How Are You, Really?

I saw a news paper article about a Swedish woman who on Facebook had asked her friends state how they really felt about life and not give that standard glossy version. Apparently, she was astonished by the response since most her friends opened their hearts and told her and everyone else about was most important right now. This is not typically Swedish.

There have been attempt to use comments in social media to spot potential suicide candidates, such as the Samaritans Radar app. However, as indicated by Demos Alex Krasodomski-Jones' comments, this is very much a tricky task that would involve thorough research that would require lots of permissions from ethical committees.
But how easy is it to answer a question like that: How are you, really? Could it be that life is too multifaceted to be described in one or two sentences? Is it possible to feel full of sadness and happiness, have worries and anticipations, have hopes and shattered dreams, all at the same time?

One international attempt to measure well-being has been made by the OECD called How’s Life?, published every two years, provides a comprehensive picture of well-being in OECD countries and other major economies by bringing together an internationally comparable set of well-being indicators. It looks at people’s material conditions and quality of life across the population in eleven dimensions including: income and wealth; jobs and earnings; housing; health status; work-life balance; education and skills; social connections; civic engagement and governance; environmental quality; personal security; and subjective well-being.

In this study, Sweden comes out as a top performer in environmental quality, and it ranks above the average of the 36 countries in the dimensions of civic engagement, education and skills, work-life balance, health status, subjective well-being, income and wealth, jobs and earnings, housing, and social connections, but slightly below the average in personal security.

However, the OECD also created the Better Life Index which is an interactive web application that invites citizens to compare well-being across OECD countries and beyond on the basis of the set of well-being indicators explored in How’s Life? Users chose what weight to give to each of the eleven dimensions shown below and therefore see how countries’ perform, based on their own personal priorities in life. Apparently, the users in Sweden put most emphasis on life-satisfaction, health and the environment.

I wonder, maybe we put a little too much emphasis on life-satisfaction. I think I do. Or rather, I'm not thankful enough for the gifts life has brought me. I laugh everyday at work. I've spent 20 years in school because I wanted to. I love my apartment and my allotment. I'm close to friends and family. Playing volleyboll makes me happy, and training youngsters how to play gives me a sense of usefulness. Since I turned 18, I've voted in all Swedish elections, and although I'm not engaged in a political party I am engaged in political questions. I feel secure even when walking home alone in the night under the full moon.
Two out of the three times I've visited Boston, I've stopped at the Life is Good shop on Boylston Street. I bought soft t-shirts for my sister and brother-in-law, but also a pink sweater for myself with the brand logo printed on the front. I should wear it more often. Especially when feeling sad and sorry for myself.


Somewhere Out There

After the Christmas Day turkey dinner things slowed down. Some started to put together a jigsaw puzzle. Others were reading in front of the fire. My uncle was busy washing up the dishes. Nobody wanted to join me for a walk.

So I went on my own. It was pitch black and minus 9 degrees Celsius. No clouds and no wind. I decided to go down to the beach. To fight off the darkness, I started to sing Swedish Christmas carols.

Living in a suburb, I'm not used to seeing so many stars. I went down the hill to the cliffs and climbed up to where the lifebuoy is posted. In the distance I could see the lights from the former fishing villages and in the far west the lighthouses twinkled. The waxing moon crescent spread its silver light on the calm sea surface.

I lay down on the red granite and watched the sky. The Big Dipper, Orion with his belt, Andromeda. My hands started to feel numb. I saw distant planes and high-flying satellites. I heard the gentle surf caressing the stone. Then suddenly, I saw a shooting star. Instantly my heart made a wish.

Edith Södergran, "Dagen svalnar"
When night comes 
stars swarm in the yard 
and I stand in the dark. 
Listen, a star fell with a clang! 
Don’t go out in the grass with bare feet; 
my yard is full of shards


White Christmas

John had the brightest eyes, the nicest smile and the warmest hug. Everybody liked him. A great asset when working with PR and marketing.

One morning he didn't turn up for work. This was not the first time, although it didn't happen that often any longer. This was why John's business partner Michael didn't worry that much.

