives best. 

There are -apart from some extreme cases- no excuses for families to abandon each other, or specific members. Although Dutch families are unlikely to be less loving or forgiving than their foreign counterparts, it is essential that this love and care is being practised more intensively in order to reduce loneliness. Unchallenged independence is a myth. Up to a certain point, we’re all dependent on each other, but the comatose state of comfort in the Netherlands has alienated us from this. 

Russia showed me that grandmother, grandfather, child, father and mother are all interdependent.  The mother takes care of the child, and later on, the child takes care of the mother, and so on. Not as a burden, but as an honour.

Independence may never overshoot towards neglectance. But I suppose that’s what had happened in the Netherlands over the last decades. Friends are of course, for lots of people, profoundly meaningful. But leaning exclusively on the emotional support of friends is walking a slippery slope, as friendships rotate from time to time. Often, friend connections are conditional, where most family bonds can expected to be unconditional. 

Conclusively, it’s worth reminding that like in the Russian province, people are essentially and fundamentally reliant on each other’s help and support, acquired in whichever way. The entire human race is in fact one enormous community, but at the same time segregated by group dynamics, professions and status roles.

As Western societies aimed to produce more material wealth, social roles have dispersed towards required specific job positions and hierarchical statuses, fueling the increased separation. Yet for loneliness and social seclusion to diminish, one must look into the core of human existence. It’s of utmost importance that we are consistently reminded of the fact that we, as humans, are in core essence nothing more than overdeveloped apes: social animals, now yearning for the cohesive community as desired by our deep ancient cores. 

Loneliness for profit

Under these personal and cultural obstacles, lies another tenacious issue. Namely, that  nowadays the economy is seen as something divine. In a dogmatic way. Our tiny, swampy country is drenched in capitalism and economical ambition, often without its ethics being doubted. It would be too shallow to link loneliness to this mere fact, but it might be the driving force behind something closely related to loneliness; individualism. It’s the very notion that the individual rises above the group. And, if misused, that’s toxic for any kind of community.   

Undoubtedly it is a pleasant idea to be able to become the individual you pursue to be. An entirely unique and  autonomous person, distinguished clearly from the masses by clothing, philosophy, hobbies, values, beer brand preferences and so on. In this way, you’re separated from others. But alas, reality is less romantic. 

Individualism is in favour of many companies who’d love to sell their stuff. Individualism and commerce go hand in hand. The more people are separated, the more revenue it will generate for companies. The more people pursue individualism instead of collective goals, the more they will spend on personalized items. It plausibly explains why every family member of an average middle class household owns or pursues to have his or her own car, television, jewelry or a closet filled with an abundance of expensive clothing. 

More precise and strikingly, it’s even in economy’s favour when you’re lonely.  Because you will purchase more products or services as a desperate attempt to compensate or end your fundamental sad state. Online dating platforms such as Tinder flourish on the increased separateness of people. It is in non of their moral concern to actually unite all people, for their business would then be lost. So from a mere moral perspective, the dismissal of Tinder should be their main endeavour. But of course, it isn’t. 

Devouring tons of ice cream, while weeping on the couch to handle a break up is the classic example of this. As is overeating in general, actually. Similarly relevant; the lonely businessman who buys himself a second or third fancy car, or when one is omitting any human contact by ordering a specific pair of earrings on distant Chinese webshops. In a way, it’s all the outcome of loneliness. 

Socially content and emotionally fulfilled people add less to economy, for they are not in need of (luxurious) goods to make up for emotional emptiness such as loneliness. Which, however, doesn’t mean they don’t buy anything at all. Sadly, nowadays’ unlimited possibilities to purchase any thing, only reminds us of the things we’re deprived of. 

The loneliness as experienced today, seems to be merely a side effect of the way Western societies are intentionally organized. Ruling out loneliness is unfortunately not its main priority. It’s the mere collateral damage of capitalism as it is organized today. It’s indeed the high price we pay for overall material wealth.

Politicians and CEO’s perceive loneliness-borne depression mostly as just an another expense. Therefore, these statisticians only measure the revenue loss loneliness inflicts to their companies and economies and consequently free up some millions to lessen it. To them, lonely (and therefore unproductive) people are seen as ‘revenue loss’. Accordingly, they now also became a burden for society, next to being a burden for their family already. The severe pain an agony it creates on an individual level are often overlooked and underestimated by those who run the countries in question. 

