This is one of those rare wonders: a joyful book about loneliness. Not funny or cheery, but while acknowledging the issues associated with loneliness it also explores the joy it can bring us.
I got the book from my mum as an Easter gift. As we had to again spend Easter separately, for obvious reasons it was impossible to travel, we sent each other parcels with gifts. Thanks to Brexit we had to plan with caution to make sure they will arrive in time and won’t result in any customs charges, life really is becoming unnecessarily difficult. Nonetheless, even though I still wade through the pile of books from Christmas I got another nice pile and it made me immensely happy.
In the pandemic, like the majority of people, I was thinking about being alone. What does it mean to me? Since adolescence I was always very much for being alone, never had a huge crowd of friends, just a few trusted people around me. I think also being an only child has taught me to be perfectly capable to entertain myself. Or that’s what I thought. This is why the first lockdown was easy for me, it almost felt like a vacation from the constant running around and meeting people. I finally had time for myself. Lockdown 2.0 wasn’t bad because then we had Christmas on the horizon. But it lockdown three I learned that no one is an island. No matter how comfortable we are with ourselves, we in the end need some level of interaction. So having all those thoughts, I decided this book was the ticket.
Katarzyna Tubylewicz has been living in Sweden for years. For this book, she decided to travel the country with her son, the photographer, to visit lonely places, and interview Swedes about their approach to loneliness and solitude. A small digression here, English language has those two distinct words: loneliness and solitude, one with more negative connotations and the sense of being imposed, the other more neutral and coming by choice. Polish does not have that distinction, we only have one word, and on its own, it carries a lot of negative connotations. To disperse them you need to add a few adjectives.
Back to the book, you may ask why Sweden? One reason is that the country was familiar to Tubylewicz, but another is that Swedes seem to be a nation that cherishes solitude, they even have a saying that amounts to ‘loneliness is power’. Also, the social system in Sweden enables people to be alone, they are not dependent on their families from a very young age. Tubylewicz wanted to explore this concept more. She interviewed a variety of people, artists, doctors, psychologists, scientists, immigrants, young and old. And she got a variety of answers. Some focused on the positives, the silence, the ability to commune with nature, feeling part of something bigger once the noise stops. Others focused on the sense of psychological isolation and the cost loneliness brings.
While showing the good and the bad this is still a book that carries a soft smile in its heart. The smile that comes from being alone in the forest or on the seaside. The smile that comes when we come back from a noisy party back to a quiet home and now we finally have time to appreciate the good time we just had. The smile that comes with a sense of calm.
Interestingly as much as Swedes cherish their solitude they have no problems in social contacts. They are curious about other people and interact easily. It’s just that they have very strong boundaries. Obviously, this becomes most pronounced when interacting with the southern cultures, where community always trumps the individual. The difference comes from different values and I don’t think there is any right or wrong here. There may be a right or wrong match for any given person based on the values that person believes in, but we cannot condemn solitude, just as we cannot say it is the best option.
What was also important for me is that Tubylewicz aimed to take away the social stigma related to being alone. Yes, loneliness has its costs and is not good for people if it is imposed. But being alone does not mean a worse or less fulfilling life by default, and this is something that is not easy to acknowledge for many people.
A really great read and on top of that illustrated with really wonderful photographs by Daniel Tubylewicz. A book that will make you smile, calm you down but will also make you think. It’s not an easy hygge book, it is a book about the strength it takes to be alone and the strength it takes to be with people. Neither of those comes for free.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska