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My own personal lagom

in Columns/Opinions/Swat Global by

In Sweden there is an idea called “lagom” (law-gum). Directly translated, using the incredibly accurate Google Translate, “lagom” means “moderate.”

I was intrigued by this concept of moderation, so I decided to do a little more research about the history of the word. The word comes from the Viking period between the 8th and 11th centuries. The Vikings had the word “laget om” directly translated to “around the team.” The concept was most common when a group of Vikings were sharing a horn of honey wine.  They would say “laget om” to indicate that everyone should get their fair share: not too much, not too little.  

When you talk to Swedish people, they all describe it a little differently. Some people talk about the idea of moderation, saying how it is important that everything — work, consumption, drinking, etc — be done in moderation. Other people say it is about doing things “just right” or the “appropriate” amount. In a nutshell, lagom seems to be about finding a balance in life.

After learning about this concept, I began to see it in different parts of Swedish culture. I see it in their work schedules, where they are less likely to work more than 40 hours a week. I see it in their portion sizes, which like most places in the world are much smaller than those in the U.S. I see it in their welfare state, where everyone has the right to health care, education, housing and more. Lagom is everywhere in Swedish society.

In the past few years the idea of lagom has caught on globally. In January 2017 Vogue published an article called “Forget Hygge: 2017 Will Be All About Lagom,” which talked about how lagom and moderation will take over as a hip marketing and lifestyle trend, replacing the Danish hygge, which is all about coziness. They cited marketing campaigns by Ikea and the popularity of 1.5 percent milk, the Goldilocks of all milks.

In another article called “Make a Nordic New Year’s Resolution: Bring the Swedish Art of Lagom Into Your Life,” Vogue recommended doing things such as “simplify your wardrobe” and “leave your desk for lunch.” I don’t doubt that doing some of the things Vogue recommends can help improve many people’s lives outside of Sweden, but I see lagom as something bigger.

More than anything, Lagom is a mindset in Sweden. It represents an inherently different set of values than many people have in the U.S. Lagom is not something that the Swedes practice on their own — it is something they practice as a society. Sweden’s government values equality and the environment, which trickles down to affect the values of its citizens. I believe that these national values help propel lagom lifestyles among Swedes. Although it is possible to have lagom on a more personal level, lagom is so successful in Sweden because it is done on a societal level. When adopting lagom on a personal level, one has to be aware of the societal pressures around them.

It is very difficult to live a life of balance when you are in a society that is so unbalanced. The reason many Swedes have been able to continue to abide by the values of lagom, however they may define them, is because they live in a society that values equality and moderation. Reading about the concept of lagom and observing the actions of the Swedes has shown me the importance of societal values.  

Take Swarthmore for example. The idea of lagom could easily be applied to say that students at Swarthmore should have more balance in their lives. Students at Swarthmore would be better off if they could find a balance between academic, extra-curricular, and social activities. But this is hard to do in an environment that puts so much emphasis on one thing: academics. The values of Swarthmore seem to be in conflict with one another; many people say they care about their overall well-being, but their actions often do not match their intentions.

Swatties could probably learn a lot from lagom. We often complain about how unbalanced our lives are and how much time we spend on work. But in order to truly adopt the idea of lagom, Swatties would have to do more than just spend less time doing work. The campus would have to change its values, maybe even change what we see as success or achievement. This is no easy task. As I said earlier it is hard for one individual to embody values different from those around them. But I think it is possible, especially in a place like Swarthmore. Swarthmore is a small community, and if students start to put more effort into achievement in parts of their lives other than academics, it might just spread. If we start to value things not only because they look good on a résumé but because they help lead to more fulfilled lives then maybe swatties would be able to find more balance in their lives.

I want to believe that it is possible to have values that are different from the community in which I live. But in observing another culture I have seen how much easier it is to hold those values similar to those around you. I would love to move back to the U.S. and continue adopting some of the lagom values I have seen in Sweden, but I know that is not always going to be possible. It is hard to value personal well-being on a campus that is so focused on academic achievement or to value equality in a society that values personal wealth above all. I started to get frustrated that I wouldn’t be able to live my life according to Swedish lagom, but then I reminded myself that there is no one Swedish lagom. I didn’t have to live my life exactly like the perfect Swede I read about in a Vogue article. I had to take a step back and think about what balance would look like in my life and how I could achieve it. I could try to find a balance between things that make me comfortable and things that push me to my limits. I could focus on the little things that make me happy instead of the things society tells me I need to live a fulfilled life.  Lagom is truly a personal concept and will not look the same for any one person, but everyone could benefit from taking a few minutes to think about what balance means to them.