All that changed when John's mother called. She hadn't heard from John all weekend. They were close and he had promised to take her out. Could Michael perhaps go to his apartment to check if everything was all right?

Michael went there but nobody answered the door. He tried to look into the windows but couldn't see anything. He went to John's mother to collect the spare key. She wanted to go with him, but something made Michael persuade her to stay. He promised to call as soon as possible.

He knocked again before entering John's apartment. The first traces of blood were on the floor in the hallway. He put his fist in his mouth and took a few steps forward. More blood. Blood everywhere. Finally he found John on the floor in the kitchen. No doubt he was dead.

Michael backed out of the apartment and closed the door. He dialled 112 and asked for the police. He stood on the porch in the cold until they came. Continued to stand there while they investigated what had happened. Stood there when they took away John's body.

He answered the questions they had and could confirm their theory. John had not been the victim of a crime and had not committed suicide, but had died of "natural" causes. They went away and he was alone again with the key in his hand.

Three hours had passed since he left John's mother. He could see that she had tried to reach him on his mobile. Tears started welling up, running along his nose, dripping down into the snow, into the footprints of the ambulance crew.

Michael went into the apartment and started to scrub away all the blood and stow away the bottles. He just couldn't let John's mother see the signs of the many hours of struggle he probably went through before finally passing out and dying. Having a massive bleeding in an ulcer and too drunk to call for help. An ulcer he had developed through drinking. That kind of social drinking that often comes with having the task of making sure that important clients have a good time. That often continues even when no VIP is around.

I miss John. I'm really sorry that I didn't see his drinking problem. We are very good at covering up for our friends and colleagues, pretending not to know. And there are so many people to see, to help.
It is for the sake of all children being abused by drunk parents, for all those killed in road accidents by drunk drivers, for all those who get hooked on other drugs after a couple of drinks, for all who die from cancer provoked by the abuse of alcohol. For the sake of Michael who had to scrub away the blood from his best friend. For the sake of John's mother, now facing many lonely years. For the sake of John who never wanted to become an alcoholic and die on the floor, with his life slowly trickling away.

That's why I do my best to restrict access to alcohol. That's why I support IOGT-NTO's campaign Vit jul (White Christmas), hoping that it will help more children have a holiday to remember, for the right reasons.


Tidings of Comfort and Joy

My Mother and I have a tradition of going to the Gothenburg Cathedral at Christmas. The choirs in the region compete to participate at the concert "Julsång i City" and this time there were at least ten of them present. The biggest choir was of course the congregation and we sang christmas carols from all over the world.

The concert host was the previous dean of the Skara Cathedral Bo Eek. He reminded us that the Swedish word "främmande" both means visiting friends and people we don't know. This is similar to the Greek word "xenos", found in the concept "xenophobia". He gave a very clear message to the unfortunately growing racist party Sverigedemokraterna that we have a responsibility as one of the richest countries in the world to help refugees. 

This help can take many forms. Some people give money directly to people begging on the street. Others give to organisations such as Göteborgs Stadsmission who provides shelter and food. Some, like Matteuskyrkan provide daycare for the children, while the parents try to find work and money having come to Sweden in search of a better life for their family. Myself, I donate money to SAM-hjälp who focus on helping children and families in Eastern Europe. 

According to the UN, more than 43 million people worldwide are now forcibly displaced as a result of conflict and persecution. This is he highest number since the mid-1990s. More than 15 million are refugees who fled their home countries, while another 27 million are people who remain displaced by conflict within their own homelands. Children constitute about 41 percent of the world’s refugees, and about two-thirds of the world’s refugees have been in exile for more than five years, many of them with no end in sight. Four-fifths of all refugees are in the developing world, in nations that can least afford to host them.

If you are strong, you have an obligation to help those who are not so fortunate. One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. The Golden Rule can be found everywhere: in all the major international religions, in Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, in the comic books about Bamse, in the doctrine on social justice by political philosopher John Rawls.

In his new book, researcher/author Stefan Einhorn claims that our modern deadly sins are the following (at least in Scandinavia): Dishonesty, Hate, Ruthlessness, Bullying, Narrow-mindedness, Xenophobia and Greed. The latter being the only one left from the original list.

