[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 25.]
What would happen if an entire country took independence and individualism to their logical and extreme ends? We don’t have to wonder. We have Sweden. For the last 40+ years, Sweden has been engaged in a social experiment which now has borne its desiccated fruit. The Swedish Theory of Love is the documentary telling that story. (You can find it online here. If you don’t want to subscribe, you can simply share the movie—I shared it to be visible only to me on Facebook—and you can watch it for free.)
It is the story of the inversion of Genesis 2:18: “It is good for a man or a woman to be alone; too much human dependence is evil.” I found myself both repelled and interested, because my default is alone and quiet. And yet the effects of this as a national ideal are clearly destructive: the end of husbands and wives; the end of the home with two parents as the natural location of a child; the beginning of loneliness as the more-than-likely outcome of a life.
This is the end of an “old-fashioned, outdated family structure…that made us deeply dependent on one another.” In order to call this progress, complete independence with complete control and choice must be the goal. But that begs the question: is that a good or worthy goal to be pursued? Does such “progress,” in fact, work against what is hard-wired into the human creature, whether one believes that to be the result of a Creator or the result of evolutionary adaptation? Can natural law be so easily contravened?
I think of natural law simply in terms of what is built in to this creation and all creatures by the Creator. And those laws are no more changeable than the law of gravity. In other words, someone might be able to work against such laws in the short term but, sooner or later, the full weight of that law will collapse on its transgressors. You can look at the short-term effects of “no-fault” divorce, and perhaps there will be no apparent negative consequences. But are people in general better off in a society where divorce is common and accepted? Are the divorced people better off? Are their children?
Likewise, if one attempts to live in contradiction to the word of the Creator in Genesis 2:18, how long will it take until the hammer falls? The film illustrates one societal contrast by interviewing a Swedish surgeon who moved to Ethiopia with his wife to serve as a doctor in a small community. He talks about how different living in Africa is from living in Sweden: people are always around, at every moment, even after death. “People are never alone. Never,” he says. This contrast is drawn even more starkly in light of the fact that Sweden has an entire governmental department dedicated to investigating whether there are any family connections when people die alone. One in four Swedes, according to the documentary, die alone. Many of those are not discovered to be dead for months or even years!
I wonder, then, if this “Swedish theory of love,” that independence is the platform from which Swedes choose their own relationships and the extent of them, is designed primarily for young, healthy professionals. It does not seem to be good for either the very young or the very old. And yet, the documentary shows small groups of young people who leave the cities for the forests, attempting to connect physically and communally with others. They have been deprived of meaningful social interaction, but they feel keenly their lack and try to remedy it in (to me) strange ways.
What’s not strange is the innate human desire for connection with other humans, however limited. So we see that many Swedes try to remedy their lack of socialization by participating in searches for missing people. If that’s not a metaphor for their own search for missing community, I don’t know what is. Mary Eberstadt, in her essay “The Prophetic Power of Humanae Vitae” ([First Things (April 2018), 33-39] which alerted me to The Swedish Theory of Love) makes the convincing claim that “what unites these tragic portraits” in Sweden, as well as in Japan, France, and Germany, “is the sexual revolution, which by the 1970s was operating at full throttle in Western nations, driving up divorce rates, driving down marriage rates, and emptying cradles. It does not take a demographer to connect the dots; the evidence of our senses will do.”
But natural law alone is not enough. Despite the evidence of our senses, we do not seem to have the fortitude necessary to resist our own desires, even when it becomes clear that those desires will destroy us. We are good at self-justification, denial, and pretense.
The Swedish Theory of Love is an evocative portrait of what happens when we deny what is built into human beings: that individuals are made to be connected—made to be interdependent—within families, within communities, within nations.