Being okay

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

The other night my friend was consoling me after a stressful, frustrating week. Like tango and conspiring, it takes at least two people for consolation to come about. After my friend listened to my troubles and expressed sympathy, I noted that despite my recent troubles, I have many good things in my life. My friend asked me to do something I would never have done unless they had suggested it: to list the good things in my life. I did, and it made me feel substantially better.

Something I have been thinking a lot about lately is how to be okay. What do I mean by this? Well, instead of trying to be happy, or successful, or organized, or cool, or funny, I think maybe it might be more healthful for myself to accept the mundane safety that makes up most people’s lives most of the time. Even soldiers during war usually spend most of their time marching, cleaning their rifles, shining their boots, waiting and waiting and waiting for battle to come their way. I am not denying the terrible suffering and despicable evil that exist in the world or dismissing the existential challenges of human life that permeate the air and kill us all at the rate of 60 minutes per hour. What I am simply pointing out is that the necessities of life are only absent when people have nothing to eat, nowhere to rest their head, or the rapidly decaying bodies of the terminally ill. Failing those things, we live and sustain ourselves. That might not seem like much, but it’s the most anyone can lose.

Something I worry about a lot is failure: failing to get a summer internship, failing to impress my teachers and friends, failing to satisfy my own expectations. But I think that the problem is that I am worried about failure at all and that I worry about failing. I do not think the realistic possibility of disastrous is something I see as impending, although at any moment disaster can strike. I think this because I have noticed that my fear of failure is unrelated to whatever is actually happening in my life as it relates to the things I am worried about failing. I do not worry about disappointing a professor when I have not done the readings for a class. Instead it’s when I am stressed about something else in my life, or when I am comparing myself to others, or when I am simply feeling blue that I start worrying about all the things I could fail to achieve.

I worry about my pride being hurt, but I should really be worried about hurting my own pride. Pride is like the pockets of Jeff Bezos or the stomach of Takeru Kobayashi, the world’s most famous competitive eater, it never can be filled enough. Pride is a denial of the sufficiency of the necessities of life. If I say I need food, water, shelter, work to do, friends to play with, and a family to love, then I should only be worn down by the trials and tribulations of life, yet I let pride eat away at me. If there’s a failure I need to worry about, it’s that I’ll fail to prevent pride from spoiling the good things in my life. But if excessive pride is destructive, it is also true that we can help notice our own feelings, be concerned about our own lives and try to enjoy ourselves.

My therapist characterized the jubilation of the Philadelphia metropolitan area after the Eagles won the Super Bowl and became world champions as “a mass exercise in mindfulness.” I am not sure if I have heard a more insightful comment related to sports, even from Stephen A. Smith. What was so great about the Super Bowl is that it was fun to watch, that you were actually engaged with what was happening in front of you. The celebrations afterward and the parade were an extension of that. Obviously you cannot get as jazzed about every football game as die-hard Eagles fans were about the Super Bowl, but it is no exaggeration to say that most people’s lives are largely a succession of moments where you have what you need and where what you are doing at the moment is not hurting you any more than is bearable.

When my friend asked me what was good in my life, after thinking about it, the things that were listed were not things that make me or my life special. I was thankful for my health, my family and friends, and for things that really mean something to me, like history and stand-up comedy and the beautiful trees of Pennsylvania. I think that upon even the slightest reflection most people would honestly say that the things that make their life worth living are things they have had for most, if not all their lives. In fact this has to be the case, because most people throughout history choose to go on living for years and decades, in spite of misfortune and persecution. It takes a lot to strike someone down, whether a bullet or a disease or despair does it. And there’s nothing that can be thrown at anyone in which there are not numerous examples of people surviving. And surviving is just another way of choosing to go on living. I have thought of one additional thing I am thankful for in my life: that everyone I have ever known has had the courage to persevere through life’s greatest challenges.

Meditation and Mindfulness or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Everything

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

Many students can probably relate to Gloria Shepard’s feelings after her first few years teaching elementary school, regardless of whether or not they’ve ever worked with third and fourth graders. She taught for years, with stress piling up, until she discovered the benefits of being mindful.