In part, the sticky fingers of the market economy can be averted, albeit on an individual level. The number of compensating services and products is enormous, but they will only move you further away from discovering the real problem. When you feel the sudden need to buy something expensive, question yourself where this desire comes from. Whichever void you are suffering of, it is barely of a materialistic kind. The same critical mindset might be useful when needing platforms such as Tinder. Are you genuinely interested in the displayed profiles, or are you just deprived of something in your daily life?

Social media: a maintaining factor. 

In spite of their seemingly limitless possibilities, social media didn’t really enhance the amount of valuable social contacts. Instead of expanding it, our social contacts have simply been relocated to the online world. It seems implausible to me, that I would have less (or much more) friends if I were born in an offline world. The effort we would originally put into meeting new people in real life, has refocused on meeting new people online, for which less effort and less social skills are demanded. You simply press or swipe your screen, in order to get in touch.

Once established, we have borderless accessibility to our existing circle of friends. So borderless that stepping outside this circle has become unnecessary. Overcoming shyness or insecurity is not mandatory anymore, so people who are bound by these characteristics (including me) will have more difficulty creating new physical contacts. Therefore, social media have increased the connectivity with existing friends, but paradoxically decreased chances for making ‘new’ friends. People are increasingly stuck in their own bubble of friends. Or stuck in their bubble of loneliness. And escaping it is harder than ever before. In the case of already socially introvert people (like myself), social media are preserving loneliness stubbornly. 

A prospective

The outcomes of loneliness are not to be underestimated, and have fargoing consequences for society: often it’s the most isolated people who (further) develop severe psychiatric disorders without supervision, causing psychosis and affect states in social situations, sometimes resulting in murder, rape and abuse. Close to my hometown the other day, a man filled his home with gas, eliciting an enormous explosion, killing himself and injuring others. He was a psychiatric patient, living in seclusion. As with ancient tribes, the feeling of being repulsed from the community induces an agony so painful that most of us can hardly bear with it. It’s why bullying or parental neglectance has such extreme effects on the shape of our personality. 

On the frontline of the loneliness battlefield, small scale recreating of communal settings has already begun: on a charity level, cooking classes are organised for anyone interested, board game evenings are held for lonely elderly, and depressed youngsters seek each others proximity through buddy projects. Nonetheless, these are only emergency interventions; temporary field hospitals, set up after the striking epidemic of loneliness, wherein social medics are running to and fro to care for the abundance of ill patients. And mainly the less wealthy parts of this planet possess that vital cure, which we need so badly in the West: Community. 

Header image: Eleven A.M., 1926 by Edward Hopper.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2020. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sunday/Zondag

Scroll down for the version in Dutch.

A night in front of the television, a weekday off, or perhaps a well deserved weekend at the beach or in the woods. Nothing on your mind, a moment for yourself. These might be the most characteristic remarks of the moment. And they’re worrying too, for they denude a logic wherein moments of rest are unnecessarily confused with laziness, hence a feeling of guilt. In this contrast, Sundays are a very welcome exception. 

Popular subtexts, alongside vacation pictures on social media intended to pun colleagues at office, often imply that a moment of rest needs to be deserved in some way. Only after an undefined period of consecutive labour, a week of rest is seen as ‘well-deserved’. According to this logic, it’s a misconception that those, who are temporarily or permanently outside the labour market would be reluctant towards work, or perceive their situation as ‘easy’. Nonetheless, also their hard working counterparts, fortunate enough to enjoy a successful career, wouldn’t be able to escape it. Also they experience a likewise state of restlessness, just like a truant who cannot gratify his obtained freedom in a worriless way. 

To focus a little closer on the described phenomenon, imagine yourself the main character in the following story.

It’s an ordinary wednesday morning, somewhere in february. Outside, it is chilly and unpleasant. Fierce rain is battering the windows relentlessly. The sun won’t show itself today, that much is certain. Around six o’clock in the morning, most citizens are starting to pave their way to their job places. From students to construction workers, they all share a collective goal; being on time. Rush hour, generally between eight and nine, makes account for the climax of this hasty scene. 

