Global engagement and solitude in Sweden

I’ve often wondered why some people joke about suicide as being Sweden’s national pastime.  It is hard to believe that a society so prosperous,  so seemingly intimate and relaxed, and so communal in the way it attends to basic needs, could produce one of the highest suicide rates in the world.  But then maybe, we know so little of the moods that can move people to suicide.

Sweden, and, for that matter, the Nordic societies are communities of solitude.  In their vast natural landscapes, one encounters a silence and stillness that can overwhelm and frighten.  Time stops, and nothing is heard, except one’s intrusive footsteps on the ground and the mortal cadence of one’s breathing.

I was in Sweden recently to participate in a conference on “Power and Globalization”.  Because I travel badly, and jet-lag always tends to hang over me like a perpetual shroud, I had made sure that I would have at least one free day to sleep and take it easy.

The weekend meeting, an annual affair known as the Palme Days, was being convened by the Olof Palme Center as an occasion for members of Swedish labor unions active in international affairs to meet with some foreign guests to discuss global issues.  It is regularly held in Bommersvik, a youth camp established by the Social Democratic Party at the edge of a lake, just an hour away from Stockholm.  I arrived in Stockholm on a bright Thursday morning, hoping to spend the next 2 days in this venerable walking city before retreating, as Swedes do in summer,  to the countryside.

I was booked in a typical bed and breakfast hotel in the heart of Stockholm’s busiest shopping street – Drottninggatan.  Filipinos are known to have a strange love affair with shopping.  And for a while I thought that maybe my hosts had taken this into account in choosing this hotel.  I was wrong; it was just convenient – the Olof Palme Center was right across the street.

In any case, I did what every Filipino seems to want to do on the first day in a foreign city – go window-shopping.  Perhaps for our race, this activity is almost synonymous to establishing one’s bearings, a kind of survival reflex in a world made crazy by consumerism.  The Swedes are not prodigious shoppers like us.  All the shops on Drottninggatan, I thought, could be contained in just 2 floors of SM Megamall. Moreover, the busiest part of the shopping district was not the malls but an open-air market of make-shift stalls selling all kinds of fruits, flowers, vegetables, home-made sweets and preserves.  Here, musicians and street performers vied with the hawkers for the crowd’s attention.

Lively and colorful as the city scene might be on bright summers like this, the Swedes nevertheless would find every excuse to retreat from it and seek comfort in the womb of its serene lakes and wild rivers, its majestic birch and pine forests, and endless countryside.  My hosts apologized for the noise on my street, which I hardly noticed, and offered to cut my Stockholm stay by one day so that I could be by myself in Bommersvik.

There, in that lovely refuge where Sweden’s young future leaders are formed, I caught glimpses of the great social experiment that this society has been waging as an alternative to socialism and capitalism. It is a way of life based on a deep respect for nature, its need to be left alone to recover and assimilate its own debris with the passing of the seasons.  Then there is the Swede’s simplicity and minimalism, an ethos that is as visible in their food as in their everyday clothes.

Being a first-time visitor to Sweden, I could only note the more external aspects of this society’s reality.  However, one of the foreign guests at the conference, Prof. Emma Rothschild of Cambridge, who knew Sweden quite well, spoke of 5 aspects of Swedish reality which form the core of its image.

The first, she said,  is its social equality, measured not so much in income, but in access to the basic social goods like health, education, leisure and culture.  The second is culture, in the narrow sense of “high culture”.  This is a society where museums, the opera, and concert halls are part of ordinary life, rather than the badge of privilege.  The third is the tremendous respect reserved for children and the youth.  From a young age, the Swedes are consciously encouraged to participate in public debates.  Children’s summits are attended by the most senior personalities of Swedish society.

The fourth is the cultivation of open public debate, criticism, and engagement in public and international questions among ordinary citizens.  And the last is Sweden’s unflinching internationalism.  At the Bommersvik conference, I met refugees from military regimes in Latin America and Africa who have found a home in Sweden with their families.  I met trade union people who operate schools and clinics in remote African villages.

I took long walks into the woods, around the lake, and through the undulating wheat fields.  I had never had so much solitude.  The last time I felt like this was in Kyoto, where, at one point of my sabbatical leave, I actually tried to break the oppressive silence with the noise of a television set.  In such settings, one’s spirit soars to existential questions, and the cares of everyday life are dwarfed by the enormity of the task of defining a meaningful life.  Here, indeed, there might be virtue even in dying.  Ironically, in such a glorious setting, in the middle of a seminar on global engagement, I began to understand how suicide could also be a Nordic pastime.


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