I just finished Frederick Backman’s book A Man Called Ove, the story of an old curmudgeon named Ove who unsuccessfully tries to kill himself. Ove is a stubborn Swede who’s life revolves around routine, work, and the belief that the type of car a person drives tells you all you need to know about their character. I’ve had a bit of experience with stubborn swedes in my life. Growing up I constantly heard relatives use the name Lief, which is Swedish, in some strange mixture of resignation and exasperation. As in, “There’s nothing you can do, he’s a Lief after all.” My grandpa Lief was a large stubborn man with a ornery streak who dropped out of school to work for the railroad. Tact was not in his nature—he called it like he saw it, and most of the time he saw it as bullshit. Politicians, preachers, restaurant cashiers who asked “How was you meal?”—it didn’t matter, grandpa would tell you exactly what he thought. He was never good at affection, in fact there were many times we pulled out of the driveway mumbling under our breath about something he said. Toward the end of this life I thought it would be a good idea to interview him, although technically he interviewed himself. He sat in his garage and recorded himself talking into the tape recorder about the past, complete with patriotic music intro. As he told stories about meeting grandma, buying an old bus that kept breaking down, and his time in World War II, I could hear something in his voice—a longing to experience it all again. That was his way of showing affection—telling stories. He was a gruff old guy who’d seen some shit, to use his language, and yet in the way he talked about the past you could tell there was heart beneath that stern exterior.
There are many Lief traits I’ve inherited from my dad’s side of the family. I’ve been known to be stubborn and cantankerous, and my language can get a bit colorful at times. But I’ve also inherited this unrelenting sense of looking out for the less fortunate, for those who get taken advantage of by those with more wealth, power, and status. It’s a character flaw, I guess, not being able to let bullshit pass for intelligence or so-called “leadership”. My grandpa tells the story of the time in the European theater of World War II when an officer or higher up of some sort was berating a solider, belittling him, maybe even abusing him. As my grandpa tells it, he let the officer have it—he decked him, laying him out cold. Apocryphal or not, the story has stuck with me. Maybe it explains why I can’t just “play ball” or let things slide. Or, maybe it explains why I value the friendships I have, because they are the type of people who get just as pissed at injustice, and they aren’t afraid to confront the tyranny of evil men. As my brother likes to say, “This aggression will not stand, man!”
The Christian community can learn a lot from Ove—maybe Backman’s book should be required bible study reading. There’s power in simplicity, loyalty, and standing up for the little people. There’s power in quietly advocating for those who can’t fend for themselves, and for insisting upon justice at a time when it’s increasingly expedient to let things slide. What if we all ignored the political bluster, the bombastic rhetoric, and the self-serving infomercials, and we just helped each other? No grand announcements, no partisan games, no complicated programs—just quietly helping people in need. Maybe the time has come for us to reconnect with our inner Swede. After all, who couldn’t use a good Sven and Ole joke and some Lefse now and then?