Corona Diary #5

How is the Netherlands handling the crisis?

Written over multiple days in June as part of my self-isolation diary.

03-06-2020 Bike Hell: My laziness tells me to write this note tomorrow, but my discipline tells me to write it today. It seems that this time, my discipline is the winner. The heat of yesterday has backed off a little. Also, corona drifts away quickly from people’s minds, including mine. But to be reminded of it, one has only to visit the city centre or public transport. In my hometown, bicycles have been forbidden, and loose standing bikes are removed and relocated to a faraway depot (you could call it: bike hell).

Today, during a stroll around the city, I’ve seen whole bunches of them being lifted onto a truck and taken away. New, old, rusty, expensive. All types were confiscated, even children’s bikes. And people who drove unconsciously into this sudden no-biking zone, got barked at by diligent stewards and were directed elsewhere. The rules that allow the municipality to do so, have been installed in order to prevent many people from merging too much, hence preventing corona spread.

Nonetheless, I don’t think they took into account that people have been riding their bikes for over a hundred year through these streets. So a paradigm change won’t occur within three days either. Anyway, the removal of bikes and sending away of drivers seems to be a cumbersome, ineffective activity which I don’t think will last very long.

In public transport, people are obliged to wear facial masks. It is a saddening sight, because the human countenance which makes people human, is hidden. Our daily dose of smiles from strangers has been reduced drastically since the introduction of masks, and will possibly lead to an unhealthy deficiency in unspoken outings of kindness. And since the smartphone revolution already, suchlike gentle acts of mutual recognition had been become meagre. A worrying development. 

04-06-2020 Vacation:  Corona seems miles away, and the Dutch are shifting their worries from a deadly virus, to forging holiday plans. France and Spain have announced to reopen their borders in Juli for tourists by car, so that the exhausted Dutch families can once again enjoy their well-deserved traffic jams on smoggy highways and annual family camping dramas. 

14-06-2020 Washing hands: Corona measures are increasing but my understanding of them (or willingness to do so), is decreasing. As part of our ‘intelligent lockdown’ strategy, a large survey amongst 64.000 fellow dutchies was conducted to map their compliance with corona rules. It unveiled that keeping distance is getting harder, but washing hands is still feasible. There is a serious error (perhaps on purpose?) in this research: washing hands is not a corona measure. It is the very basis of personal hygiene. But the respondents still confirmed obediently that this is something corona-related. 

So I confirm herewith the internationally claimed assertion that Dutch people have the dirtiest hands. It is culture specific, and I as a dutchman, can acknowledge this: the gross of Dutch people doesn’t wash hands after having used the restroom. The country’s overall cleanliness and absence of deadly diseases might give an explanation. It’s amazing. Here, it is so clean that we even dare to shake the unwashed hands which just wiped an ass. It is quirky, but when abroad, I have always washed my hands obsessively. But when back in my home-country I started skipping it once again. Finally I unlearned it, after my girlfriend Marina shared with me her disgust about this stubborn, culturally inclined habit. I came to even like it, for washing hands is maintaining your body and therefore a small act of self-respect.  

14-06-2020 Priorities: A school example of hypocrisy. Is family less important than vacation? Dutch travel organizations cannot wait to send their customers to the all-inclusive hotels they’d initially booked. Since today, vacations within europe are possible again, after Spain and Italy (which we first didn’t want to help financially) reopened borders for tourism. Now, after we had to fear a severe lung-disease for so long, the second worry is whether we can go on holiday or not, whether we can drink unlimited cocktails at the pool while being served by underpaid labourers, whether we can stuff ourselves again with fast-food, alongside a beachfront crammed with concrete hotels. 

The government understands this impatience of travel organizations and holiday-goers very well, and promises full safety when they travel in aircraft to their destination. The crammed, profit oriented, polluting flying barrels which we call airplanes are not only more liable to an outbreak amongst passengers, they are also the worldwide delivery service for corona. For a great deal, air travel was responsible for the fast corona spread, a couple of months ago, and now, suddenly, they will be fully functioning again. And not for loved ones or family to finally reunite. No, for vacation. 

Even more poignant is that I need to show an impossible amount of proof of relationship to be able to get my loved one here. Me and Marina are excruciatingly separated because we don’t have the paperwork, while Dutch vacationers will be criss crossing throughout europe with all the risks involved, for this one vital activity: leisure. Or should I say, for economy?

