Summer Journal: Dutch Siesta

I’ve started a summer journal. This is a note from 26-06-2020.

It’s 11:57 PM now. The temperature is about 23 degrees celsius. It has been the warmest day so far this year. And -yes I might sound ungrateful- hopefully the last. As said in earlier notes, this country is underprepared for this type of weather. It doesn’t have a siesta like in Spain. The economy isn’t halted even the slightest bit. Activities aren’t postponed. Life doesn’t slow down. Work intensity isn’t diminished. 

Frankly, the approach in the Netherlands seems to be even counterintuitive: The stronger the heatwave, the more active Dutch people become. Today, streets were sprawling with sweaty folks, hurrying to and fro on their bike with a red face. To the beach. To work. To the terrace. Or to accomplish all these activities within the same day. 

Despite global warming, Dutch people still gratify each warm day as if it were the last. Muggy and uncomfortable days like these are still perceived as seldom and need to be fully exploited. I think it’s a reflex which occurs whenever we see ’thirty degrees’ appearing on the forecast. It’s an old habit, originating from the harsh winters and disappointing summers we used to have in the past.

But those times are now disappearing and slowly being replaced by hot and wet seasons, like in Asia. As with any obsession, not much is left of its origins, but the reflex remained. Foreigners from warmer countries must witness this awkward summer obsession with spanish shame. 

Air Conditioners

A related development is the multiplied purchase of air conditioners. From a growing amount of apartments, I see the unmistakable airco hoses sticking out of the windows. Some inhabitants have even fabricated a wooden construction, from where the hose can eject the warm air. 

Herewith, I’d like to make a modest correlation with the end of mankind. It’s quite a simple circle really: People have made the world warmer by using too much energy, and now they need air conditioners to bear with the heat they created, using more energy, increasing warmth even more, for which more air conditioners are needed. 

Why would this be the end of mankind? Well, because people buy the air conditioners for their own good, and don’t take into account the macro outcome. A large chunk of people cannot transcend their own life-span. Long term effects are therefore not considered, for it won’t be their responsibility anymore after they die; Most of the ecological problems of the world of today, have been created by those who didn’t care about the world of tomorrow.

It’s outright selfish, but unfortunately very natural human behaviour. The end of mankind is near, but if you happen to be an air conditioner salesman, you might be able to hold out a little longer than the rest of us. You might even be the last man standing.

Photo credit: Tim Roosjen

© 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. 

Corona Diary #3

Written on 14-05-2020 as part of my self isolation journal.

Get busy living, or get busy dying.

I never thought this famous quote from The Shawshank Redemption would become so relevant to society. But it did.

Reminders of the pandemic are becoming rather scarce throughout the streets. The city is bustling, albeit under an odd, somewhat made atmosphere. It is the expected point where measures and the corona regulations are becoming blurry. It is hard to follow sometimes. Is it still advised to stay home most of the time? Can I go out with three family members but not with three friends? 

From a social psychological angle, the future seems quite worrisome in this sense, especially when corona has ultimately disappeared from people’s minds sooner than the threat of corona itself. In other words, the understanding for strict regulations will probably fade before the actual virus does.

Then, after a few months, there will be less compliance than is required to keep the virus away. And when the government will make an attempt on getting economy fully running again, enforcing stringent corona precautions might cause misunderstanding and frustration, and eventually violence, for instance in public transport. Not to speak of a potential, striking return of the coronavirus.

The attention-span of many is not extensive enough, I’m afraid, to keep honoring the rules as they did until recently. In Wisconsin for example, judges have already rescinded corona regulations as protests and public unrest were growing. And partly, I understand this impatience: people have the natural desire to live. This, I think, is not simply a matter collectivity versus individuality, it is a perilous area of tension and most of all a conflicting question: What’s the use of saving other lives, if therefore we need to give up living ourselves? 

Underneath it lies a more existential question; what do we consider life, and what do we consider death? I suppose people have an importunate desire to prevent leading a life devoid of living, for that would mean they’d be dead before they are dead. I think this poignant contradiction will be the biggest challenge in the times to come.

Photo credit: Anastasiia Chepinska

© 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. 

