Nearly two weeks after Russia’s devastating invasion in Ukraine, a curious phenomenon is unfolding: Gradually but surely, Western folks seem to habituate with the increasing human suffering and bloodshed just outside the EU’s doorstep. Intervals between news updates become longer, terraces are filling up with smiling and chatting people, while just across the EU borders, Ukrainian children die of dehydration and hunger and civilians are tormented. The initial solidarity that was expressed by fellow Europeans is -wholly according to contemporary tenets- on the verge of becoming cynical. Upon seeing another bombed building we give a misanthropic sigh, turn away our heads, remark that ‘the world is rotten’ and return to our safe bubble of denial. Not only citizens explicate this attitude. Also NATO, the most powerful military alliance to date, has taken such a powerless stance.
The inclination to respond cynical to peril possibly serves as self protection, as is the tendency to compare incomparable conflicts to prove hypocrisy. General tendencies are to mirror the media attention to the Ukraine conflict to the one in Palestine, or cry that the US also invaded Iraq in 2003, and therefore loses its right to condemn Russia. In all these exclamations there might be a proportion of truth, but by now, there are no states left with a clear conscience. And instead of diminishing the ongoing misery, this relativism works counterproductive and merely paves the way to indifference. And it is exactly indifference that is in the advantage of the the world’s shift towards authoritarian totalitarianism; instead of becoming rebellious, we lean towards its opposite.
Underlying this lethargic indifference sits a certain nihilism. A dangerous belief that good and evil are no different from each other. That all is forlorn, all is chaos. Everyone is wrong, and everyone is right, depending the perspective. Perhaps it was the omnipresent safety in Europe, that made its citizens insensitive towards their own ideals and values; ironically the very basis on which its cherished safety is founded. Because if we zoom in at the state of Ukraine, we see a country that is attempting to escape the cynicism that dominates former USSR countries. A nation that is willing to leave behind its past and embrace democracy, displaying a militancy the EU can only hope for. The bravery of Ukraine against this ruthless aggressor reminds Europe of its own forgotten fundamentals, that’s why Ukraine could also count on widespread sympathy. They have what we lack. A sympathy, which is on the edge of turning cynical because of crooked comparisons to earlier wars, mostly to the self serving goals of the ones who make them.
Yet in the modern world, which is constituted by a dynamic of contradictions (Marshall Berman), hypocrisy is never far away and does not suffice as an argument for an empty nihilism. One who claims to never have been hypocrite, is hypocrite. Preceding unfairness likewise, does not legitimize new unfairness. If Europe still contains ideals indeed, hypocrisy must be subordinated to our norms and values, otherwise our existence will soon be illegitimate. A Europe like that, dissolving in relativism, will be food for the mouth of indifference, cynicism; for gloomy regimes like Russia’s. It needs to formulate its values well and defend them like Ukraine does for us now.
This short essay is an attempt to explicate the human damage this ravaging ‘battle’ against a virus is causing. The piece explores possible causes and maintaining factors from a psychological angle and inquires adherent questions philosophically. In short: how did we get caught in a spiral of sameness? What makes this crisis seem perpetual? And to what degree does this relate to depression?
His eyes are endless. The emptiness within, boundless. Somber, with an indifferent countenance, he stares down a muddy pond, behind which a busy highway is rushing. Above the old, unshaven man hovers an impenetrable grey sky, reflecting his inner state seamlessly. He throws in his fishing line and remarks: ‘this is the only thing I still look forward to’. Some ten other men alike are lined up along the shoreline, staring at the still water, having something in common: they suffer from depression. Fishing is their therapy. For some, it is the only reason to keep on living.
In current modern society, depression is widely prevalent and growing. Suicides have multiplied. Amongst the elderly, the youngsters and even children, it spreads rapidly. It may be closely entwined with the increase of loneliness in recent years and the dissolution of the traditional community without an adequate replacement. One thing is evident nonetheless; that inasmuch as we are better at expanding and extending our lifetime, we became worse in actually spending that lifetime. The excess of free time even became an enemy. Insofar that some, more tragically, decide to end life themselves, for they cannot believe any change is at hand.
Psychologically, depression is a way of dealing with peril that goes awry; a personal strategy to remain mentally healthy that leads to its very opposite. It usually begins as a reaction to life’s turmoil, such as a lockdown or social isolation. By cognitively presuming that these events will continue eternally, by mentally painting life black, one may anticipate more dark times ahead. A form of self protection, you might say.
There’s another good reason for this. People are in dire need of control, to have a grip on their life and oversee things, in order to feel well. And indeed, by picturing life as a bitter sequence of problems and darkness (based on past events), one may be one step ahead of misery. Continually bracing yourself for incoming gloom. This strategy makes life, despite the misery, appear at least manageable.
But after a while of doing so, this grim attitude will become the new mental default setting. It will surpass its own goal and become clinical; emotions are less bright, moods are bitter, nightmares recur. Especially those with a more negative temper are prone to this, but it can happen to anyone who is exposed long enough to hopelessness and social deprivation. The depressed picture their life as a perpetual repetition of sameness. The time ahead becomes predictable and presumable, with no relief in sight. Like a tunnel without the light at its end.
