While the earth’s average temperature keeps rising, I feel like I have gotten colder. Not in the emotional sense, but the literal sense. When I went go out on camping trips with the girl scouts as a kid, I would always fight with my mom over what to wear. She always accused me of wanting to be fashionable over practicality, which was ironic to me since her clothes were always way more expensive than mine. Whenever I did end up wearing whatever she wanted me to wear, I would feel smothered, uncomfortable, sweat dripping down my neck at the campfire. Why did she want to choke me with her infinite scarves? And what’s the point of wearing a hat while ice skating if it keeps flying off or, even worse, sag over your eyes? “Ear muffs aren’t just cute, they’re practical as well mom!” I would blurt out in frustration. But oh, how the tables have turned.
After my parents’ divorce, my father would steadily decrease the temperature of the central heating until he barely even turned it on at all.
Instead, I had to turn to my parents’ vintage oversized sweaters and thick goat’s wool socks (a staple for any Dutch hippie – geitenwollen sokken). I even took to wearing fingerless gloves inside. I never understood why my dad did this – I still don’t. He later claimed it was for health-related reasons. Apparently being cold makes you sick less. I just assumed that he did it with the same motivation parents do anything to their teenaged children – to torture me.
What is rational?
Right now, we are discussing Hegelian dialectics in my Friday morning seminar for History of Philosophy II. The university is trying to be more sustainable, and so they have turned down the heating. A good intention, but I am shivering through this morning, surprised I was even able to find the motivation to leave my cosy bed full of pillows and blankets for this. Almost no one is here.
Hegel says that everything starts with a negation, then followed by a negation of that negation, reaching its conclusion in the sublation of those forces. One of the more fanatic guys is desperately arguing that this does not make sense, that there always has to be an object, a thing that positively exists, in order for it to be negated. Blowing away the steam from the cappuccino in my gloved hands, I’m thinking to myself that it makes perfect sense. I scribble down some clichés: You can’t have sunshine without rain. Can’t have laughter without pain.
If I lived Russia, I probably wouldn’t think it was cold right now. Then again, my Russian piano teacher was always complaining about Dutch weather, saying that Russian cold was dry and therefore bearable, while Dutch cold is wet and makes you feel disgusting. Hegel goes further than just saying, ‘oh everything is just relative’. In his philosophy everything is still rational, there is still an absolute ideal. The very way we are able to define things is by reasoning what they are not. You could try and argue with the guy about whether a table is defined by not being the sun (an excruciating argument one of my housemates keeps trying to make every since he learnt I am studying philosophy), or by its tableness (my favourite way of defining things). But as I am waiting with my hand in the air to debunk this loser, I realise I too am wrong. Because Hegel is not a metaphysical philosopher; he is not making a claim about stuff. This is pointless.
You can interpret Hegel in two radically different ways. Either it is about the swooping course of history in all its grandeur and glory, or about the much more hidden human journey of individuals becoming self-aware. I particularly like Hegel for bringing these two together. I too, like to combine vastly opposed subjects in my work, becoming incomprehensible in the process. I too, like to relate my personal mundane experience to structural analysis. It is what I am thinking about when I get back to my student room. It is cold in there. The heating is on a tiny bit to make sure it doesn’t get too damp and mouldy, but the building is so poorly insulated that it does not make a difference. Last year, I was living on the fourteenth floor of a flat with a ton of students from warmer climates whose heating habits were extreme enough that I almost always had a window open. It surprises me how much can change in a year. Energy sourcing and inflation were already problematic, but ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, I haven’t been able to escape it by just turning off the news and dissociating. I can feel the political climate. It’s cold.
What is sensible?
Even though my parents were always sensible, I wasn’t raised to be worried about being cold. People chopping wood to prepare for winter, or exasperatedly putting their last clump of coal into the stove? Those are the olden days. Now we have central heating and (Hallelujah) underfloor heating. Being cold exists to improve upon the experience of getting koek en zopie after ice skating, drinking mulled wine at the Christmas market, or drinking jägermeister at après-ski.
When we turn down the heating a couple of degrees and put on a sweater, it is because we are responsible people that care for the environment, not because we are worried about the bills or survival. From the time that is spent organising for my house to get double glass, to the time that I spend crocheting, to the time that I spend protesting for students to get energy compensation, worrying about my energy bills come spring has become a part of my identity. Just one year ago, I wouldn’t have thought I would spend so much time dealing with heating, that it would grow into one of my main concerns individually, as well as politically. I didn’t even consider the cold as a concern.
