I recently attended a lecture given by my friend, Solvi Barber on the artist Edvard Munch, best known for his painting, The Scream. Solvi has produced a marvelous documentary film on Munch called The Dance of Life which she showed during the lecture. The audience was mesmerized by his story of loss and talent but what really stuck with me was the concept of Jante.
Jante was first explained in Aksel Nielsen’s A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, published in 1933. Jante was a code of social norms of Nordic people. Nielsen didn’t invent it. It was there before, he noticed it and wrote it down. Having grown up in LA around many different types of people but never Nordics, I had never heard of such a thing. The entire row in front of me filled with Norwegian immigrants, started laughing and shaking their heads. Oh my goodness, Jante. That was my whole life! They snickered and whispered, recounting some childhood stories.
Jante is this:
- You shall not believe that you are someone.
- You shall not believe that you are as good as we are.
- You shall not believe that you are any wiser than we are.
- You shall never indulge in the conceit of imagining that you are better than we are.
- You shall not believe that you know more than we do.
- You shall not believe that you are more important than we are.
- You shall not believe that you are going to amount to anything.
- You shall not laugh at us.
- You shall not believe that anyone cares about you.
- You shall not believe that you can teach us anything.
This Jante rule isolated Munch from the rest of society. He wasn’t to shine too brightly. He wasn’t to be too good. Jante became his nemesis and eventually added to his demise. It is ironic that he is now the most famous Norwegian.
The concept of Jante was foreign to me. Not only have I grown up in the United States, where individuality is significant but I grew up in Los Angeles where being ordinary was equivalent to death. Our social code was nearly the exact opposite. You must stand out. You must dazzle. You must be extraordinary.
But what if you aren’t?
As the years roll along, some of us realize that we just aren’t as dazzling or special as we thought we were going to be, myself included. Life gets in the way. There is always someone prettier, smarter, more successful, someone who shines brighter.
I found Jante comforting. What if we could just be? Nothing you do is going to change the world. I am not meaning to be glum, on the contrary, there is a grace in this, a happiness in being content in the reality that you aren’t going to be remembered by thousands or millions when you die. You are not expected to be exceptional, just to do your best. What a freedom! Instead of beating yourself up for not being amazing, you can rest in find comfort in find meaning and happiness in this moment in today.
As a Christian, I find Jante even more challenging. Humility has never been my strong suit, yet I am called to be humble as a Christian. The code which I say I live by calls me to put others above myself just as this code does. St Paul reminds us of this in Philippians saying:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others…
have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
So I am rethinking how I relate to people. I have a lot of work to do.