Even with windows firmly closed, the awakening of society is well hearable. A continuous background noise, coming from heavy traffic on a nearby motorway completes the abundance of sounds. Some people take the public transport. Other, less fortunate souls are hurrying by car, only to subsequently merge into a sluggish traffic jam. Children biking to school have to endure a harsh headwind while cycling for thirty minutes. Experience teaches that the same wind turns one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, just to make the ride homewards similarly unpleasant. 

It’s little before ten o’clock in the morning, the crowded bustling in the streets had somewhat lessened, after which calmness is slowly returning. Intersections are accessible once again, and the traffic jams are gently dissolving. The frequency of bus services is temporarily bisected. For about eight hours, the streets are subject to relative tranquility, until all the turmoil will commence anew in the evening. This time, all sharing the collective goal to be home on time, while food deliveries are roaming the streets.

But you didn’t notice anything of all this hassle. All this time, you were tucked away in a warm bed. Only now, you’re stumbling towards the kitchen to silence the unbearable hunger which is tormenting you. Without a clear reason, you return to bed a few times. A little surly, you’re mumbling sleepily something which sounds like ‘’what are they all doing that for..’’

Normally speaking, today’s agenda would be filled with appointments and meetings, but now there are no such obligations. While you just started brushing your teeth around noon, corporations around the corner already made deals worth millions. Elsewhere in the city, numerous students have had their first lectures. You’re well-aware of that. And despite their misery around daybreak, they’re at least exculpated from agonizing feelings of guilt. Indeed, it is not fair that others sacrifice their morning to keep economy running. The reasoning goes that another employee needs to work twice as hard, just to make up for your absence today.

Holding a cup of tea in your hand, you plunge into a comfortable chair next to the window, with a view over the adjoining street. Loud street workers are reminders that the working day is in full progress. The poor souls that are your colleagues weren’t refrained from the relentless downpours this morning, and are now drying up during a spine chilling meeting about the marketing strategies for the coming months. In spite of being exempted from all this dread, there are nonetheless mixed feelings. In an attempt to escape them, it is wishful to undertake something productive. Anything.

The apartment had been thoroughly cleaned just days beforehand. Only yesterday, it was vacuumed. But even so, it doesn’t retain you from doing another round around the living room, for unused time seems to be lost time. The lazy moment in front of the window didn’t last long. Merely seconds later, you open the laptop, to catch up on some overdue work. By doing this, the pressing feeling of uselessness is upheaved. Yet, another rare and valuable moment of peace had dissolved into oblivion. 

How often do you hear people say; ‘now I should really start doing something’. What’s the origin of this pushy remark? The feeling of guilt is one of the thriving forces, fundamental to the success of a capitalistic economy. This unpleasant feeling exists when potentially productive time stays unused. And it can be diminished directly when something is being undertaken, preferably in return for salary or another form of payment. Economically seen, this is a tremendously effective mean. A tortuous feeling of discomfort and dissonance can occur to you on moments which are experienced as inefficient. Activities not seen as productive, add up to this feeling of guilt towards the hard working society. Presumptively, all the others are, as said earlier, working hard to keep economy going. 

Classical sociologist Max Weber finds an explanation in calvinism. This is a variant of protestantism, which is based upon obtaining grace and with this, release from guilt. Working hard is a virtue, and will eventually lead to redemption. Accordingly, you will be granted permission to enter heaven. In other words; as long as you work hard enough, it might enable you to transcend the inevitability of death. In part, it possibly explains why northern economies are amongst the stronger ones globally. But unfortunately enough, it is responsible for an equal or exceeding amount of depressions and sorrows, related to this self inflicted kind of work pressure. 

Also, not everything can be ascribed to receiving a high salary, because ironically, salary has a lower priority than cancelling out the aforementioned feeling of guilt. Most people work much more than is required for basic human needs. The old antecedent of guiltiness – christianity- appeared to be an utmost important mean to sustaining economy, despite having forgotten of its other advantages such as calmness and peace of mind. And that has severe consequences; burn-outs have been topping the charts of prominent psychological issues. 

There are only a few moments during the week, on which it is nowadays allowed to enjoy free time, liberated from the feeling of guiltiness. And that’s also thanks to our religious past: Sunday.