While I felt my parents were unreasonably strict as a kid, now I’m beginning to see their sensibility as a privilege.
On Saturday, I sit wrapped in my cosy blanket, looking at some wet snow falling outside through the window. There is a hole in the rotten wood of the window sill that I covered up with a bright pink towel. It makes the window foggy. I think back to how poorly insulated houses used to be, to how my parents must have lived as students. How my grandparents got through winter, and their ancestors before that. Even though I feel my struggles are cheesecake compared to theirs, I was never raised to be resilient. The sensibility never made sense to me. Why deprive yourself of joy just for the sake of it? I couldn’t see the sake of it.
Sometimes I wonder if I would have survived before penicillin. I was always sensitive and frail as a kid. But as mentioned before, I was also headstrong and unrelenting. I have never needed to be resilient. Somehow, I have still needed to prove to myself that I am. To make sure I am part of the ebb and flow of history.
What is resilience?
Resilience is a word that I first encountered in a course about the history of climate change. It was about how people have dealt with disaster and resource depletion, and what we can learn from their victories and mistakes (spoiler: we need to take climate change seriously and address it as the crisis it is). Do we best approach the matter from the top down or the bottom up? That is hard to say. Maybe any angle is better than what we’re doing now. Maybe that is a cop-out. Resilience is not about being as steady and unwavering as a rock though. It is about being flexible as well, being able to bounce back or adapting to the new flow. I like this attitude. It reminds me of Taoism.
I’m still staring at the wet snow, now imagining the Norse who tried to colonise Greenland. We read about this during the course. Known as the Norse failure, it was theorised the Europeans were too conservative in their Christian ways, and failed to adapt to the local climate, which was already harsh, but grew increasingly harsher over time. The colonisers were reckless with resources, overhunted the wildlife, and damaged the environment. Meanwhile, the inuit are not only able to survive in Greenland, but to live sustainably in harmony with nature. Had the Norse been kinder towards the indigenous Inuit, they might have been able to learn a thing or two from them, instead of (presumably) starving to death. Being on top of the food chain does not guarantee survival if you don’t respect that food chain.
The Inuit know what’s up. They have probably never thought of the cold as a problem as well. Doesn’t it seem silly how the whole railway system seems to break down whenever there is a bit of ice? I kind of wish I had a husky sleigh to take me to my classes. And, I have to say, a traditional caribou parka is quite the fashion statement. Thinking about the Inuit makes me feel silly for complaining about my own circumstances. Though standing up to injustice might very well be an important part of resilience.
Rafael Wittek, professor of sociology at the RUG, writes about the absence of resilience from sociological research (2022). As resilience is about perseverance in the face of adversity, it leaves room for victim blaming. Anyone who isn’t able to persevere simply would lack the willpower. This neoliberal reasoning is something sociologists typically avoid like the plague. In reality, there are a lot of factors that likely impact resilience, such as social networks (positively) and inequality (negatively). But we can’t say for certain, since there hasn’t been enough research.
Imagine that. My ability to be resilient has nothing to do with my innate connection to the Inuit, but is yet another privilege I gained from my parents’ brilliant upbringing. I mean, they were pretty successful, if I do say so myself. Yet it feels a bit underwhelming attributing my entire identity to my parents instead of recognizing the achievements of my own merit. Why have my thoughts about the cold once again led me to an existential crisis? I shiver at the thought that I might be a narcissist.
Then, after I have tucked myself in bed for the night, a warm light shines in my eyes. It is Hegel, who has come to me in my dreams. His face is framed by his signature sideburns, and he is wearing his signature fur. I ask him “Hegel, how do I define myself?”, and Hegel answers with an eye-roll. “You define yourself through the Other,” he says with a German accent strangely reminiscent of my granddad. “And how do I stay warm in this climate?” I ask without churning on the first answer. Hegel sighs again. “You keep warm by not being cold.” I want to have Kaffee und Küchen with Hegel, but of course the dream doesn’t last. I try to hang on to the memory, but it slips away in my morning brew. I realise this coffee is what makes me resilient. If being sensible is being practical for the sake of it, then being resilient is finding joy, even where there is none. I look at the moisture on my window, then the moisture in my cup. My oversized Norse sweater, and my tiny fingerless gloves.
And all, all of a sudden, I’m quite content with this cold.
SIB-Groningen.nl makes use of functional and analytical cookies. If you continue to use our site, we’ll assume that you’re okay with this.