I hope that one day, our government will have understanding for people like us, too. We don’t want leisure, we only want each others proximity, for I consider us family. Is family less important than vacation? According to our government, yes. Is paperwork more important than the risk of an outbreak? According to the government, yes.

Photo Credit: Kayla on Unsplash

© 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. 

On Racism

Written in my diary on 04-06-2020.

Look at the header picture of this post and let it sink in for a bit.

Now on to the US, which is set in fury and flame, as George Floyd had been violently murdered by discriminant police officers. Perhaps, this cruel and immoral deed had ignited a wildfire that was already smoldering for years on end in America. George was black, the police officer in question was white.

Though the most notable until now, in this complicated and confusing matter, is the enormous extensiveness of social media use. Millions of arguments and counter-arguments are floating around on social platforms. Some say black lives matter. Some say all lives matter. The first might be too one-sided, the second too abstract. Today, I saw a protest sign on my news feed, saying that ‘’Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because you aren’t personally affected by it.’’ 

Although I think that the term stupidity would suit more than privilege, I suppose this message implies that ‘white’ people are privileged. But creating such dichotomies won’t achieve what they intend to do: Inasmuch as we cannot call all black people unprivileged, we cannot call all white people privileged. Privilege is not skin colour determined, just as inferiority is not skin colour determined. There are privileged wealthy black people and poor unprivileged white people, and vice versa.

Discrimination is the mother of racism. Creating disjunctures is discrimination in essence. Racism is a secondary form of discrimination which uses skin colour to make divisions amongst peoples. So calling white people privileged, is a form of racism, too. Remove this dichotomy, and you remove discrimination. Remove the discrimination and you remove racism. Remove the association and you remove separation.

Side-note: Culturism, for example, is another, often overlooked form of unjust discrimination which uses ethnicity to make divisions. It is obviously inextricably connected to economic prejudice: My girlfriend and I are separated only because she is from Russia. Not because she is a bad person. Not because she wants to do harm. But: An immoral person who has the right ethnicity can enter without visa, but a moral person without the right ethnicity needs to move the earth to get a visa, and vice versa. She needs a visa for the Netherlands, people from the US don’t. She needs to prove sufficient funds, Australian people don’t. Remove borders, and you remove separation. Yet, dividing is deeply, stubbornly anchored in our core nature, and it’s nurtured as well: dividing is one of the first things we learn in math class.  

Philosophically speaking, attaching certain labels to something as peripheral as skin colour is always surpassing objective truth. Deeds of violence based upon ephemeral standards cannot coexist with reason, what makes them injust. Martin Luther King has said that we need reason and moral in the battle against prejudice. But they’re not equal. Who reasons, knows that moral is fleeting and subject to constant gradual change. Some mores are more unjust than others, and whether something is just, can only be measured by reason.

Reason hovers above moral. Moral can therefore be even dangerous if it falls into the hands of certain powerful men, as Nietzsche remarked. In fact, I believe that under the current US president, (unconscious) public moral had already deformed immensely after succeeding the last one, especially with those who were neutral before. This is the danger of moral. It is not reliable, and (sub) culture specific: the decisions by those murdering police officers seemed moral in their morality, and is seen as immoral by others. 

Mores is subjective, and can be individually adjusted and therefore justified according to extreme personal convictions, such as racism. But, as Aurelius emphasizes in his meditations, the reason of justice goes beyond that and reveals that discrimination based on skin colour (or other external characteristics) is something rudimental and beast-like, and can therefore not be tolerated in higher, developed cultures.  The highest form of existence is one of union, but it is a long journey towards the dissolution of borders and separation. And the biggest trap is to think we have already arrived.

Lastly. Look again at the header picture of this post. When disjoined from all their associations, we will hopefully once see black and white exactly for what they are: colours

Photo Credit: Daryan Shamkhali

© 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 #4

Written on 17-05-2020 as part of my self isolation journal.

Good globalization.

It’s 11:38 PM now, as I’m squeezing my eyes and brain to write a worthy note, pleasantly accompanied by warm candle light. Scrolling back to the beginning, I notice that it’s the diary’s one month anniversary today. That went fast. It also means that the first serious measures regarding the coronavirus were implemented some two months ago. My state of mind could be best described as an overall numbness.

Some two months ago, the globalization which can be held accountable for the outbreak, had ended. Every country has returned into their safe shell. But what they don’t realize, is that this was also the globalization which allowed me to meet the love of my life. And it was also the globalization which brought many people of different cultures, religions and ethnicities together, decreasing xenophobia and prejudice, and increasing intercultural enrichment. 