Life On Repeat
An effect of the fight against the physical pandemic is that it makes life appear like a repetition. At first, persistent lockdowns, regulations, social distancing, polarization, alienation and the virus itself entice severe, returning stress reactions. Then, in headlines, on TV and on social media, at bus stops or in planes, even in the outer corners of the world, in Fiji or Phoenix or Indonesia, for two years already, one is reminded of the pandemic. From minute to minute, day in, day out, algorithms flow into each other almost seamlessly, stringing together the news into a constant stream of misery, arresting its audience in a lethal routine.
Symbols, visualizations, sounds, talks, masks, announcements are consistently recurring, restraining mental experience. We have narrowed down our vision into a tiny keyhole through which we look at the ‘world’. The expansiveness of human imagination, is cut off by a grand reduction of reality. In great fear of letting the virus escape our attention, we have relabeled a crisis into the crisis. This crisis functions like a super-heavy black hole, drawing all other light from the horizon, making it incomprehensible to see beyond. Even climate change, a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions, became obliterated under the corona twilight.
Particularly empowered by (social) media, it maintains the idea that the world is almost exclusively composed of the pandemic. And beyond that, there is merely nothingness. The perfect ingredients for mass depression. It painfully shows our inability to zoom out and place things into perspective. The corona routine has dramatically narrowed the scope through which the world is viewed. Swaying from wave to wave, lockdown to lockdown, it dictates our perception of time and space. For many, this monotony may be extrapolated or biased towards other domains of life, sometimes leading to severe depression and even suicide. This is the reason for many to go astray, exiting their country or life itself. Not to ignore the rules, but to try and escape what is almost inescapable.
‘The’ Crisis Doesn’t Habituate
After some decades of relative inertia, humanity was given a striking reminder of its own natural mortality. This painful realization has -perhaps- enticed a sense of helplessness, which is a key element for depression. Indeed, the inconceivable truth of having no or limited control over the situation plunged many countries into a deep collective depression. Subsequently, the assumed way of restoring that control is by becoming obsessed with the subject; continuously testing, checking, analysing and monitoring even its tiniest change; becoming pragmatic instead of visionary; introducing rigid rituals to maintain the idea of having a grip on something uncontrollable.
Ironically, the more humanity gets obsessed with one particular subject, the more it fails to see beyond and place it into perspective, which intensifies the depression once more. Gradually and very subtly, we become imprisoned in the penitentiary we’ve built around ourselves. And life’s colors slip away from us, while we’re busy chasing and hunting the subject of our obsession.
So why can’t we get used to the pandemic, so that it doesn’t dominate mental experience as much? The modern citizen is unfortunately not granted a breakaway from stubborn pandemic updates; he or she is encircled by screens that disturb serenity with real time crisis reminders from across the planet, all the time. The commandment to stay home and the reduced social circumstances empower the time spent checking the news and live blogs, because of which, again, one repeats the same cycle: scrutinizing the same subject. The current individual has got caught in a treadmill of over-analyzing, over-thinking, and over-worrying.
One-sided information in such abundance contributes to deceiving and distorted thinking patterns that barely reflect reality. Paradoxically, the information source we use to estimate the remaining duration till the end of the crisis, is also responsible for prolonging that (psychological) duration. Possessing modern streaming and communication technologies, the defining trait of this crisis is its power to continuously justify and refresh its own existence. By constant refreshment and renewal through worldwide media updates, it stays forever young, and doing so, keeps us forever engaged.
Another effect of overly fixating on the pandemic is that complex humans have been stripped down to potential virus carriers: simplified to hollow, soulless shells with throats for swab tests and arms for jabbing and faces for covering. The rest became obsolete. When all is seen as a virological testing subject, the value of everything and everyone is therefore measured by its usefulness in relation to the virus; whether the presence of a thing or person is legitimate fully depends on its infection risk. Social gatherings, for instance, pose a bigger infection threat than no gatherings, thus are restricted. Affection and closeness? Dangers that should be avoided. Simple as that. Psychological, cultural, spiritual, social, religious, and even economic factors are left out. Crude, like an entire chicken farm that needs to be annihilated after one case of bird flu, has been located.
This orthodox corona moral was widely endorsed at the promise of physical safety. Indeed, physical safety is a fundamental human need. Therefore, a strict set of enforced or unspoken social rules were adopted, rules that relabelled human touch, proximity and sociability as hazards. It’s a normative standard that identifies our fellow beings as a direct (and only) risk for dying. Ignoring objectivity, other essential psychological needs have become taboo, for they now imply only hazard and fear. And, death. There has been an astonishing willingness to accept a pale life of misery, of social distance and coldness, just to decrease the chance of infection by decimals, if at all. Opposing these stringent norms means asking to die, is the consensus. And, a reason to be called an idiot. The orthodox vision cannot accept that there are different perspectives on what can be called ‘a healthy life’. It diligently states that simply being virus-free equals health, period, at the costly expense of other essential needs.
