Sunday/Zondag

Scroll down for the version in Dutch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zondag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Insights in Sofia

We had walked half the city to ultimately arrive at one of Sofia’s most prominent buildings; a grand orthodox church. Upon witnessing the mighty structure, my respiration stifled slightly. Its tremendous golden roof caught our attention at once. The surroundings consisted of a newly asphalted large parking lot, so we needed to criss cross through an abundance of cars before finally reaching the entrance.

Shortly after entering, we sat down on a wooden bench and sighed. For some time, we witnessed the ongoing rituals until I got drawn into some sort of reverie. Of a sudden and without being fully aware of it, the following phrase escaped my mouth;

“I’m feeling nostalgia for times in which I never lived.”

The comment awoke a curious look in my girlfriend’s eyes. She instantly nodded in an understanding way, confirming the recognizability of my remark. Somehow or another, it made sense. I desperately wanted to be, even for just a day, living in the times that this church reflects.

Untraceably, this thought surfaced somewhere in my consciousness, coming from the unknown depths of my psyche. Precisely at the moment when the main priest went around the hall to spread around incense smoke, I felt an abundance of unexplainable melancholy, hence the need to inform my girlfriend. I suspect it was the scent which triggered it. 

Either way, it was just a matter of time before such melancholy would strike me, as lately I find myself drawn more and more towards ancient places. In particular old churches and cathedrals, regardless of the religious stream they might embody. Whenever the door is ajar, I aim to slip inside and enjoy its tranquility and order. For me as being not officially religious, such places are beginning to fulfill a more transcending role against modern difficulties. It’s most certain that the value of old churches is not restricted to merely tourists or the religious. 

Imposing environments like these feel growingly like a safe haven, a sanctuary as it were. A place with a low pace. The origin of this feeling seemed disguised and hidden deeply in an ancestral past. It presented itself in a fierce longing for the centuries far before I was introduced to this world. As if I were accidentally born in the wrong times. 

From the wooden bench, we observe the authentic, magnificent columns and impressively decorated ceilings. We witness the simplicity of a priest taking his time to light candles for the remembered and the forgotten, while the low soothing voices of a male chorus echo gently throughout the hall. Visitors, on the other hand, remain silent. Distracting gadgets are seen only sporadically. Every visitor, tourist or local, appears to be well aware of the unspoken commandment in such places and respect them. 

Altogether, the patient and attentive atmosphere infatuated a strong desire for an unknown but desirable past. One beyond the recordings of my memories. It all reminds me of a life I would probably never live. Anyway, it would be sheer impossible during my brief but already stressful and competitive existence. Surely it’s something I (and maybe others) lack of nowadays. 

The serene ambience of these places exposes painfully precise what we have been neglecting in modern societies. Retreats in this form have become a rarity, but are ironically needed more than ever. Over the years, spirituality, calmness and moralism became increasingly replaced by overconsumption and demoralisation. 

Simultaneously, the warmth and inclusiveness that might have existed in the centuries prior to ours, had vanished over the years. Caught up in the obsession of economic development, we have left behind a valuable past and have forgotten some of its advantages along the way. We have simply thrown away the baby with the bathwater. Luckily, some old churches and cathedrals have withstood the test of time, to show us it wasn’t always like this. In the weakly lit halls of ancient churches, the neverending fixation on work and consumption is outweighed by human kindness and patience.

In this sense, priests and clerics fulfil an essential role. They demonstrate to us the necessary attitude when it comes to downshifting from a fast and chaotic towards calm and orderly mindset. For instance, taking the time to light two-hundred candles in remembrance of the dead, is a lengthy ritual. Nonetheless it is likely to be one out of few daily tasks to be fulfilled by this holy man. The devotion given to merely one task simply doesn’t merge with the contemporary lifestyle anymore. In contrast to these disciplined priests, our daily tasks have multiplied endlessly, but the devotion (or possibility) to finish them has weakened.

Today, numerous social contacts are expected to be maintained, next to functioning flexibly and eagerly at work. Essential life aspects have been transferred to the online world. But this is a world without clear limits and borders. And most of all, an unstoppable world that constrains time and pushes it far beyond the limits of our mental and physical abilities. Eventually, this unframed way of living is often halted by what we call a burn out. Likewise, spirituality and devotion have lessened, as they became subject to the hastiness of our time consuming society. 

