I was born and raised and formally educated in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, but I left for love at age 34. Extracting myself from everything I’d ever known was by far the most difficult decision I’d ever had to make, but I can now say I’ve resided in all four corners of the country over a 17-year period of time. Through it all, West Virginia was always where my heart called home.
Two years ago, I returned to Jefferson County with residual energies picked up elsewhere still vibrating in me. Recently, I was inspired to share a headline pointing to one of those places, Vermont Governor Signs Gun Control Bills Into Law. As the article read, “Vermont Governor Phil Scott (R) signed a set of new gun restrictions into law, fulfilling what he’s called his ‘moral and legal obligation and responsibility to provide for the safety of our citizens.'”
Recognizing that this piece is not an attack on anyone’s Second Amendment rights, please consider the familiar story of “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” the one where each of the blind men feel a different part of the elephant and subsequently make a claim as to knowing what an elephant is all about. I believe the intended takeaway is that our limited experience and perception limit our total understanding.
Well, I’ve now experienced at least a few different parts of that elephant we call “living in the United States,” most recently eight years getting the feel of Vermont. And it brings me much sadness to say that since I’ve been back home in the Mountain State, I’ve ironically felt more vulnerable than what I did in the Green Mountain State. The only reason I have for this is that Vermont’s policies in general seem to be more oriented toward the common good than I’ve experienced elsewhere. Consequently, while there, it was easier to feel like someone “had my back” in a more all-inclusive way, different from what we get when we just rely on family and friends who all too frequently have the same limited experience of the elephant as we do.
There are huge ramifications to how well supported one feels in this terribly complicated society we’ve created. Sometimes, when it feels like it’s simply too much, there’s a more primeval part of me that just wants to return to some unadulterated natural place where instinct alone can get me through the day. I can imagine that for others, the choice is, all too often, to just numb out.
But we can’t afford to not have all hands on deck. Though it might sound counter intuitive, the way I see it, the more technologically “advanced” we get, the more we need each other and smart public policy to help minimize the damage from unintended consequences. As Vermont’s republican governor Phil Scott knows, we should not have to be worrying about something as basic as the safety of our kids at school.
Vermont is indeed part of a region historically known for its pursuit of the greater good, and honestly, who wouldn’t want that? Anu Partanen, author of The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, recognizes Vermont on her Facebook page, having written during her 2017 book tour, “During my visit to Burlington and Montpelier this past weekend, I was energized and impressed by all the citizens’ groups, legislators, political candidates, and individuals hard at work there to expand paid parental leaves, raise the minimum wage, reform school funding, and institute universal health care, to name but a few of their goals.”
Coincidentally, Partanen left her homeland in Finland to move to the U.S.—for love—and while she praises many aspects of life in the States, she has recognized, too, how her anxiety level increased as her sense of a social safety net decreased. She recognizes the irony in how people around the world look to the U.S. as the champion of freedom, independence, and opportunity, when to her, it seems anything but. In The Nordic Theory of Everything, she writes, “Those key benefits of modernity seemed, from my outsider’s perspective, in a thousand small ways to be surprisingly missing from American life today. Amid the anxiety and stress of people’s daily lives, those grand ideals were looking more theoretical than actual.”
Throughout most of her book, she contrasts experiences in the U.S. with those back home while debunking myths about what has been called the Nordic “nanny state.” While Finnish taxes do indeed pay for a “smoothly functioning” and comprehensive universal health care system, paid parental leave, affordable “high-quality” day care, “one of the world’s best” K-12 education systems, and free college and graduate school, it’s not for people trying to game a system—it’s not necessary—it’s for everyone. Not surprisingly, those same policies leave room for entrepreneurial risk-taking.
But for those who still can’t get beyond thinking negatively about some “welfare state,” Partanen offers an alternative: Finnish policies support a “well-being state” founded on what she refers to as “the Nordic Theory of Love.” It all begins on the first day a child is born, when each newborn’s family, no matter how wealthy or poor, receives a “baby box” full of necessities. From that point on, the child is embraced and supported by society in ways Americans can currently only dream about.
“No one should be penalized in advance by the unlucky accident of having parents who might, for whatever reason, have less than robust finances,” she writes. The proof being in the pudding, in 2013, UNICEF ranked the Nordic countries best throughout the world’s richest countries in children’s well-being (the U.S. came in near the bottom). In 2015, Save the Children deemed Nordic nations the world’s best countries for mothers (the U.S. came in 33rd). As Partanen explains, “… freeing people from the shackles of financial and other sorts of dependency on one another enables them to be more caring toward each other.”
Offering a more utilitarian point of view, she writes, “Nordic nations have realized that it is in the best long-term interests of everyone, including businesses, to support families in raising children. After all, in the long run, happy family members are more productive, and businesses will have a wider pool of healthy, productive, well-adjusted workers to draw on in the future … better-educated employees to help them compete internationally, and to foster innovation.”
When the Nordic countries are ranked as not only the best in child well-being, but also as happiest and the least corrupt, it seems to me we could stand to learn a few lessons from them. Decide for yourself by reading Partanen’s book or by watching a panel discussion with her on YouTube—”Gross National Happiness: The Nordic Search for a Better Life.” You might just be encouraged to take a next step, like entering a broader civilized discussion of John Conyers’ House Resolution 676, the Expanded and Improved Medicare For All Act. At that point, we could possibly be well on our way to developing our own American Theory of Love.