A Look Forward
After two years of ‘reduced circumstances’, it’s inevitably time to welcome life’s lush complexity again; we need to let go of the virus. Primarily, the installed taboos need to be breached to restore human bonds. Scary as it may sound, people need to learn to embrace each other again without compunction. Nonetheless, wounds in human connection, and in mutual faith run deep, and they might take years to heal. In order to furthermore delay an epidemic of depression, a common hopefulness should replace the collective hopelessness.
The pandemic should settle down as one shade, perhaps a darker color, on an overarching palette that represents life as a vivid, inconceivable colorized spectrum. The hollow shell that we’ve become, needs to be inhabited once again. Humanity never progresses without risk, or by being obedient to the rules. It progressed because it left behind old dogma and replenished itself. At this point, this is the task we’re confronted with, are we to prevent an enormous wave of depression.
Nevertheless, outside the boundaries of depression, outside those dispiriting headlines, graphs and numbers, still lies that lucid world in all its splendor. In all its wonder and amazement. Unchanged, impatiently waiting to be rediscovered.
The current crisis has cleared the road for social media to incise further and deeper into social life. After corona’s final nudge, social media’s unstoppable advancement seems self-evident. Critique, regarding modern technology has shifted rapidly from philosophical to pragmatical. From ‘why do we need it?’ to ‘how do we successfully implement it?’.
Time for the social writer to shift back gears, question the topic in itself and revise some of its sly unintended outcomes. These are earnest effects on the psyche that are difficult to disclose, as the frame of reference became undetectable by the perfunctory yet lyrical reception of another deliberate digital immersion.
The Digital Paradox
It can strike out of the blue. Perhaps during a calm Sunday walk. Or while spending a breezy day by the sea, trying to escape the online world. But promptly it imposes itself. An uneasy restlessness, maybe discontentment. Missed messages, e-mails, news feeds. Perhaps that upcoming zoom meeting. Online matters that disturb the real-life, ending the serenity as they surface from the subconscious; worries that arise out of the archives of our mind, where they continually reside.
The conscious swiftly detects all the information that could be processed. Then there might be panic. Fear, taking over. Digital opportunities lay thereabouts, stored gigantic data centers, but remain ungratified. It’s alluring, even compelling to give in to its temptation, and grab the phone to quench the digital thirstiness, unlocking yet another problem.
For this submission doesn’t upheave the ongoing uneasiness. In contrast. Vice versa, the mechanism seems to work just the same; feelings of guilt appear when reeling through the superfluous news feed, aware that physical (offline) life passes by meanwhile. Offline-life and its digital counterpart seem to balance each other in a mentally destructive status quo. Frankly, none of the two activities can actually be undertaken independently, free from some sort of sorrow in relation to the other.
One explanation I’d like to pose might have to do with a simple yet striking paradox, which probably originated at the point when online and physical life had grown equally significant. Roughly, this unprecedented historical marker can be pinned at around 2010. It turned out to be a point of no return.
After this dichotomy had taken place, life was sliced into two. Social technology ceased to be a mere tool to serve ‘real’ life. Its successful campaign was thought unstoppable. To an equal extent, ‘real’ life started to serve social media. And that’s where the paradox commenced. Because these different lives can, however much we like to believe it, impossibly be combined without entering a state of constant discordance. Out of the blue, there were two worlds that contain enormous significance for our identity, well-being and practical comfort. Using social media was not a choice any more.
Held In A Stranglehold
Under the surface (and sometimes above), the online and physical world are in constant conflict. They are caught in fierce competition for human lifetime, which, unlike life’s environments, hasn’t multiplied. Who spends time online, pays for it with real life time.
Who spends real life time, pays for it with online time. In both cases, time cannot be retrieved. It’s spent and forever gone. And in both cases, one of the two worlds is excluded. This conflict may bring forth a constant state of incongruence, for one brain cannot live in two worlds simultaneously without a sacrifice.
It doesn’t end there. Inasmuch as the human identity may have multiplied, the ancient physique remains singular. Insecure as it is, the human mind is still attempting to resolve the conflict. Some indulge themselves in the digital world by, for example, excessive gaming. Opposers might fully reject technology and choose digital exile.
But for the masses, ordinary people, the offered solution only seems to worsen the problem. When attentive in one world, the mind is trying to assert what might be happening in the other, and conversely. This contradiction creates the odd disposition in which the brain is actually in none of these worlds. Neither online, nor in real life. Both digital and physical, the lives lived barely become palpable enough to entice a sense of completeness.
The concept of FOMO, the Fear of Missing Out, hits the spot, yet it falls short. The concept should be perceived in a way broader, far-going sense. For it is a constant restless state, not an incidental fear. The missing out is real.
The Good Sides
Of all possible addictions, social media must be the most widely integrated and accepted one. Every new technology has, in essence, good sides and bad sides. And it is often the good sides that make us forgive its bad sides. Supporters claim that we would never have mentally coped with the corona lockdowns without online communication tools, which sounds plausible on the surface. Yet, these lockdowns and perhaps the entire crisis would not have lasted this long without such technologies.