Teachings Of A Crisis (II)

Quite remarkably, some countries are already forging plans on how to restart their economies as quickly as possible. To get things back to ‘normal’ as soon as they can. Yet, this rather impatient attitude surpasses a very simple question, but one of enormous importance: 

What was all the suffering for?

Dispersed into multiple questions it might look like this: For the sake of what is humanity suffering from so much anguish and despair? And for the sake of what are people dying lonely in their hospital beds, covered under a plastic dome without the possibility to say farewell to their loved ones? 

To find meaning in this dreadful pandemic, there’s no need to suddenly become religious or make an appeal to some other supernatural entity. In fact, turning this misery into something worthwhile is far more comprehensible than that: 

We can show those who gave their lives some class, simply by learning from the teachings of this crisis. 

Naively confident, I dare to hope that the unrelenting lashes of Corona will clear away all the clutter of modern life, exposing us to the things that truly matter; virtues which lie closer to the essence of human nature. That ultimately, gratefulness and discipline will outweigh overconsumption, and patience will transcend greed. 

The sufferers of today should be the martyrs for the world of tomorrow. A kinder world wherein new, more humane endeavours prevail and in which we are gentler towards nature. And more practically, where the importance of healthcare and humanities is acknowledged more broadly. 

If we don’t learn enough from it all and repeat our foregoing mistakes just the same, the only cruel thing we should blame ourselves for, is that it was all for nothing. That all those who have suffered and passed away, have done so in vain. 

To learn from those who are reading this article, I’d like to make an appeal to your thoughtfulness, and invite you to elaborate in the comment section on the following inquiry: 

What can we (humanity) learn from this crisis?

Header image: Varun Tandon

© 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. 

The Art Of Spending Time At Home

Of a sudden, many of us find themselves in an unfamiliar situation. Locked indoors for an undetermined term, at least until further notice by the authorities. Being granted time in such quantities might feel overwhelming and scary at the outset, but it might also awaken some impressive ingenuity of the mind: Imagination. 

For most adults, the capability to imagine might’ve been been absent for years on end. Amidst the relentless turmoil of growing up, requiring fortitude and a practical mindset, it had slowly been stored away into a forgotten section of the mind. Yet, in order to withstand this peculiar situation of self isolation, its helping hand is welcomed wholeheartedly. Imagination is a necessary showcase of creativity. It’s is the unmistakable legacy of the children we, in essence, still are. And it ought not to be mistaken for mere fantasizing, as imagination entangles both fiction and non-fiction.

While sinking away into the sofa, it appears that time can be your truest friend, or your greatest enemy. Hours begin to feel like days. Days begin to feel like weeks. It might be Tuesday or Saturday, a difference it does not make. And the numerous stream of videos and memes of meagre distractive and comical value, sent throughout numerous group chats, leave you sheer indifferent. 

And after a while, the room grows into a suffocating prison cell with stringent guards scanning for trespassers. Feeling-wise, the cozy nest that is our home has undoubtedly transformed into an inescapable penitentiary. Cramped in those shrinking cells, while maintaining a predictable, monotone routine, a disastrous descent into madness is surely not unthinkable. 

To such confinement, you might react somewhat rebellious at first, desperately wanting to escape back into old habits. To transcend the barricades of boredom by deliberately solving difficult puzzles (of which you already know the outcome), playing board games and watching tons of series. But all this well intended effort is merely postponing an inevitable confrontation with yourself.

Even the regular stroll around the block which felt so casual before, now seems like a getaway to die for. This tormenting state seems to get even worse in the weeks ahead, after having read all books on the shelf and watched all the movies available. Then, true boredom sets in, and the hostile walls come closing in once more. But luckily, a mind in distress proves to be rather ingenious. And the only thing required, is a little bit of patience. 

For simultaneously, under all this ostensible suffering, awakens a silent acceptance. An intelligent reduction of expectations. Eventually the mind has no choice, other than to diminish the significance of the outside world, and shift the emphasis towards the inside world. Doing so, this necessary acquiescence with fate evokes a gentle, life saving perspective change.