Sunday. This is a day unlike the others. The heavy background noise of traffic in the distance has diminished. Streets are somewhat accessible, and shortly deprived of any noisy street workers. The absence of sound is noticeable everywhere. Just for a brief moment, it appears that economy took some space to breathe. But in contemporary times, the short break is unfortunately only serving the purpose of regaining strength for another week of competitiveness. 

Quite saddening, the break doesn’t serve the genuine gratification of calmness that it deserves, but is merely a recharging moment in disguise, just to be even more competitive afterwards. And to a worrying extent, the soothingness of Sunday is under siege, as the desire for limitless shopping is increasing. After a brief moment of calmness, large grocery stores start opening their gates, to unleash masses of needy consumers who were already impatiently waiting. Frequently throughout the day, big, noisy lorries unload their content to keep the customers fulfilled. The necessary distinction between Sunday and ordinary days is fading slowly. To still find solace on a Sunday afternoon, a getaway to the forest or countryside might be more alluring.  

But moments of genuine rest and reflection which might occur on a calm Sunday are becoming ever more scarce. Henceforth, some are ultimately sentenced to lay down work because of a work related depression as a consequence of our 24/7 economy, still fuelled by feelings of guilt. 

Sociologist Hartmut Rosa explains that acceleration of social processes are responsible for a growing desire to slow down. This is one of the unintended consequences of our endless endeavour toward efficiency and therewith lowering the expenses. People have more time saving technologies than ever before, yet ironically there has never been as little time available, as now. The expansive possibilities to communicate carry with them that labour isn’t limited to merely office hours. Contact between supervisor and employee reach out far into private life. The bounds, keeping apart private life and work, are subject to an increasing vagueness. An innocent message about a prospective meeting or some overdue work is easily sent, and can ostensibly do not much harm.

For most people, monday morning may be the week’s least favourite moment, exactly because just twelve hours earlier, everything was so different. Monday is perhaps comparable to this one colleague who, during the break, cannot wait to start working again. Sunday might be more similar to this one psychologist who emphasises for you to really slow down now. 

This essay was initially written in Dutch, in September 2018. That original article is placed underneath. It has been translated by myself into English in November 2019.

***

Zondag

Een avondje voor de televisie of een doordeweekse snipperdag, of wellicht een welverdiend weekend aan het strand of in de bossen. Even helemaal niks, een moment voor jezelf. Het zijn misschien wel de meest kenmerkende uitspraken van dit moment. En zorgelijk zijn ze ook in bepaalde zin, want ze leggen een logica bloot die essentiële rustmomenten onnodig verwart met luiheid. Zondagen vormen een verademende uitzondering.

Populaire bijschriften wanneer vakantiefoto’s door middel van sociale media worden gedeeld of naar collega’s worden verstuurd, impliceren meestal dat een rustmoment verdiend moet worden. Pas na een ongedefinieerde periode van aaneengesloten werken, is een weekje vakantie ‘welverdiend’. Volgens die logica is het een misvatting dat degenen die tijdelijk of permanent buiten de arbeidsmarkt vallen, onwelwillend tegenover werk zouden staan of hun situatie als gemakkelijk beschouwen. Niettemin zal ook het overgrote deel van de samenleving, de fortuinlijken met een succesvolle carrière, er niet aan ontkomen. Zij ervaren net zo goed de rusteloze gemoedstoestand, zoals een spijbelaar die niet zorgeloos kan genieten van de verkregen vrije tijd.

Het is een doorsnee woensdagochtend, ergens in februari. Buiten is het guur en onaangenaam. IJzig koude regen slaat genadeloos tegen de ramen. De zon zal zich niet laten zien vandaag, zoveel is duidelijk. Rond zes uur in de ochtend beginnen de eerste mensen zich een weg te banen door het vreselijke weer, op weg naar verschillende werkplekken. Van studenten tot bouwvakkers tot ambtenaren, allen hebben ze hetzelfde doel; op tijd zijn. Het spitsuur, meestal tussen acht en negen, vormt het hoogtepunt van dit haastige tafereel.