Without video-calling for instance, society would come to a complete halt, annihilating social, political and economical spheres. Instead, the western society would’ve had no other choice than to acquiesce with corona’s risks, as seen in the economically less fortunate parts of this world. In this sense it is tricky to praise technology -and essentially everything else- as merely positive: it has suppressed our suffering, but it has also prolonged it.
Conversating for the sake of conversating; chatting with no specific endeavor. For such -seemingly aimless- talks, there’s no room in modern dialogue . In a competitive meritocracy, being well-opinionated is thought inevitable in regard to almost every topic. And certainly, most certainly not to show any doubt in one’s opinion.
Instead, the current approach seeks to defend personal notions till the last shred of blood, with the support of arguments in abundance. To stand your ground, loaded with empirical and statistical frameworks, that serve as ammunition against the views of opposers. Indeed, as being an autonomous and well-educated grown up, it must be exasperating and indignating when proven -slightly- wrong.
The opinionated approach could work well in the political arena, wherein popularity prevails over truth. But when practiced to excavate original thoughts, its rigidity can turn out to be rather compelling. Having an immovable opinion aims not to increase mutual knowledge, but seeks to stick with the subjective view of oneself. In all its pretentious ambition it prefers to convince others, which is as impossible as it sounds. And when others deploy the same strategy, nothing is achieved but an awkward silence. Any valuable or original knowledge suffers a premature death. What could’ve been an intellectual thought exchange between two mature people, might regress into a malicious, infantile dispute.
To prevent catastrophic escalation, both sides may decide on an unsatisfying cease fire. They would ambitiously try to lift the conversation into more superficial areas, before the emotions set in. But after a vicious dueling with words, diplomatic relations may be irreparable. Possibly, one of the offended parties might even storm out of the arena, leaving both misunderstood and hurt, and definitely reluctant for another chat. Well, at least none of the opinionated strongholds had surrendered.
It all raises one rhetoric question. When in dialogue, one’s opinion is already unchangeable at the outset, what then, is the purpose of the dialogue itself? In such a case, the ‘dialogue’ is in truth nothing more than two deaf speakers promoting their own dogmatic opinion without rebuttal. It appears steadfast like a rock and ironically leaves no room for the core pursuit of both conversationalists: understanding this complex world (and ourselves) a little bit better.
An Ancient Solution
Thankfully, there’s a gentle alternative. In ancient Greece they were rather good at it: philosophizing. It’s a less aggressive way of exchanging thoughts, demanding patient acceptance. And, if feasible, a warm roman bath.
The relationship between contemporary dialogue and philosophical reasoning has become quite problematic. In these hasty times, where fastness, profit and decisiveness are demanded to stand a chance, serious philosophizing has no place. It would steal too much precious time.
More than before, philosophizing is seen as something superfluous which, at most, could be saved for the tipsy talks in a murky bar. But in what follows, I will set out how this ancient practice can be the saviour of contemporary conversations.
Foremost, philosophizing is team-work. As Socrates already understood two-thousand years before these ‘advanced’ times, a hard-fought victory doesn’t have to be the prime condition for a talk to be fruitful. In fact, it often proves to be entirely useless to try and convince another. The aim of philosophizing is, in contrast, to merge the thoughts and curiosity of both sides in order to grow wiser together.
Setting doubt and scepticism as a common starting point, the twofold performance of philosophizing aims to declutter complicated matters in a way that’s advantageous for both sides. What makes this additionally interesting is that its accepting approach uncovers and deepens the level of intimacy between two people. In other words: the outside word cannot be understood without exploring the inner world. Ruthless squabbling over an opinion becomes obsolete, as the cooperation makes rigid opinions become inoperative.
It is curious towards the origins of stringent, protective feelings. The gentle and respectful process soothes the emotional need to protect oneself, after which the mind begins questioning its own dead-locked notions. As such, it clears the way towards a deeper understanding of each other and the world.
This way of talking might reveal a whole range of new perspectives, thoughts and insights. And even without a definite outcome, the act of philosophizing itself can be experienced as sincerely pleasant, for the mind is thoroughly instigated by each other’s shared critical yet respectful attitude towards the same inquisition.
The purpose of philosophizing is therefore not to disagree and convince another, or to make a quick decision; the purpose is to set up a shared cause in search for deeper knowledge.
A kind of tiredness that cannot be resolved by sleep.
How long can humanity still hold on? The crisis has lasted for around one year now. Personally speaking, psychological resources are nearing a rapid dissolution. Fierce headaches, nightmares and fatigue are besieging my wellbeing. But the worst of all is the plain indifference that’s been holding me in a tight grip over the last month or so. My future self may not believe so, but this enormous, world-scale catastrophe, is gradually becoming the most boring, uninteresting and routine part of my life.
Hope does not console when it is conditional, when it instantly needs to concede a wish for change. Hungry for hope, society sways from press conference to press conference, frozen in an utmost boring and predictable regime: numbers rise, more measures, numbers drop, less measures. If virology isn’t your thing, these times are anything but intriguing. Every month or so, the expected measures are conveyed to ‘the nation’ in a patronizing manner through an equally tedious press conference by a dispiriting prime-minister who lacks vision and imagination.