So, at quite random moments, perhaps while staring out of the window when leaning against the kitchen table, thoughts begin to drift away. They wander off onto a path not often taken since younger years, as they were endlessly repelled by our busy, outward and forward-oriented lives. But now, such hastiness is entirely absent. Distracting resources like Netflix have been exhausted. At last, there is time to be truly together with yourself. Plenty of precious time. Then, while being lost in thoughts, weak shimmerings appear which smoothly grow into more concrete reconstructions of past events. 

They can be of great or minor significance, but linger in our unconscious just the same. Memories that were assumed to be forgotten, are now brighter and more vivid than ever before. Perhaps you’re struck by a memory that was created many years ago. Perhaps it was in the woods while sitting around a campfire with some old friends, but with whom you don’t have contact anymore. You’ve moved on and surrounded yourself by new, more suitable friends. But the memory was never recalled ever since that day in the woods. Now on this odd moment of isolation, it strikes you brighter than ever, and it might leave a small grin on your face while overthinking the absurdity we experience over a lifetime.

When simply staying home, the things that were initially overshadowed by our accelerated lives, are becoming illuminescent and meaningful once again. There are plenty of objects instilled with bittersweet nostalgia, impatiently waiting to be rediscovered: On the desk lies an old, ripped (and badly taken) photograph, vaguely depicting a childhood family barbecue. By now, some of the depicted relatives have passed away at a good age. 

Going around the house, more items catch the eye. Dusting away on the windowsill sits a spiky, exotic looking seashell found on a beach in Indonesia, instantly reminiscing a solo backpacking trip during young adulthood. Some butterflies rise up in your stomach while recalling those bittersweet moments, igniting a painfully pleasant feeling which moves you to joyful tears and a sorrowful smile. Even some wooden chopsticks in the drawer have their origin being traced back by the hunger for imagination. They appear to have been used to clumsily eat sushi during an awkwardly silent dinner date, about seven years ago in a dodgy Japanese restaurant on the edge of the city.

All this is a sign that the mind had started to rearrange the boundaries of its own world, in search for new meaning. Doing so, it reduces the scale of that what we demand from life and reawakens the neglected power of our imagination. Through the spectacles of imagination, the beforehand so hostile bedroom becomes an immense universe without boundaries, allowing you to travel anywhere.

To different planets, hidden worlds, to the future and the past. The hostile prison walls disappear and become viewpoints looking out over a paradisiacal beach, while the ceiling reshapes into a cinema screen on which bittersweet memories can be projected. Memories amplified by imagination: a free of charge streaming service that guarantees small teardrops of joy and sadness, fiction and non-fiction gracefully interwoven into mental journeys. 

Undeniably, we have turned a bit mad under these harsh circumstances after all. But this might be the healthy sort of madness that represents in a very precise manner how life can be ridiculously ambiguous, contradictory, eventful and subject to constant change and unpredictability. Virus or no virus. 

Header image: Brandon Hoogenboom.

© 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.     

Teachings Of A Crisis (I)

Crises like these are not only the times when exclusively the flaws of humanity are demonstrated. It seems to lay bare a wry but consoling feeling of collectivity as well, a feeling which only surfaces amidst disastrous turmoil as seen today. Within just a matter of days, countless charity initiatives have been launched, and many of us are taking care of the weak and the vulnerable. For once, we’re granted the ideal opportunity to not battle each other, but to unite against a collective enemy instead. 

Every difficulty is fruitful soil for further growth, If I may paraphrase Nietzsche’s main philosophical idea. And perhaps, fighting this stubborn virus is humanity’s next challenge to overcome in order to grow into a more mature organism: In order to beat the virus, we need to beat our own selfishness, separateness and materialism, and exchange it for calmness, kindness, patience and understanding. To create tighter bonds, based upon our similarities instead of our differences.  Only then, the next stage of our maturing process will be unlocked.


Mother Earth as we know her, might appear so solid and inconceivable, and able to withstand anything, that people (including myself) think she can manage it all alone and tend to forget about a sacred agreement.

In the very beginning, when our helpless souls were at her mercy, she had welcomed us with open arms. Deliberately, she shared with mankind all the beauty and potential she has to offer, under only one condition. Reciprocity. A silent compromise or pact of mutual effort: In her, we found a home. Conversely, she expects us to safeguard her health. To treat her with respect and dignity. And above all to clean up the mess after ourselves.

