There’s an idiom in Swedish—kärt besvär—that I quite love. It sums up many of the important things we do in life. And as one ages, it seems more and more that everything becomes a kärt besvär.
The words break down to kärt (sounds like “shairt”), meaning “dear or cherished or beloved,” and besvär (sounds like “bessvair”), meaning “pain or sorrow,” but it can also mean a burden or something that is a nuisance.
Paying your monthly bills might be considered a kärt besvär: they are an annoying obligation, but you are grateful that you have the money to be able to pay and can feel good crossing them off your to-do list.
Or a more heartfelt example might be looking after a sick loved one. Taking care of a sick person can be a burden, but being well enough to nurse them back to health is its own blessing, something to be cherished and something the sick person will also be thankful for, even if they never tell you.
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I am now almost 90 years old. The older I get, everything I do seems to be its own sort of burden—almost anything can now be physically or mentally difficult. There seems to be no other choice than to see each and every burden, every nuisance, every pain, as something that is also dear, something that I must find a way to cherish.
Two things to which I apply my approach of kärt besvär are my memory and the daily routines I stick to, to keep me sane and relatively healthy. I’m sure it happens to all of us at some point: we think we are losing our memory or our minds. Sometimes it can be that we feel we have too much to take care of, too much to do. But we can do much more—and remember much more, unless we have a terrible illness—than we believe we can. Sometimes it just takes a bit of time and patience with oneself.
The older we get, the more often our memories can play tricks on us. But having a good memory is wonderful, so I still try to have one. Not because I want to know train timetables by heart, but because remembering people’s names is not only nice but also important. When I find myself searching to remember a name, it is a pain. When I suddenly remember it, it is a joy.
I know that even by the age of 40 it can become increasingly difficult to remember things. I remind myself of this often: Now that I am more than double the age of 40, why would it be so strange when I go to get something from the kitchen and, once there, I have forgotten what I was going to pick up? It’s a bit annoying, but if I retrace my steps to where I began my journey I will soon remember what it was I needed. It is a nuisance to walk all the way back, but boy am I grateful to remember. This is kärt besvär.
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A good friend once told me that you should never sit still for more than 20 minutes at a time. This doesn’t work if you like going to the cinema—unless you are going to a short-film festival.
I read somewhere that the chair is our most dangerous invention. I prefer to stand or to move around as much as my walker allows. I’ve even found a way to make doing daily exercise fun; at around 9:00 a.m. every day I follow along with a short and light gymnastics program on television. It is certainly kärt besvär: sometimes I can’t believe my old body can move at all, and it often aches. Yet I’m so grateful that I can at least—sort of—follow along.
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Too much free time on your hands? Strange, new sleep patterns where you wake long before sunrise wondering if you actually slept at all? These are other perils of aging and challenges that are a daily battle. The older one gets, the more one must find a way to make any routine a beloved routine, even if it is sometimes a pain.
My daily newspaper arrives every morning, then perhaps I reread books I’d forgotten I had on my bookshelves. Perhaps I imagine future hobbies I will take up. I use the phone a lot (my children can tell you . . .). I wash my clothes and my sheets and towels regularly. I keep my little apartment as tidy as possible; I am very happy my apartment is not bigger.
None of these activities are extraordinary, I know. You were expecting Swedish secrets, and yet the secrets of aging well and happily are in finding ways to make your routines dear to you. I may not have a choice in how long they will take me to do or whether I will even be alive a few weeks from now, but I do have the power to decide how to approach my daily activities. Most days—not all days, but most days—I’m able to see my daily routine, my daily life, as kärt besvär.
Copyright © 2022 by Margareta Magnusson. From the forthcoming book THE SWEDISH ART OF AGING EXUBERANTLY by Margareta Magnusson to be published by Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
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