As always, the nagging cliche ‘Only together we’ll get control over corona’, laughs at you from the pamphlets of the press conference room. But the ungratified hope has made this unrealistically militant phrase sound ironic by now; like an army general who still believes in victory, not knowing that he’d lost all his troops. Perhaps they need to come up with a new one and add some nuance. ‘Only together we’ll maybe, with luck, get control over corona’, might represent reality better.
After having seen 835483 of suchlike press conferences – I try to avoid it at all cost- they can merely, with difficulty, squeeze out a cynical grin on my face, while sighing lethargy. Newsreaders on the other hand, tell about the tiniest crisis developments. They do so in an unsuitable uplifting tone of voice; British variant, mutation of the British variant, mutation of the mutation of the British variant and so on. 3rd, 4th, or 50th wave. It cannot engage me any more.
The Lower Compartments
Yet it helps to apply some sort of philosophy to this brain-melting crisis. For there is only one reason that people swallow this way of living -which can hardly be called living. It’s simply because they can still bear with it. Our psychological bunkers are damaged, but haven’t been destroyed just yet. Meanwhile, signs of erosion are slowly presenting themselves. And erosion usually starts at the bottom. At the lowest layer of our society to be exact. As always in human history, it’s the poor who suffer first; One hundred years later, we’re still aboard the Titanic, categorized by the sizes of our wallets.
The noble idea is that society strives to protect the vulnerable ones. We must pauze our lives in favor of the most vulnerable. But ‘vulnerable’, here, is in the physical sense: It implies the elderly, the sick and the weak. But the economically vulnerable ones on the other hand, crammed in small flats with entire families, remain unnoticed. They are locked in the lower compartments of the 2021 Corona Titanic.
But when they suffocate and try to break out, they are arrested, put in jail, publicly condemned and shamed for their behaviour. A more interesting question; not if but when, will the ‘higher economic classes’ try to break free and flee the sinking ship. And will the retaliations be similarly severe? In another metaphor: when will the bunker’s higher parts start to erode? It’s only a matter of time.
In addition to the previous note, I’d like to emphasize the frailty of normative structures by which we measure good and evil. Recent riots as an answer to the curfew demand a closer examination of crisis morality. For morally condemning an act according to man made ethics will always be faulty to some extent. One cannot have moral judgements about past (or future) events, based on today’s morality, without harming the truth. Those who fully supported the corona measures last year, but have reconsidered their opinion today, are not hypocrite or contradictory, or ignorant to the threat.
They have simply shifted their principles alongside dynamic crisis developments. Norms and values are superfluous and deserve a healthy dose of scepticism. The rioters who’ve set the Netherlands in fury and flame after the dubious implementation of a curfew are condemned today, but might be understood tomorrow.
We mustn’t forget that we rely on a changeable set of fleeting, fluid normative structures, invented by imperfect species (humans). Morality has no ties with any natural order. Virtues are not infinite or universal, not even international. This sort of easy shifting might seem both terrifying and liberating; We claim to disregard violence in itself, label young protesters as ‘criminals’, but make an exception for police violence. Football hooligans on the other hand, who ‘helped the police’, become heroes.
Another example; an authoritarian regime might sound unthinkable in the Netherlands. Yet we live deliberately under such a regime right now.Every few weeks, the cabinet might decide regulations that affect our lives more and more severely, and of which the subsequent political debate is purely theatrical. For indeed, all regulations are implemented out of ‘inevitable (technocratic) necessity’. Discussion, the foundation of democracy, seems therefore obsolete. The political arena is surpassed. We live in an empty shell of what once could be called ‘democracy’. And we are (still) alright with it.
But it’s only the government’s promise of temporality which allows people to acquaint themselves with this more and more restricted life. Normative shifting goes almost unnoticed, perhaps in a way that the so-called decent people will be protesting themselves when time and psychological exhaustion will grant them the possibility. Will they, then, be condemned by their past selves? It is good to remember that all of it is a choice, be it political or social. The reaction to the virus remains an intentional human choice.
Stay safe, stay (physically) healthy.Written on 09-01-2021.
The above-mentioned cliche still loudly reverberates from last year. A particular kind of health is meant here, since societies have fixated most of their efforts on harboring physical health, but have undervalued mental wellbeing. As mental health is declining rapidly, we’re facing a very crude choice: mental health versus physical health.
We’ve entered a rather curious phase under the corona reign. Its last breath is at hand, if we must believe optimistic virologists. But in contrast to the cheerfulness about ongoing vaccinations, a swift end to the pandemic may be found downright unimaginable; at the doorstep of our long awaited liberation, corona bashes upon us at the peak of her power.
Record breaking infection rates have unlocked another series of relentless lockdowns and curfews, that ought to strip life from all its pleasure and distraction, hence ensuring minimal social contact.
Parks are possibly the best places to observe whether citizens indeed comply with these relentless measures or not. And an afternoon stroll through an Amsterdam park reveals to me more than a thousand statistics; they do not. Visitors clutter together in large flocks despite a bitter windchill and the threat of being infected. Moreover, inhabitants seem to embrace a rather bohemian lifestyle; they’re dancing in the eye of the corona storm, and take the risks for granted.
