Friday, January 09, 2009

The Law of Jante from Paulo Coelho’s Blog

- What do you think of Princess Martha-Louise?

The Norwegian journalist was interviewing me on the banks of Lake Geneva. As a rule I refuse to answer questions that are not relevant to my work, but in this case there was a reason for his curiosity: on the dress that she had worn on her 30th birthday, the Princess had asked them to embroider the names of some people who had been important in her life - and my name was among them (my wife found the idea so good that she decided to do the same when she turned 50, sewing in one corner of her dress the credit “inspired by the Princess of Norway”).

- I think she is a sensitive, delicate, intelligent person - I answered. - I had the opportunity to meet her in Oslo, when she introduced me to her husband, a writer like myself.

I paused a little, but felt the need to add:

- And there is something that I honestly fail to understand: why did the Norwegian press begin to criticize her husband’s literary work after he got married to the Princess? Before that, all his reviews were positive.

It was not exactly a question, more of a provocation, because I already imagined the answer: the reviews had changed because people feel envy, the most bitter of all human sentiments.

The journalist, however, was more sophisticated than that:

- Because he broke the Law of Jante.

Of course I had never heard of this, so he explained what it was. I continued on my journey and discovered it is hard to find anyone in any of the Scandinavian countries who does not know this law. Although the law exists since the beginning of civilization, it was only officially declared in 1933 by writer Aksel Sandemose in the novel “A refugee goes beyond limits.”

The sad truth is that the Law of Jante is not restricted to Scandinavia: this is a rule applied in every country in the world, despite the fact that Brazilians say that “this only happens here,” and the French claim that “unfortunately, that’s how it is in our country.” Now, the reader must be annoyed because he/she is already half way through the column and still does not know what the Law of Jante is all about, so I’ll try to explain it here briefly in my own words:

“You aren’t worth a thing, nobody is interested in what you think, mediocrity and anonymity are your best bet. If you act this way, you will never have any big problems in life.”

The Law of Jante focuses on the feeling of jealousy and envy that sometimes causes so much trouble to people like Ari Behn, the husband of Princess Martha-Louise. This is one of its negative aspects, but there is something far more dangerous.

And this law is accountable for the world being manipulated in all possible manners by people who have no fear of what the others say and end up practicing the evil they desire. We have just witnessed a useless war in Iraq, which is still costing many lives; we see a huge abyss between the rich and the poor countries of the world, social injustice on all sides, unbridled violence, people being forced to give up their dreams because of unfair and cowardly attacks. Before starting the second world war, Hitler sent out several signals as to his intentions, and what encouraged him to go ahead was the knowledge that nobody would dare to defy him because of the Law of Jante.

Mediocrity may be comfortable, up to the day that tragedy knocks at the door and people start to wonder: “but why did nobody say anything, if everybody could see that this was going to happen?”

Simple: nobody said anything because the others did not say anything either.

So in order to prevent things from growing any worse, maybe this is the right moment to write the anti-Law of Jante:

“You are worth far more than you think. Your work and presence on this Earth are important, even though you may not think so. Of course, thinking in this way, you might have many problems because you are breaking the Law of Jante - but don’t feel intimidated by them, go on living without fear and in the end you will win.”

~by Paulo Coelho