Because whenever we become too troublesome and don’t honour the pact, she has no alternative other than to show us the doorway. And if she becomes ill, she’ll be forced to rid herself of the alleged virus. 

She has left it in our hands to treat her with gentle care and to preserve her wellbeing, and help her through good and bad. In return, she helps us having a hideaway from the lethal heat of the sun and the bitter coldness of space. 

We are the guardians of our own responsibility to not let her fall out of harmony so that we don’t fall out of grace. Whatever happens to Earth, it’s always our task to be one-hundred percent certain that at least we are not accountable for any of the distress or sickness she might experience. 

But lately, something unsettling began to unfold. A stubborn fever took hold of Mother Earth. She’s been sneezing and coughing for years on end. Over time, her temperature has risen towards far above average and she suffers from temperament swings. 

Surely this small flu will be tackled. In over 450 billion years she has survived many of them. After the cause is detected by her defence mechanisms, the high temperature and sneezing streaks will eventually make it unbearable for the mysterious virus to still live on. And then, during a harsh time of transpiring heavily, she will sweat it all out. Consequently, Earth is recovered and the virus exterminated. 

Does Earth have reasons to suspect us to be this virus?

Time will tell. 

© 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.

Epidemic Of Loneliness: An Essay.


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.


Het klinkt misschien clichématig, maar als je een Russische vriendin hebt krijg je de familie er gratis doch verplicht bij. Dit heeft natuurlijk veel voordelen, maar ook zeker nadelen. In Kaliningrad werden deze uitersten nog eens extra benadrukt, want op de dag van aankomst stond de telefoon al roodgloeiend met belletjes van verre (aangetrouwde) tantes en ooms.

Het maakt in Rusland waarschijnlijk niet uit hoeveel tijd je aan familiebezoeken besteedt, het lijken er nooit genoeg te zijn. Ook maakt het niet uit of je ze ooit eerder hebt gezien; familie is familie. Ten tijde van de Sovjetunie zijn veel families versnipperd en verspreid geraakt. Dit kwam bijvoorbeeld doordat de vader werk diende te vervullen in een staatsfabriek, een paar duizend kilometer verderop.

Door de grote afstanden is het mogelijk om in hetzelfde land wonen als je bloedverwanten, zonder ze ooit gezien te hebben. Kortstondige ontmoetingen als peuter tellen niet mee. Omdat veel familie in Kaliningrad woont en wij er toch waren, is het op zijn zachtst gezegd beledigend om niet ‘even’ een dagje langs te komen. Zodoende besloten we even op de koffie te gaan bij een tante. Dit werden uiteindelijk vier dagen. Waarvan er natuurlijk niet één zonder alcohol.

Het hoogtepunt (of dieptepunt) van het bezoek, in termen van alcoholinname, was toen we de opa van mijn vriendin onze condoleances kwamen brengen. Hij had een paar maanden terug zijn vrouw verloren aan een hartstilstand. Opa woont sindsdien alleen in een klein appartementje in een buitenwijk van de stad. Ze zijn 55 jaar getrouwd geweest.

Een duizelingwekkend getal, waar ik me niks bij voor kan stellen. Ik speelde nog in de zandbak toen zij hun 25 jarige jubileum vierden. Je kunt je misschien voorstellen hoe erg ik ernaar uitkeek om op visite te komen bij deze rouwende Rus. Zowel mijn levenservaring als verlieskunde vaardigheden zijn verreweg ontoereikend om deze man enige waardevolle steun te kunnen bieden. Het beloofde een aangrijpende, aangeschoten middag te worden. Ik hield mijn hart vast.

Vanuit ons naïeve idee om een uurtje bij hem op de koffie te gaan, hadden we voor de gelegenheid wat gebakjes meegenomen. Bij aankomst in het kleine appartementje werd echter duidelijk dat opa heel andere plannen voor de daginvulling had. Zonder te glimlachen deed hij open. En in plaats van eerst de meegebrachte koffie met gebak te nuttigen, zette hij een fles wodka neer.