It is most uncertain how long this thing is going to last and which effects it is going to have on my reunion with my girlfriend, Marina. She’s currently stuck in Russia. The usual blockades between us usually feel like two locked iron doors: the door of distance and the door of visa misery. Now, with corona regulations, a third one is added. But this is an impenetrable metal door, twice thicker than the others. And whereas the other doors can be opened with matching keys, this third one doesn’t even seem to have a lock that can be opened. 

For international love, the coronavirus is just another nightmare on top of the ones already present. International love on itself is not recognized in this bureaucratic world. In such a world, a relationship only exists when officially documented on paper, either by marriage or registration. Genuine love is not a requirement.

I suppose we are one out of many hidden victims, suffering under the reckless and unwieldy decisions by the authorities. Making an appeal to a team of epidemiologists and virologists to manage the outbreak, means also that the main focus will be to wipe out the virus and epidemic. 

And everything needs to yield for that one obsessive endeavour: beating the virus. I cannot blame the epidemiologists as much as our politicians: it is simply not their job to take people’s hearts into account. But it is nevertheless disturbing how only the bigger image is considered to be something meaningful: the statistics on the screens, the flattening of the curve, the protection of the nation and economy. 

Not the agonizing separation of loved ones. Not that entire families are torn apart. The extent to which something is meaningful, is not universal or measurable. It is subjective. Take a butterfly extracting nectar from a dandelion for example, why would this be a less meaningful act than a million dollar business deal in an enormous office? Collecting nectar is equally (or even more) meaningful to the butterfly, as the deal is to the businessmen. I suppose that this is pure ethics. But I see it rarely discussed. 

Photo credit: Maxim Sislo

© 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. 

Corona Diary #1

A note taken from my self-isolation diary, written on 27-04-2020.

A Pandemic Of Technology

The elderly in care homes stay connected to their families through video calls, as well as those separated by closed borders, distance or quarantine. Birthdays are celebrated safely with the help of smartphones and tablets. Nearly every matter of such interactive kind takes place digitally and online since Corona had arrived to European shores.

But inasmuch as this accidental pilot of extreme digital usage reveals its advantages, it allows us to observe its disadvantages. And those have appeared to be about equally plentiful. Besides, some of the presumed advantages might be only psychological disadvantages in disguise. 

Video calling for instance, seems to be helping many separated people to stay in touch, which I can acknowledge, having my girlfriend being stuck in another country. But even so, we mustn’t forget that missing and longing are an inevitable part of the human emotional spectrum, and a very important element of valuing and cherishing the ones from whom you’re deprived.

Sometimes it’s good to just sit down, close your eyes and actually feel the poignant pain of missing each other and become more acquiescent with the inevitable separation and loneliness inherent to life itself. You can merely hope or pray that it won’t last forever. And the unexpected intensive use of technology to transcend these emotions has led to showing to me a tragic paradox; that it cannot be transcended by technology, as humans aren’t merely a sum of their parts. Not every part of the human soul is visible and tangible. They cannot be detached, fixed and replaced like a car engine.

It is evident that we live in technocratic times in which it is thought that this tragic condition can be overcome by science. But human complexity is supposed to be placed above technology, and not otherwise. Human complexity is mysterious and incomprehensible while technology is logical and (still) comprehensible. 

I dare to say so, as being a profound user of video technology myself. But it has never taken away the tormenting longing for my girlfriend’s true proximity. Irregularly, video calling even feels like talking through a glass made fence, confronting me only more with the haunting deprivation of what could’ve been. Seeing each other through a screen can –on bad days– feel as if witnessing your loved one locked in a prison cell, unable to be reunited because the last key is missing: The essential key to unlock physical proximity.

And that’s exactly what such technologies –however advanced they are– cannot provide. How can it else be that some people are praising our digital era, and at the same time act contradictory and admit that they long for human warmth and closeness. That yet, they miss their family in spite of all our innovations. 

For true togetherness when not together, I’d rather suggest a deep reconnection with meaningful memories of tenderness, as recalling experienced emotions might be brighter and more vivid than technological gadgets can ever compensate. Relocating formal meetings exclusively to video calling on the other hand, can count on my full support, as you then have control over the volume knob when a tedious colleague starts stringing together a bunch of agonizing cliches again. 

Modern technologies are wonderful tools, but they have proved once again to be exactly that: tools.

Header Image: Anna Fedorova

© 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.

Reciprocity

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.

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.