United in their hunger for sociability, crowds crack open bottles of beer or inhale the intoxicating fumes from a joint, stand in long queues towards Glühwein stalls and laugh their sorrows away with strangers. Spontaneous and carefree scenes, smiles on many faces, uplifted chatter. The behavior doesn’t arise from denial or stupidity; it is, especially in this phase, an inevitable necessity. After one year of being bombarded by inescapable corona news, hooking our attention into every tiny development, these can only be conscious, well weighed decisions. A heartbreaking dilemma between one’s own mental health or the physical health of another.
During the first wave, the task seemed feasible, the strong must protect the weak, simply by staying indoors and avoiding contact. Yet, growing disobedience proves indeed that after a year of neglected social needs, the mental capacity to fulfill our duty is evaporating. The source of psychological resilience, of human closeness, has been exhausted at last. Mental illness is lurking, and has become equally threatening as its physical counterpart.
Contrary to Camus’ description of The Plague, in which Oran is slowly dying from unknown and superior enmity, we are in a crisis that obviously feeds itself on social interaction. To retain good mental condition, togetherness is a key component, especially amidst fearful times. Mental vitality is an often underestimated, nonetheless unmissable precondition in order to win any physical battle. Tragically, it is this subtle individual nuance, untouched by statistics, that has perished at this crucial point. At the moment we need it the most.
Cover art: Pierre Auguste-Renoir, Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette, 1876. Public Domain. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Lately I’ve been searching for a comfortable bed that would suit my new apartment. It wasn’t easy. There’s a vast multitude of beds and mattresses, ranging from simple wooden frames to fairy tale princess beds that would only fit if you’d own a castle. During the hunt for a bed, I began to notice the absence of something reasonably common in my childhood, and considered an item of sheer luxury: the waterbed.
This wobbly bag filled with water promised its customers the most comfortable and healthy night’s rest one could imagine. Being a kid, its curious workings had always intrigued me. In shops, I would jump onto it, observing the flow of water shifting towards the other side, from where an imaginary person would be launched into the sky; the water needs to go somewhere.
Why am I talking about waterbeds? Well, a high speed train of thought made me connect it to the current management of the corona crisis, somehow. A second lockdown has been implemented for a week now. It’s more rigorous than the previous one in April, which still allowed some sort of human gatherings.
Now, all public places have shut down for five weeks, except life supply shops. The maximum group size is two people. Christmas is cancelled, new year’s eve paralyzed. Yet, as research (my empiric personal observation) shows, the second lockdown doesn’t generate the effect as did the first one, despite being the strictest lockdown since the crisis began. There’s no spine chilling silence that dominates the streets, like in April. People go out and about.
Undoubtedly, many of us are complacent and follow the rules obediently. But the willingness has notably decreased with this second lockdown. Like the distribution of water in a bag, people seem to disperse wherever the government puts the pressure. The water doesn’t disappear, it relocates elsewhere. After the closure of nearly everything, the remaining leisure is illegal partying, coffee for takeaway or obsessive grocery shopping. And that’s how people omit the rules and concentrate elsewhere.
Spending money, shopping and eating out are the collective coping techniques of our capitalist society. They have become the means by which our stressed mind relieves its pressure; that’s the circle of our economy. Still, politicians were staggered, even outraged that a record-breaking amount of people ignored the rules for a bargain hunt on Black Friday, or about crowds attending the IKEA for obsolete items and swedish meatballs. The water needs to go somewhere.
But what if the pressure gets too big and the water cannot go anywhere? As a kid, I often wondered what it might look like when the waterbed would rip apart because of excessive weight. I imagined how it would explode. It was a most harrowing idea, knowing that you’ll wake up in the middle of the night, drifting in your bedroom surrounded by floating IKEA miscellaneous.
Warned by such ominous depictions, my choice fell upon a pocket foam mattress. And I would recommend Dutch policy-makers to change to a more resilient foam mattress too, instead of relying on a market based, consumer oriented waterbed. It’ll enhance their good night’s rest!
We went on vacation, but the virus didn’t. Written on 22-07-2020.
There is no reason to wrap up this diary just yet. Corona seems to be returning. Better said: it had never left us. A Dutch publicist stated sharply that ‘we went on vacation, but corona didn’t’. Numbers of infections are on the rise once again. Virologists are apprehensive for a second wave. But I’m afraid that we are still riding on the the first wave. Did we cheer to soon?
I have to reckon that I was impatient too and went on a brief train getaway to Czechia, where the virus seemed non-existent. Meanwhile, my fellow countrymen are sunbathing in France and Croatia. Some of us take it a step further and are endangering themselves and others, as they deliberately squeeze themselves into packed airplanes heading to Greece and Spain. This striking turnaround in mindset denudes our fleeting values. Touristic ventures by airplane were thought utterly irresponsible just one month ago, until ‘experts’ praised the plane’s ventilation systems and deemed air-travel entirely safe. And of course, we nod our heads agreeably. But for only a few weeks, Corona didn’t dominate the headlines, and here we are.