Dit geheel werd aangevuld met blokjes puur varkensvet, droog brood en een wat rauwe ui. Dit is in Rusland vooral bij de oudere generatie een delicatesse (of het enige voorhanden) wanneer er wordt gedronken. Mogelijkerwijs omdat het varkensvet zowaar nog onsmakelijker is dan de wodka. We zaten een poosje in ongemakkelijke stilte.

Nadat de eerste glaasjes wodka en wat stukken rauwe ui waren genuttigd (de varkensvet probeerde ik uit te stellen), verdween opa in een andere kamer. Daar frommelde hij wat in een kast en kwam terug met een oude foto van zijn pas overleden vrouw. Hij vertelde hoe ze elkaar ontmoet hadden toen ze nog tieners waren. Dit was ten tijde van het communisme, ongeveer zestig jaar geleden. Het gesprek viel op sommige momenten stil aan het kleine keukentafeltje, waarna er weer wat wodka werd bijgeschonken.

Of het nou door de alcohol aangewakkerd werd of niet, het was zwaar om te aanschouwen dat hij zijn tranen soms niet kon inhouden. Een ooit zo trotse man, zijn vrouw en daarmee zijn levensdoel ontnomen. Als je nog niet zo goed Russisch spreekt, is het moeilijk om op zulke momenten je medeleven te uiten zonder iets verkeerds of ongemakkelijks te zeggen. Helemaal als je uit beleefdheid stukken varkensvet naar binnen probeert te schrokken.

In zulke gevallen blijkt wodka een goede vriend, vooral omdat je met iedere slok beter Russisch lijkt te kunnen spreken. Zelfs de eigenaardige borrelsnacks leken door de alcohol even niet naar rubber te smaken. Dit maakt de interessante voedselkeuze van Russen wellicht wat begrijpelijker. De tijd begon te vliegen want plotseling waren we 2 uur verder en de fles was leeg. Met veel moeite voorkwamen we dat er een nieuwe werd geopend.

We besloten in beschonken toestand wat fotoalbums te bekijken met begeleidende woorden van opa. Het besef kwam op kortstondige momenten dat ik me eigenlijk in een tamelijk surrealistische situatie bevond; Op een snikhete middag stomdronken door fotoalbums van een rouwende oud-sovjet gediende bladeren, begeleid door hier en daar een (halfbakken Russisch) woord van medeleven.

De ervaring leert dat verzetten tegen de wodka doorgaans geen zin heeft, vooral niet bij een eerste ontmoeting. Misschien is het met wat slimmigheidjes echter mogelijk de schade beperkt te houden, ook al is me dat deze keer wederom niet gelukt. 

Van links naar rechts: Opa’s zoon, Ik, Opa.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. 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.     

The Dutch Eye

Being abroad a lot, one can easily forget his roots. Recently, an enormous building had been opened in the centre of Groningen, my idyllic hometown in the north of the Netherlands. Located on its upper floor, there’s a fine cafe which offers spectacular views over the city and beyond. 

The average Italian or a Frenchman would be lyrical about the scenery. Romantic thinkers like them would be lost for words when trying to describe the aesthetics of the view.

From above, the Frenchman would perhaps notice the melancholy of Dutch weather, and the Italian would be besieging an adherent with a monologue on the town’s architectural elegance. And they’d both surely daydream how Caspar David Friedrich or van Gogh would colorize these urban landscapes. For them, aestheticism clearly comes first.

With a similar attitude, I was sitting in the cafe the other day, taking in the view and gazing over the city, giving my mind some rest while inhaling some renewed inspiration.

The spot was ideal. My table adjoined a large window, looking out across the southern part of the city.  As seen from there, the panorama was a colourful blend of red, pantile roofs and gothic church towers, contrasting against a backdrop of modern apartment blocks and offices. The finishing touch were darkened clouds that hovered above pastures far beyond the city’s bounds. 

Caspar David Friedrich – Flachlandschaft am Greifswalder Bodden 1816-18

But in a populous country like the Netherlands, in a popular outlook bar like this, on a perfect spot like mine, personal space and integrity are brushed aside. From the corner of my eye, I could see that a company of middle aged Dutch women had finished slurping black coffee. Moreover, they were marching in a fast tempo towards my table. 

