Homecoming | Hendrik Erz

Homecoming

After six weeks in Norrköping, and two weeks before Christmas, it is time for a first feedback. How is it to start a PhD in the mid of a global crisis?


Today is the day. After six weeks in Norrköping, I finally return home for Christmas. The “finally” here can be read in two ways. It either means that it is a relief to leave Sweden, or it means that I miss home. The second connotation is certainly true, and so is the first – but not in the sense commonly associated with the context of this sentence.

I am not happy to leave Sweden. After six weeks of working on my PhD here I am more than ever convinced that this is my dream job. In addition to that, the IAS has everything one could wish for in a research environment: interaction, communication, and mutual support.

Still, I am relieved to leave the country as soon as possible. How can this be? I thought about how to express this, and I came up with the following idea: think of it as a modulation of the hedgehog’s dilemma. The hedgehhog’s dilemma, or sometimes porcupine’s dilemma, concerns a paradoxical situation: A group of hedgehogs (or porcupines) wants to move closer together in the cold, but can’t fully do this as their spines would inevitably hurt them. So they have to stay in a form of limbo – neither close nor being apart – in order to survive.

There are numerous ways in which we can make use of the hedgehog’s dilemma in order to explain seemingly paradoxical situations. In the seminal work of Hideaki Anno, Neon Genesis Evangelion, this psychological theme is a constant for the protagonists of the series. They know that they need the warmth of other people, but by embracing it they become vulnerable and can be hurt by others. In the end, this is somewhat resolved (in a quite literal sense), but I don’t want to spoiler any of the uninitiated who might want to give it a shot – it’s certainly worth it!

The modulation I am describing here means that while everyone wants to share in common social interactions, we cannot do so, as this would mean to sacrifice our physical health. The whole pandemic is indeed a very tangible example of this dilemma. And this is why it is a relief to get back home.

Over the course of the last six weeks, I have had the chance to observe my mental health degrade. Not being able to see anyone else, and the impossibility even of mundane acts such as touching another person, are two major factors in deteriorating the psychological well-being of any social animal. About a hundred years ago, a cruel experiment determined that being deprived of the human touch literally kills humans. Of course nobody of us is going to die from this, but it does take its toll.

While those denying the existence of the pandemic or the pathogen altogether may lose their life, those keeping their distance risk going insane.

And this is not just my own experience. Since being in Sweden, I have heard from several people dear to me who have been diagnosed with depression. Little by little, people are falling prey to the isolation.

It is almost ironic. Again, it is the working class who is forced to risk their lives, commuting every day in times of a pandemic under the pretence of “saving the economy.” Only this time, while the lives of so many people are put at risk, the pandemic does not stop short of those better off. Those who can work from home suffer from social isolation. They do not have to risk their physical well-being, but their sanity.

Nonetheless, this is the reason why it is a relief for me to get home. Once home, I will have my family, at least their proximity, while it is dangerous for anybody else to offer this. This will not only end my current isolation, but by that also raise my productivity again.

Home, it turns out, is not just where your heart is, as Parkway Drive have once proposed, but first and foremost where your social network is densest. Moving to another country is a great experience and I am thankful for being able to make it. But it can also be a curse during a global pandemic. When the only possible social interaction consists of saying “Hej” and “Tack” to the supermarket cashier during the five minutes you can last within a closed building in a country which does not ensure safe health measurements.

One can only speculate on the effects the pandemic might have on society, but it certainly will polarise it. It will open a rift in between those who, by denying the pandemic, not only risk their lives, but also prolong the crisis indefinitely for those staying at home. It increases the already large divide between rich and poor. And it will leave its marks.

For now, let me modulate a sentence I have written at the start of this blog six weeks ago: Right now, I am moving places – via train from Norrköping, and then via plane from Stockholm to Düsseldorf Airport. Once there, I will be reunited with the one I love.

To all of you who don’t have this luxury, always keep in mind:

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Merry Christmas.

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