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Lagom är Kingdom

April 25, 2006

Helped along by the prescient Craig Bob, some hardheaded church telemarketer, and the brilliant Rhymer, I’ve been thinking a bit about immigration. About the Bible, naturally, and theology. But mostly about scarcity versus abundance. Do we have enough to share with them?

And inspiration and alchemy came in the form of watching my man Tony eat and drink his way through Sweden. Everywhere he went, he came across this word– a word without clear linguistic parallel or capable translation.

So of course I went to Wikipedia, source of all things true and misleading. There, I learned about “Lagom”.

The Lexin Swedish-English dictionary defines lagom as “enough, sufficient, adequate, just right.” Lagom is also widely translated as “in moderation,” “in balance,” “optimal,” “reasonable,” and “average.” But whereas words like “sufficient” and “average” suggest some degree of abstinence, scarcity, or failure, lagom decidedly carries the connotation of perfection or appropriateness. The archetypical Swedish proverb “Lagom är bäst,” literally “Lagom is best,” is translated as “Enough is as good as a feast” in the Lexin dictionary…

…According to common folklore, “lagom” is a contraction of “laget om” (“around the team”), a phrase used in Viking times to specify how much mead one should drink from the horn as it was passed around in order for everyone to receive a fair share. This story is recounted widely, including on the website of the Swedish Institute. Both the Swedish Language Council and the Swedish Academy, however, cite the true etymology of lagom as being from the word “lag” (“law”), in this case referring not necessarily to judicial law but common sense law, with the archaic dative plural ending “-om.”…

…The value of “just enough” can be contrasted to the value of “more is better.” It is viewed favorably as a sustainable alternative to the hoarding extremes of consumerism: “Why do I need more than two? Det är [It is] lagom” (Atkisson, 2000). It can also be viewed as repressive: “You’re not supposed to be too good, or too rich” (Gustavsson, 1995). Lagom has been fingered as a challenge to economic growth and the reason for Sweden’s apparent lack of outward patriotism.

Only any self-respecting American knows that ‘average’ is a very dirty word, that a lack of economic growth = disaster, and that you can’t be ‘too rich’. In the wise words of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, “I gots to do for me and mine”… and sell my neighbor up the river. Second place = first loser, and patriotism is the same as Godliness.

But what if we already have ‘just enough’? Is it possible to have no more than you need, and no less? To be content with what we have (dayenu, anyone?), and to share the rest?

So I’m thinking about my great, great grandfather, who left Sweden to sail to Charleston, SC and a new country before anyone cared to guard the borders or even take careful count of just who was getting in. One hundred years later, the question seems to come to me, ‘Is Lagom är bäst?’. Or is that what he was leaving behind?

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6 Responses to “Lagom är Kingdom”

  1. kate says:

    I love your post, and your questions. However, my comment involves picking a nit.
    “The reason for Sweden’s apparent lack of outward patriotism.” I take that to mean, they seem less patriotic than others… I beg to differ. I have befriended two actual Swedes — meaning, they were from Sweden and lived abroad temporarily, where I met and knew them — and they were PLENTY proud of who they were, and where they came from.
    Also, what would this idea of “enough” have to do with patriotism? Maybe, if we are content, we don’t need to shout about it? (If so, I applaud that notion.)
    Or did I misinterpret that bit?

  2. Craig Bob says:

    This is good stuff Mike. I’ll have to expand my knowledge of Swedish culture – heck, I already drive a Saab. I’m dreaming of merging capitalism and lagom … lagomitalism? Conventional wisdom says that we (capitalists) are productive and innovative because we get rewarded for those efforts. But could a capitalist follower of Jesus continue be as productive and innovative with the goal of sharing resources beyond the lagom level?

  3. Liz says:

    I have to agree with Kate. One of my clients was a Swedish Medical Device Manufactrer and they were damned proud of Sweden. When I went over there for business, they made me stay several days longer because they wanted to take me on tours of the country. They were proud of their work, of their products, of their way of life, of their contry. It wasn’t loud or overt — like the “Don’t mess with Texas.” stuff you hear in the states. But they made sure that I knew about and appreciated everything Swedish from ABBA to IKEA to local foods to government policy.

  4. Maggie says:

    I was having a conversation with Schuyler and his dad about taxes and about how you can deduct money given to charities up to 50% of your income and I was wondering if there are many people who reach that limit and the FIL told me about friends of his that decided how much they need to live on and just give away anything more than that including any raises and such. I just thought that fit in.

  5. Mojo says:

    I’ve read simple living authors who do a similar thing to what Maggie describes. It’s admirable but I honestly don’t know how they do it. Of course, I have a constant sense of impending doom, so it’s hard for me to imagine anyone not wanting to pad the nest as much as possible “just in case.”

    And, yeah, I’m not sure what “outward patriotism” means, but the Swedes definitely have a lot of pride in being Swedes (as do the Danes).

  6. Mojo says:

    Whoopsie…I do like the “lagom” idea, though, and can see how it has a strong effect on their social dynamics. My friend who moved there in 2001 says there is definitely social pressure for Swedes not to push too hard for achievement. Of course, being average in Sweden isn’t exactly a condition of living in stupid misery.

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