The curious company came standing right behind my chair. Some of them were even leaning over me, and started making remarks about the view. Within seconds, I was trapped and surrounded, and forced to listen closely. But their comments were of a different kind than my hypothesis about the Italian or Frenchman. 

They initially exchanged some neutral facts about the city. Then, one lady (while breathing in my neck) questioned the others how the outside windows are cleaned at such heights. That clearly created uproar in the group. Thus, all possible ways of cleaning were discussed thoroughly. Does the cleaning company use a hydraulic hoist or is it all automatized? 

Without conclusion, the subject changed, as one of the ladies spotted an enormous grey building in the distance. Her comment evoked a lively discussion about its function either. Was it the tax office, or the telephone company? Another uproar amongst the practical-minded women followed.

An elderly lady with short grey hair then summed up all the names of all possible places she could reminisce. Her local shopping centre. Her previous bank. A carpet shop where she had bought a carpet. I silently wondered whether they noticed any of the panoramic beauty that presented itself to them.

The answer was no. They returned to discussing which cleaning company might be responsible for this building. Also the presumed expenses were addressed, as if it were a business meeting. After some more practical remarks, they ran out of topics and the babble died down. 

The group shuffled on, leaving me with an entirely different perspective on my hometown’s skyline; Inasmuch as the Italian and Frenchman would picture the world through the artist’s eye, these women have mastered the art of looking through the Dutch eye. 

In five minutes, this group of household women reminded me of a world view I had almost forgotten, but which is intractably inherent to my Dutch ethnicity; First comes practical functionality. And after that, if there’s time, daydreaming and romanticizing is allowed. 

However, an inevitable wisdom hides within this practical philosophy. Although the women were staring a little blind on the methods of cleaning, expenses and city facts, they denuded something of undeniable value: that maintaining things may not always be aesthetic and exciting, and sometimes even boring and dull, but surely unmissable.

Indeed, the magnificent building would look dreadful without adequate cleaning and maintenance. The breathtaking panorama wouldn’t even be visible, simply because of unwashed windows.

The Dutch Eye also applies to other areas of life. When not maintained attentively, the brightest flower would die, the most romantic love relationship would dissolve, and the dearest friendship would fade out.

© 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.     

Two People, One Plane Ticket: An Airport Story

Airports, train and bus stations have in common something peculiar. In these very places, thousands of family members, loving couples and good friends say farewell to each other every day. Sometimes they leave for just a few weeks, but sometimes for an undetermined stretch of time. Some can hardly suppress their emotions and burst into tears, while others shake each others’ hands formally, when the moment is there. In airports in particular, the goodbye has quite a definitive connotation, as aircraft possess the impressive force to increase the margin between two people to thousands of kilometers within a short span of time. 

Especially for border-transcending love, the airport can be an incredibly cruel place. While seeking busily for the right departure hall, a wry feeling of contradiction is slowly taking hold of those who are unwillfully divided by distance or bureaucracy. At the airport, the painful separation feels like a sentence which, moreover, also needs to be executed merely by oneself. It’s an act of self-harm in its purest sense. Unlike a train or bus which drives away irreversibly, the airport separation is done by walking into a restricted area yourself. Simple as that. No dramatic train chasing scene. And for those who haven’t chosen to be apart, the moment comes always a little too early. 

Two souls, one ticket. They’re aware that sooner or later after finding the appointed entrance, they will be disunited. Only one half of the companionship will go, and the other will stay, because the robotic gate refuses anyone without a valid plane ticket. No exceptions are made for sticky love birds. Soon, they will be isolated from each others’ warmth and words. Closeness exchanged for sombre separate compartments of the airport. The automatized doors at the end of a brightly illuminated hall symbolize the unrelenting line between tender closeness and a haunting absence. This clinical environment is the last possibility for a series of tight cuddles and other outings of affection. But on an unspecified moment, it’s reluctantly decided that it’s time to let go. 

Meanwhile walking away, the face of your loved one then slowly disappears amidst crowds of hurrying passengers. Eye contact becomes harder with every step onwards. Non verbal messages are sent to and fro, or whenever the masses allow it. A hopeful smile is directly followed by tears of sadness. 