Humanities and technocracy don’t run smoothly together, that much is certain. In the heydays of Corona, the health ministry was releasing death-reports on a daily basis, which were then conveyed to the masses by news channels. As cases dropped, the frequency of these reports downshifted along with it, eventually dropping towards a meagre one time a week. From an epidemio-technocratic perspective, this might have seemed logical. Less cases, less attention. But from a social psychological angle, that means walking a very slippery slope. For it should be clear that the contemporary mind is directed by whatever appears (and disappears) on the powerful outlets of mass media (individually customized by algorithms).
Our Dutch vacation exodus also reveals how we put our blind trust in the government’s choices and advice. Which is erroneous, since even the best informed governments are running behind the facts. Technocratic decision-making is reactionary at most. It doesn’t envisage an ideal or anticipates on future events. It is perpetually in need for the outcomes of earlier research, and perpetually too late to act wisely in the moment. Understandably, the government doesn’t quite know how to anticipate, for the virus is still a big mystery. What isn’t a mystery though, is that certain sectors of economy are losing money.
Likewise, it proved tempting for politicians to act based on what they know, rather than on what they don’t. We know the economy is suffering. Yet we don’t know how dangerous and recurrent the coronavirus actually is. So what do we do? We let economy run free again, because we ‘know’ the sorrows of economy. Yielding to the pressure, the Dutch government had given in to compelling demands to reopen bars, cafes and even prostitution. Economically constrained countries such as India and Brazil never even had the luxury to disobey economy’s impatience. Nonetheless, even the financially backed-up Netherlands have ultimately succumbed to the hasty consumer market.
Unfortunately, also the Dutch reopening of economy was not a philosophically wise -free spirited, independent- decision, it was simply kneeling before the unrelenting power we have attributed to our consumer economy. Virus or not, we need to start running on the money treadmill once again. The future will tell where this will lead to. But the passivity of citizens and the loss of common sense, merged with the unwise hastiness of governments are worrisome predictors.
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.
04-06-2020Vacation: 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.
It’s probably one of the most characteristic slogans in contemporary advertisements, smartly used by tech-companies to sell their newest electronics: ‘Quick and easy!’ And the moral it serves is fully embraced by its audience. Devices seem to constantly ‘beat’ their predecessors with another added feature to easify the lives of its customers even more.
Already when you’ve just purchased that brand new smartphone, a newer, faster, and better version is available in stores. Also, you can count on a sneering look when admitting to a computer specialist the prehistoric lifespan of your laptop (which is barely two years).The underlying notion tells that technological progress would make things ‘easier’ and ‘faster’. But this alleged easiness brought along with it the exact opposite; an incredible complexity which increased dependency. So if you allow me, in this writing I would like to promote a more ancient approach; ‘Slow and hard!’
Anno 2020, most ordinary households own a five-hundred channel multifunctional 50 inch smart-TV with wifi connection and voice recognition. Limitless smartphone possibilities allow us to order a pizza, make a business call, scroll through the latest news updates while messaging acquaintances in New York and Amsterdam all at the same time. To a varying extent, many of us have become volatile multitaskers. The outdated -and emotionally vulnerable- processors that are our minds, need to run a tremendous array of tasks simultaneously.
Considering the multitude of options nowadays to supervise all aspects of life, it might feel like a defeat when only one activity is undertaken. Yet, this might just be the key to finding an orderly state in the mad world of social media and technology.
Removing easiness and comfort from life might sound a bit silly at first. Deliberately withdrawing ourselves from modernity’s practical comforts can feel even counterintuitive. Because it would cost valuable time (which we don’t possess), it would require effort and patience (which we don’t have). Altogether, why would people even try to deprive themselves of the very technology they’d initially invented to ease up life?
There’s a good reason to do so. For every new gadget, app or device, with all its advantages, makes its users instantly dependent, and setbacks might lead to fargoing, often shameful behaviour. This helpless dependency reduces painfully the parameters by which we measure contentment throughout a day, because expecting everything to be quick and easy, means it also needs to be always quick and easy. But what if it isn’t? What if modern technology doesn’t keep its promise?
Well, then frustrations flourish; When a smartphone doesn’t work, an entire day is ruined. When Netflix is unavailable, the evening is wasted. When the online food order is late, we’re angry and might shout at the poor delivery guy.
The slogan Slow and Hard on the other hand, does exactly what is expected of it, and likewise evokes no unpleasant surprises. I’ve therefore listed a few analog items considered to be ancient by now, but which nevertheless might make life a little slower and harder, in a gracious sense.
The items described underneath are terribly slow, very unwieldy and excruciatingly hard when compared to the fluidity of modern gadgets. But precisely therefore, they also stand a little closer to the true, sorrowful and tragic nature of life. No miracles are expected of them. Yet, their variety is rich and its dependency negligible.
Items to make life slower and harder:
Newspaper – Structure and Eye Health
Days primarily consist of staring at screens. Sometimes even at multiple screens simultaneously, for instance, when looking at the smartphone while watching TV. The impossibility of such activities is well demonstrated when towards the end of the evening, neither the netflix movie was finished, nor is remembered what we were actually doing on the smartphone meanwhile. Yet, the real damage it does, is to our eyes.