Zelfs met gesloten ramen is het goed hoorbaar dat de samenleving ontwaakt. Een constant achtergrondgeluid van vrachtverkeer op de omringende snelwegen vult het geheel aan. Sommigen nemen het openbaar vervoer, en minder fortuinlijke zielen haasten zich met de auto om vervolgens deel uit te maken van een schoorvoetende file. Schoolkinderen fietsen een half uur lang met tegenwind naar school. De ervaring leert dat de wind daarna honderdtachtig graden draait, klaar om de terugrit eveneens onaangenaam te maken.

Tegen tien uur in de ochtend is het gedruis en gedrang in de straten wat verminderd en keert de kalmte zachtjes terug. De kruispunten zijn weer enigszins toegankelijk en de ontstane verkeersopstoppingen lossen zich langzaam op. De interval op het schema van stadsbussen en tramlijnen halveert. Ongeveer acht uur lang zal er relatieve rust heersen, totdat alle commotie rond vijf uur opnieuw begint. Ditmaal met het collectieve doel om op tijd thuis te zijn, met de uitzondering dat dan ook haastige (soms opdringerige) bezorgdiensten deel uit maken van de krioelende massa op straat.

Maar van dat alles kreeg jij weinig mee. Je lag al die tijd in een warm bed, en strompelt nu al gapend richting de keuken om de inmiddels ondraaglijke honger te stillen. Zonder goede reden keer je daarna nog enkele keren terug naar bed. Ietwat humeurig mompel je half slaperig iets wat klinkt als; ”waar doen ze dat allemaal toch voor..”

De agenda staat normaal gesproken vol met werkafspraken en vergaderingen, maar dit is een vrije dag. Vandaag hoeft er niks. Terwijl je rond twaalf uur in de middag net de tanden poetst, zijn er in kantoorgebouwen om de hoek al miljoenendeals gesloten, is elders in de stad een nieuwe snelweg voltooid en hebben studenten hun eerste colleges gehad. Daarvan ben je je goed bewust. Maar ondanks de file ellende bij dageraad, zijn zij in ieder geval allemaal vrijgepleit van schuldgevoel. Na een periode van aaneengesloten werken, zou deze vrije dag welverdiend moeten zijn. Maar geleidelijk aan bekruipt je toch een onprettig gevoel. Eigenlijk is het niet eerlijk dat anderen hun ochtend hebben opgeofferd om de economie welvarend te houden. Iemand anders moet nu twee keer zo hard werken om jouw afwezigheid recht te trekken, is de redenering.

Met een kop thee neem je plaats in een luie stoel, met uitzicht over de aangrenzende straat. Luidruchtige straatwerkers herinneren je eraan dat de werkdag nog in volle gang is. Je arme collega’s zijn niet gespaard gebleven door de hevige regenbuien van vanochtend en zitten nu op te drogen in een saaie vergadering over de marketingstrategie voor de komende maanden. Ondanks dat jou dit bespaard blijft, en je zelfs nog een treiterend bericht naar hen stuurt, is er sprake van gemengde gevoelens. Om hieraan te ontkomen, is het wenselijk iets productiefs te ondernemen. De woning is kortgeleden nog grondig schoongemaakt en gisteravond is er nog gestofzuigd. Toch weerhoudt je dit niet van een extra ronde met de stofzuiger, want onbenutte tijd is verloren tijd. Het kalme moment heeft uiteindelijk niet lang geduurd. Slechts enkele momenten later wordt de laptop geopend, om wat achterstallig werk te voltooien. Het prangende gevoel van nutteloosheid is hiermee tijdelijk opgeheven. Niettemin is er wederom een belangrijk rustmoment verloren gegaan.

Hoe vaak hoor je mensen wel niet zeggen; ‘nu moet ik toch echt wat gaan doen’. Maar waar komt deze opdringerige gedachte vandaan? Schuldgevoel is een van de drijvende krachten achter de kapitalistische samenleving. Dit nare gevoel ontstaat wanneer potentieel productieve tijd onbenut blijft. En het kan direct opgeheven worden zodra iets ondernomen wordt, bij voorkeur tegen betaling of salaris. Dit is economisch gezien een doeltreffend mechanisme. Een onbehaaglijk gevoel van dissonantie kan zich manifesteren op momenten die als inefficiënt worden ervaren. Activiteiten die als onproductief worden gezien dragen bij aan dit vervelende gevoel van schuld tegenover de hardwerkende maatschappij. Alle anderen offeren immers hun vrije tijd op om de economie draaiende te houden.