Stringent border guards show no sign of compassion. On this stage, they don’t even allow a brief hug anymore. They simply enforce the rules, and instruct the confused loved ones to place their items in the right bin. Generally, the fluids are in the wrong sachet with zipper, and because of some change in a pocket, the metal detector suspects a potential hijacker.  

The growing sense of the approaching separation makes every glimpse of each other more lifelike than can ever be compensated by the most advanced ways of communication. Eye contact continues uninterruptedly until it becomes nearly impossible. And then, the frightening automatized doors shut for the very last time. Permanently. 

The by now so familiar feelings of intimacy and adjacency, make way for a prompt feeling of disenchantment and numbness. It penetrates into the consciousness in the form of heavy doubts regarding the decision to say farewell. 

Entirely unjust this is not; all kinds of uncertainties may diminish the chance of a quick reunion. Indeed, through the eyes of the one left behind, the airplane is a flying fuel tank, which will tear through extreme weather conditions at the speed of nine-hundred kilometers an hour, on an altitude of about eleven kilometers. A summary that doesn’t inflict much confidence in terms of safety.  

An ordinary sounding announcement on an enormous screen in the hall then declares that the plane in question had departed seconds ago. Upon this, all the available images of all imaginable disasters pass by in the thoughts of the poor straggler. Intense fear overrules all the successful flights and the minimal statistical chance of such a disastrous occurrence. 

Slightly paranoid pictures of a destructive collision between some unattentive geese and the jet engines, or of a mentally unstable co-pilot who decides to steer the aircraft straight into the earth, constantly besiege the mind of the powerless left-behind loved one. Fierce panic attacks are not ruled out. 

Such imaginations continue to persist stubbornly, until the flight control center of the designated airfield announces that flight number BT451 had arrived according to schedule. Merely two hours after taking off, the beforehand so doomed projectile is safely on the ground once again. A grand but short relief for both, afore emotions of a different kind start taking over.

Together in the morning, alone in the afternoon, or conversely. The first hours after the farewell, often in a bus or train homewards, are characterized by a heartbreaking feeling, followed by an endless emptiness. Undiminished contact with your loved one continues on the phone, on which messages of affection and missing carry the ambitious goal to fulfil the void that had appeared. But communication which was previously transmitted through all senses, is now reduced to only a small typepad. It’s just not the same.

Kissing, an utmost delicate and gentle action between two persons. Lips, made of flesh and skin, are now replaced by yellow bald faces without clearly defined gender, who spit out a modest heart. They can be found in a side cabinet of the virtual typepad on modern phones, and can be given out unlimitedly. Still, it is all insufficient to maintain the complex, familiar conversations like before.   

For a moment, the brightly lit train homewards is an unsparing and confronting place. And surrounding you, passengers are occupied by their daily worries, without having any insight into the tormenting affliction you underwent barely two hours ago. Expressing a serious countenance, the other passengers appear to be sheer indifferent towards the invisible wounds. They are focussed chiefly on their smartphones, laptops or tablets.  Hours ago, when they were presumably still attending hideous meetings in the office, the poor loved one was still in a far away land, happily united with his or her dear one. 

The coming time will be characterized by an uneasy feeling. As fast as the aircraft had departed earlier on, as wretchedly slow the first signs of recovery and reconciliation regarding each other’s excruciating absence will unfold in the weeks to come.

Nevertheless, places like an airport have a paradoxical meaning for international love. On one hand, the sterile departure hall functions as a metaphorical torture room, consisting of clinical white walls, automatized doors and hermetically closed security passages and strict employees. 

On the other hand, the arrivals hall fulfills the conciliatory role of of reuniting loved ones after a long divide. Impatient individuals, carrying a bouquet or a written name sign push each other away at the irregularly opening doors. As if it were a factory functioning on full speed, love birds appear from the production line, to be wholeheartedly embraced by their significant others. This time, crying tears of joy. With this, the intense missing might be numbed for some time, until the inevitable separation presents itself again in the near future. A pattern that should ideally not occur too regularly over a brief period of time. 

This story was written in 2018, originally in Dutch. This is an expanded version in English, with additional details.

© 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.