It might, from this perspective, be pleasant to daydream of the times we have missed out on. Even if the picture is not quite accurate in our fantasies. Old buildings like a cathedral appeared the ideal practising grounds to do so. To deprive yourself from technological gadgets and step into a hall of calmness, dreamily depicting the lives of people before highly developed technology. When spirituality was more apparent. Times when sorrows were diminished by prayers and philosophy instead of prescribing pills. When the world’s population was far under a billion, while borders and bureaucracy were absent for the most part. Things were yet a little more undetermined. 

Amidst the chaotic and unorderly world of today, old and dusty churches can make you feel serene, and offer solace. Yet, castles or other ancient places might provoke similar mental refreshment. I hope that these sanctuaries of existential guidance will withhold far into our doubtful future. For everyone. Not as a beacon of religious divide, but as a modest hideaway from our evermore accelerating society.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Lidia’s Wisdom

Babushka Lidia is a woman of extraordinary strength. At the imposing age of eighty-two, she lives a physically intense life in a wooden cottage, some twenty kilometers away from the closest city. Apart from the occasional resupply by family, she is largely self sufficient. Whenever I’m residing temporarily in Russia, a visit to this admirable woman guarantees to become a highlight. This piece of writing is a devotion to her and many other brave elderly.

With three delicate kisses on the cheeks and a tight yet gentle hug, Babushka Lidia ensured me a pleasant farewell. It meant saying an indefinite goodbye to a very remarkable person. After reassuring her of our return, I tumbled down the small stairs and found myself in the characteristic living room. Its low ceiling (confirmed by a fierce headache) and squeaking floor supplied me with a last warm, cozy embrace. 

As we walked across the yard towards the adjoining dirt road, Lidia peeked out of the window once more, with a soothing smile. A glance of reconciliation. Upon embarking the car, we waved back and set off. Within moments, Lidia was out of view. And so was her tiny, two floor cottage. Or, as it is called in Russia; her Datcha. The weakly illuminated window of it, reduced swiftly into a modest dot in the darkness. 

Just a stroll away from this fairy tale place, lies a dense forest full of tall pine trees. Pointy treetops outline the horizon. This captivating panorama reaches out far into the distance. The house is encircled by a stretch of cultivated land, wherein Lidia grows potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, paprika, cucumbers, zucchini and so on. Often, her skillful and persistent way of farming leads to a surplus of food. She then calls out for family to pick up some of her harvest. For us back in the city, her insurmountable production levels generally lead to another week of zucchini and potatoes for dinner.

Every summer, Lidia can be found here, shovelling land and practicing other kinds of complicated agricultural labour (of which I don’t possess the slightest knowledge). All the desperate attempts of family to re-establish her into her city apartment were unsuccessful. Only in the relentless Russian winter, when snow and ice begin to obstruct the farming, she relocates reluctantly to the city, just to return the very next spring. 

Lidia was a child during WWII. And in her turbulent youth, she fell into the hands of the Germans and was banished to a labour camp. And so were her sisters and parents. She had told us that at times, there were not much more than a few crumbs of bread to eat. This bitter epoch of scarcity lasted until far after wartime. Oftentimes, she was expected to overcome about twenty kilometers on foot towards the nearest settlement, in order to obtain a negligible amount of groceries. If any groceries at all. 

On the worst of days, she returned home empty handed. Besides, the journey was not without hazards, as it crossed dense forests covered in snow, inhabited by bears and wolves. And if that is not enough, the temperatures during those risky ventures dropped regularly to far below zero. Additionally it’s worth mentioning that her shoes, if you could call them so, were made of plain cardboard. 

In the subsequent decades of her life, she worked, as many women did during soviet times, in an enormous plant. As chief of the factory kitchen, she had thousands of hungry labourer’s mouths to feed. Perhaps it’s a plausible explanation for her superb farming productivity nowadays. Over ten years ago, she lost her beloved husband. They had been married for over fifty years. Lidia has been grieving ever since.