De klassieke socioloog Max Weber legt de oorzaak ervan grotendeels bij een economische implementatie van het calvinisme. Een religieuze stroming die grotendeels gebaseerd is op het verkrijgen van vergiffenis en daarmee op het gevoel van schuld. Als je maar hard genoeg werkt word je door God vergeven, en op die manier verkrijg je toegang tot de hemel. Met andere woorden: het zorgt ervoor dat je de onvermijdelijkheid van de dood misschien beter kunt verdragen als je maar hard genoeg werkt. Dat verklaart wellicht waarom noordelijke landen een overwegend en relatief sterkere economie hebben. Maar onfortuinlijk genoeg een evenredig of overstijgend aantal depressies en klachten gerelateerd aan deze zelf opgelegde werkdruk.

Ironisch genoeg heeft salaris in deze zin een lagere prioriteit dan het opheffen van dit schuldgevoel. Velen werken immers (veel) meer dan nodig is voor een aangename levensstandaard en de menselijke basisbehoeften. De oude drijfveer van schuldgevoel, het christendom, blijkt een uiterst doeltreffend middel voor de Nederlandse economie, ondanks dat we haar andere belangrijke voordelen zoals kalmte en structuur zijn vergeten. En dat heeft gevolgen.

Er zijn maar een paar momenten in de week waarop het tegenwoordig mogelijk is om in harmonie met je gevoelens te genieten van vrije tijd. En ook die hebben we te danken aan ons religieuze verleden. Zondag. Dit is geen vrije dag zoals alle andere. De achtergrondruis van vrachtverkeer is sterk afgenomen. Straten zijn voor korte tijd verlost van rumoerige constructiewerkers (met uitzondering van sommige fanatieke doe-het-zelvers, die het de perfecte dag vinden voor het uitproberen van nieuw oorverdovend gereedschap.)

Kalmte dient zich nu aan in de vorm van stilte, die overal merkbaar is. Het constante gebrul van de snelweg is absent en de straten zijn enigszins begaanbaar. De afwezigheid van geluid is overal hoorbaar. Voor even lijkt het alsof de doorrazende economie een broodnodige adempauze heeft ingelast. Maar de korte onderbreking dient helaas vooral om zich weer op te laden voor een nieuwe week competitie van concurrerende economieën, en jammerlijk genoeg in mindere mate om oprecht de waarde van kalmte te ervaren. Het is geen feitelijke verlangzaming, maar een verhulde adempauze die dient om daarna nóg productiever te worden. Sommigen worden door hieruit voortkomende tekenen van depressie veroordeeld tot het neerleggen van werk, zoals bij een burn-out.

Volgens socioloog Hartmut Rosa zorgt de acceleratie van maatschappelijke processen voor een toenemend verlangen naar perioden van verlangzaming. Dit is een van de onbedoelde gevolgen van het eindeloze streven naar efficiëntie en daarmee kostenbesparing. De mens heeft meer tijdbesparende technologieën dan ooit tevoren, toch werd er nooit zoveel tijdgebrek ervaren als nu. De vele mogelijkheden tot communicatie brengen met zich mee dat de arbeidsethos zich niet meer beperkt tot kantoortijden. Contactmomenten tussen leidinggevende en werknemer reiken tot diep in het privéleven. De vervaging van de grens tussen privé en werk is al enige tijd onderweg. Een onschuldig berichtje over een vergadering of achterstallig werk is immers snel en makkelijk, en kan (ogenschijnlijk) weinig kwaad.

Maandagochtend is voor velen het minst favoriete moment van de week, juist omdat het slechts een etmaal terug allemaal zo anders was. Maandag heeft de ondankbare taak om de economische pauze tot een abrupt einde te brengen. Wellicht is Maandag vergelijkbaar met die ene over-enthousiaste collega die tijdens de lunchpauze het werk niet snel genoeg weer op kan pakken. Zondag toont wellicht meer gelijkenis met die ene psycholoog die nog eens extra benadrukt dat je het toch echt wat rustiger aan moet gaan doen.

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