“I felt like I was constantly busy and overwhelmed and just wasn’t enjoying anything,” said Shepard. “It didn’t seem like a good way to live. I tried mindfulness in the hope that it would change those feelings.”

Shepard now teaches the new Mindfulness series which meets on Wednesdays in McCabe. Her goal is to help others get past the noise caused by too many sensations and distractions, live in the moment, and be aware of what is really happening around us.

“Probably the truest way to think of it is that each student will learn what they’re ready for, interested in and need,” she said.

Shepard sees mindfulness as a spiritual practice only “in the sense that it is about living wide awake as a whole being.” She is interested in and influenced by the teachings of Buddhist monks, specifically Thich Nhat Hanh, an influential Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was heavily involved in the peace movement.

The series is part of a wider movement on campus to increase wellness through meditation. Student-led yoga practices and a meditation club are making themselves increasingly visible to students this semester. This past Monday, Gen Kelsang Tenzin, the resident teacher of Amitayus Kadampa Buddhist Center in Philadelphia, led the first of a series of weekly classes on Buddhist meditation in Whittier Hall.

Gen Kelsang Tenzin is of the Kadampa tradition of Buddhism and is the current Resident Teacher of the Amitayus Kadampa Buddhist Center in Philadelphia. He has been a Buddhist monk for fifteen years, and has been a disciple of Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso for eighteen years. Tenzin believes that from teaching others he has learned that we are all the same underneath our external appearances: we all want to stop suffering and be happy, to be free from fear and confident about future happiness.

The audience at Whittier on Monday was varied: there was a young man who worked at King of Prussia with his mother, two men who resembled bikers, and a handful of students.

The session began with guided meditation. Tenzin directed participants to let their bodies melt away. He told the class to breathe in and out, and pay attention to the coldness of the air during the inhale, and the warmness of it during the exhale.

“Happiness is being free from worry and negative self-image,” Tenzin told the class near the end of the session. “It is a calmness of the mind.” He spoke about his personal experiences: his undergraduate days at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he studied pre-law thinking that becoming a lawyer and making a lot of money would make him happy. In his senior year, he began experimenting with meditation, and was eventually drawn to Buddhist meditation because of its tenet of compassion.

There’s an element of compassion to Sheperd’s story as well. After immersing herself in mindfulness, she started noticing how others respond to stress. She then implemented a daily mindfulness training with her elementary class — a sort of meditation. After some years and research, Shepard felt like she could do more good outside of the classroom, where she could teach others about the benefits of mindfulness.

“Stress arises when we hold a belief deep down that we are not good enough unless we achieve external success,” Tenzin said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Real success comes when we know how to like ourselves and accept others as they are.” He went on to say that to like ourselves and accept others we must be at peace, and that we forget our nature and focus too much on external and material success, which is fleeting.

When I was younger, I had a tendency to be too clean. I used to shower three times a day on average, I used to wash my hands after touching just about anything, and I was a total pain when we went on road trips. Dirtiness bothered me and made me uncomfortable. I’ve gotten much better, and I should clarify that I did visit a psychiatrist to make sure I didn’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder. It turns out I just took those hygiene PSAs a bit too seriously.

Unfortunately, that stress seeped into other areas of my life. I’m always worried about how I sound, how I should walk, where I should put my damn arms and how I should sit. I never know what to do with my arms, so I usually end up crossing them or putting them in weird positions. I’m not socially awkward but I suffer from certain social anxieties. I always worry that I’ll accidentally offend someone, especially here. I hate talking on the phone, and I’m always worried that I come off as a dick on e-mails.

Participating in Tenzin’s meditation on Monday, I actually felt calm and satisfied, if only temporarily. My body did not melt away, but I did feel separate from it (arguments against dualism aside). My normally tense muscles were calmed, and I became comfortable. He directed us to focus on our eyes, and let them relax.

In the end, I’m still mostly nervous. I’m still anxious most of the time. But, I may end up continuing the class. Tenzin claims that meditating is like learning to play an instrument. At first, meditation is hard because we are not used to clearing our minds and focusing, but over time we become better at calming and directing our thoughts. Also, he promised that if I “decide to dedicate my whole life to bringing all beings inner peace,” he would give me one of those sweet robes.

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