To this day, she misses him undiminished. In speech and ritually, she pays homage to him. More recently, Lidia had suffered from a variety of cardiovascular problems, for which she underwent multiple surgeries. And the list of alike intriguing life events continues endlessly. Nevertheless, it couldn’t withhold her from residing in the cottage once again, irrigating plants and shovelling land with a fulfilled smile on her face.  

When trying to understand her life’s narrative, the significance of it becomes evident. She overcame miseries, nearly incomprehensible for youngsters like me. During a pleasantly melancholic conversation with her, it struck me that, as I looked into her dark green eyes, I was looking into a bittersweet past. Lidia had felt and seen anything that induces anyone with loads of anxiety.

During the lengthy talk with her, I promptly realized something peculiar. The curious eyes I was making contact with, stood once face to face with German camp wardens. Next to this, intense surgeries, grieving over the dead, thirty years of working in a factory, starvation and numerous other sorts of dismay bashed upon her life. To the same extent however, she had felt affection and tenderness. Either from a loving family, children or a good husband. Henceforth, her family’s astonishing solicitude still keeps her warm in times of distress, like a thick blanket during the harshest Russian winters. 

Considering this, I reckon that being in Lidia’s proximity offered me some sort of immunity against any problem, even though I’m nearly twice as tall and still have my teeth. Her carefree expression made me feel safe from harm. Her impregnable wisdom and persistence instilled me with loads of consolation. Without a doubt, I felt protected by this eighty-two-year-old woman.

It felt as if her eventful past reduces the anxiety about the uncertainties of my future. There will be difficulties, tragedies, grief and the occasional headache. But to a similar extent, moments of beauty, growth and love will present themselves. What matters is that you perceive life’s inevitable stages with gratitude. And later on, like Lidia, with a healthy dose of melancholy. Preferably when harvesting potatoes from the meadows, accompanied by an unconcerned but wise smile on your face. 

Lidia’s contentment contradicts profoundly with the busy lives some contemporary people chase. Millennials, for example, need to do skydiving, visit the Bahamas, do an Arctic expedition, climb the career ladder before there’s no more time. Or visit all the countries in the world, and simultaneously maintain a glorious love life. All before the interlude of life’s final phase. It’s likely that these ambitions are born out of pure fear for mortality, rather than unfolding from a genuine, congruent desire to accomplish them. 

Some want to complete this list of accomplishments before it’s all over. ‘You only live once’ is a popular philosophy, which is, of course, undeniably true. You do live only once. Nonetheless it contains a counterproductive element. Its definition emphasizes unwittingly the things we haven’t done or experienced in our brief existence, rather than cherishing and gratifying life’s tests we’ve gone through already. 

In an ironical way, it’s chiefly the elderly people like Lidia, who appear the most serene with the idea of our imminent mortality. For they are already soberly familiar with life’s misfortune and its sorrows. Lidia and many other elderly prove that it’s important to grow old solving life’s phases in an accepting way.  Not full of envy or regret about the things we haven’t done or achieved, but content with the suffering and grateful for any granted moments of sublimity. 

There is another, more mind-broadening aspect to be learned from Lidia’s story. It’s quite often discussed theoretically by existentialists such as Viktor Frankl and Irvin Yalom. And more fundamentally by philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, whose ideas are now anything but outdated. In the finely inverted words of Kierkegaard:

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards

These thinkers underline the correlation between depression and the fear of getting older. This is undoubtedly connected to nowadays obsessive emphasis on youthfulness in Western countries. But also to the aforementioned ‘you only live once’ construction, which actually implies ‘you’re only young once’. Our juvenile time is seen as the worthiest part of life, wherein people are at their best, only to thereafter descend into a long, boring epoch of old age. This alleged long stretch of regression, leaves no room for further development.

In spite of this, talking to Lidia made me envy her calmness and wisdom. Though ambiguously, it denuded my abundance of fear for the unpredictable future too. She has the advantage of being familiar with life’s unavoidable difficulties, while I as a young adult, still need to find ways to transcend them. Harsh lessons are awaiting me. But Lidia’s glance from the small window and her bittersweet stories all instilled me with resilience towards the unforeseeable future. 

Lidia

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