Being an atheist, I don't think the potential wrath of God should be a driving force in this matter. My parents taught me to be nice to other people no matter where they come from or their situation in life. Anything else would simply be mean.


The Landscape of Music

When I was young in the 80's, one of my favourite Swedish bands was Adolpson and Falk. Light and soft synth pop, with oh so clever lyrics. Every year since then I smile when listening to the song "Mer jul" (More Christmas) because I really love Christmas and have lots of decorations up for at least two months.

One song that stuck with me was "Ifrån" ("From", my translation although some twists and turns definitely are lost):

Through the darkness of the night
I see the lights outside
Is it the sound from the train
Or the throbbing of my heart I hear
I'm miles away from myself
And I have no special destination
I'm not travelling to some place
I'm just leaving

Sometimes time stands almost still
But just as often it suddenly slips away
The line between hope and despair
Is all too thin
And you fall without mercy
But somehow you cope
By not travelling to something
but by leaving instead

Through their music, or perhaps rather the buzz around them, I came in contact with the landscape architecture profession. I had never heard of it before learning that Anders Falk was one. It even made me apply for the five year long university program and I was accepted. Although I ended up studying computational linguistics instead, I've kept an eye on the development in the area and I don't know how many gardens I've visited in Sweden and abroad. 

Lately I bought "Guide till svensk landskapsarkitektur" (The Guide to Swedish Landscape Architecture) and the lovely Natural Garden Style by Noël Kingsbury. I even asked for a list of plants from the Piet Oudolf Woodland section in Trädgårdsföreningen (The Garden Society of Gothenburg).
The housing cooperative where I lived is called "Ekkullen" (Oak Hill) because the quite extensive grounds actually include a small wood on a hill with around 40 "young" oaks. It's long been rather neglected and I've decided to try to convert it into proper woodland, hence the book-shopping. So far I've focused on clearing the shrubs but I'm dreaming of planting high grass and flowers in the new perennial style. However, I've left some raspberries for everyone to enjoy.


Fuck Yes, Or No

Some decisions are hard. For different reasons. How to go forward in a country after civil war is what constitutes a wicked problem, that has no right solution and where you can only hope to help people form a common vision of the future and start moving in that direction.

Deciding what cancer treatment to choose when the doctor presents the alternatives is hard because you are ill and tired and don't have the knowledge to understand the consequences. Putting down a beloved pet who is in a lot of pain and terminally ill is often a given choice, but so very hard to execute.

Another tricky situation is when two options seem equally good, but in different ways. Should I live in the city or in a suburb? Buy a Volvo or a Saab? If you don't find a way out of this situation, you will be stuck in what Robert Fritz calls an oscillating structure. The remedy is to list all the underlying factors and set them against each other. Is having a garden more important than being close to work? Is extra legroom more important than boot space?

Fritz has also developed a method for identifying what to focus on when an organisation is in trouble, but doesn't know where to start. He calls it digital decision-making. How is the market doing, fine or not? Growing or not? Are the employees fine or not? Is this a trend?

Some decisions shouldn't be that hard. For example, if you should stay at your present workplace or not. Or if you as a boss should help an employee find another job. Again, there is help available. This time from Marcus Buckingham, who investigated what characterises a good workplace and developed methods for doing strength-based employee interviews. I really like his book "First, break all the rules".

Another no-brainer should be what suppliers to keep and what customers to continue working with. Tom Peters has captured this well in his Lust Hierarchy for customer satisfaction. It ranges from satisfy, conform to requirements, exceed expectations, delight all the way to a big WOW from raving fans who lust to work with you and come up with excuses to do so.

Finally, it shouldn't be that hard to see if a person is interested in you or not and make the decision to stay or to leave. This topic was explored in Sex in the City, where the message "he's not that into you" was coined and later turned into a book.

Mark Manson put it a little more crudely in his 8 minute read blog entry "Fuck yes or no", although the message is the same: If you’re in the grey area to begin with, you’ve already lost. 

We all deserve to be with someone who is totally into us.