Staring straight into bright light almost uninterruptedly for a day, is an unhealthy business for sure. It is unnatural and tiring, and influences the quality of sleep. Looking at multiple screens in a literal sense might, if you manage to even do so, leave you with crossed eyes. The old-school newspaper offers solace to this problem. Finding it waiting for you on your doorstep in the morning might interlude a more orderly and less tiresome day. And despite its old fashioned image, the newspaper still satisfies our insatiable hunger for information, yet in a somewhat healthier way.
Book – Discipline and Creativity.
Firstly and most importantly; it runs without a battery. No need to cry and yell about specific cables or chargers that are missing. Secondly, one might reinvent an unmissable virtue; inasmuch as starting to read a good –physical– novel is easy, it requires discipline to finish it. In modern multitasking, there are plenty of examples wherein an activity remains unfinished, which can be quite frustrating after having started it enthusiastically.
Discipline is the ability to persistently sustain a single activity in favour of a greater goal. In this case it’s understanding the novel’s plot, with the side effect of escaping our beeping and buzzing devices. Overcoming many pages might enable the ability to extrapolate this forlorn habit (discipline) towards daily life. Also, flipping through the pages of a talented writer can provoke one’s own creativity, hence interesting ideas.
Postcard – Nostalgia And A Touch of Melancholy.
Slower than its digital counterpart the email, but surely more meaningful, and far less liable to end up in the spam box. It’s a gift to your future self, as written postcards are the physical evidence of having travelled in faraway lands. Furthermore, finding an old postcard awakens memories of different times and reminds us of the gradual change to which life is subject.
Postcards are connected to the people we’ve met in past journeys, or to the difficulties we overcame before sliding it into the mailbox many years ago. Somehow, the safe arrival of a postcard is quite miraculous, as it went through many hands and exotic lands, ultimately onto your doorstep. It requires more effort to send a good old postcard, but without effort, it would be without meaning.
Vinyl player – Calmness & Care.
The opposite of quick and easy. A classical vinyl player requires delicate care. Letting the needle land softly on the disc is a movement of profound carefulness. Surely no other activity can be undertaken simultaneously. Then, a pleasant feeling of relief arises when after a short rustle, the selected song starts playing.
Dropping the needle carefully and listening closely to the music is not as easy as turning on a Spotify stream, yet this analog device is certainly less complicated, deprived from irritating song suggestions, commercials and incoming messages (it doesn’t even have a screen!)
Chessboard – Insight and Concentration.
A game of chess must be a true nightmare for the average multitasker. As for a tense game can last half an hour, possibly the entire evening, or even more (the longest ever recorded chess game lasted over 20 hours.) Losing concentration because of checking incoming emails or a dodgy match on Tinder might cost you the victory. Doing so, the vast complexity of chess encourages our concentration to fixate exclusively on one specific endeavour of finally being granted to whisper that famous phrase in a mocking manner: check…mate.
Where most smartphones have a swift and intuition-based interface, the strategy which is involved in chess makes an appeal to our insight. Instead of being led by the smartphone’s suggestive interface, the chessboard demands its players to see three or four steps ahead and take all possible risks into account. At the end of a phone scrolling evening, you might feel tired and psychologically unsatisfied. Chess might leave you even more mentally tired, but it is needless to acclaim that it didn’t satisfy the mind’s hunger to be challenged.
Stove – Patience.
Worryingly, cooking at home is falling out of grace rapidly. Instead, streets are swarming with numerous delivery cars, bikes and scooters, racing through red lights to suffice all the online orders. Why cook if you could watch another episode on Netflix, while a delivery restaurant cooks and also brings your dinner? could be the argument.
Cooking is a time slurping activity. Washing dishes included, it might take an hour at least. This way, one might easily overlook its positive sides. It is less costly and generally tastier. But the advantages of cooking aren’t limited to only saving expenses and having tastier (and healthier) food. No, cooking is a true sanctuary, to which you can escape from the digital madness. Mastering different taste combinations, supervising three pots and pans on the stove demands patience and focus. Being distracted by your phone might leave you hungry, as your dinner has burnt to dust.
Additionally, cooking gives the (sub)conscious a well deserved rest after another day of staring at screens. And that enhances the further processing of whichever bothering thoughts are floating in the mind.
Pencil – Anything.
A true dinosaur amongst the forgotten artifacts. There might be plenty of them dusting away around the house, already unused for years. Strengthened by imagination, this humble, stick-like mixture of wood and graphite allows you to draw or write anything or anyone, and it expresses hidden feelings or thoughts.
Consequently, converting unpolished ideas into smooth passages, catchy drawings or sketches might enable your occupied brain to classify the important things out of the unstructured jungle that is our psyche. Having a sheet of paper as his companion, this little friend here can mean the very departure from which wondrous works of art and literature arrive. But even more wondrous; the imperfect artistic revelations, uncovering your soul’s deepest depths.