I heard recently that Sweden has begun to offer tax breaks to citizens who opt to repair broken belongings rather than trashing them and buying new. The credit — which applies to everything from bicycles to large appliances — provides a financial incentive to do the right thing, which, when dealing with humans, is always wise. The approach will not only cut costs for citizens, but create jobs for skilled manual laborers and curb greenhouse emissions associated with manufacturing.
In our throwaway culture, the Swedes are committing a kind of heresy that makes me do my happy dance. I’m the sort of person who will risk electrocution to rewire my handsome old toaster, whose rounded chrome contours remind me of a 1950s Chevy. I am tender toward time-worn but serviceable things, being one myself, and similarly softhearted toward the earth and its non-human residents, who we are driving to extinction with our endless appetites. How amazing, in an age of heedless consumption, that any country would leverage its laws to encourage citizens to better care for what they have, instead of abandoning it for something new.
And how remarkable it would be if we all could learn to apply the same ethic to our relationships with each other.
I have heard variations of “move on” more times than I care to remember, and its coldness always chills me. People typically use the phrase to describe emotional divestiture, usually from an intimate partner, but sometimes from a friend or family member. When things are not going as we’d like — when the other person no longer meets our needs as we want them met, or has become in some other way unsatisfying — moving on ends a tarnished tie and allows us to redirect our energy toward shiny new connections. Replace; don’t repair.
It’s a wheel that keeps turning, relationships ever beginning and ending. For toaster people, the inveterate fixers of the world, it feels like a Catherine wheel: We experience moving on — the quitting of another, or, of ourselves by another — as a kind of violence.
For others, it seems to be more of a Ferris wheel: They enjoy the relationship ride with a succession of people, getting off and on, off and on, seemingly no more troubled by endings than by beginnings.
This carnival approach can masquerade as enlightenment; the expediency of moving on can look like the spirituality of letting go. But my gut tells me otherwise. In more than a half-century, I’ve known exactly one person I considered to be enlightened, and she was nothing like the Ferris wheel folks. But she wasn’t a member of the toaster tribe, either. I can say only that she knew the difference between love and what often stands in for love. And she knew the difference between moving on and letting go.
The best relationships — those that are both close and enduring — require our finest attention, to ourselves and to each other. They can be as difficult as they are joyous, as depleting as they are enriching. They evoke our deepest hopes and greatest fears; they require us to grow. “So much of love,” says the writer Ann Patchett, “is the work of it.”
Sometimes, we’re not up to that work; our courage fails, or our wisdom Our best efforts fall short. Yet where there is truly a will, there is usually a way. It’s just easier to move on, to reject the rigors of repair, which include confronting what is broken within us, as well as what is broken in our connections with others.
I once abandoned a friend in the middle of a mental-health crisis, an episode of mania that is part of the bipolar pendulum. I was feeling vulnerable at the time, and the radical swings in her thinking and emotional expression scared me. I felt as if the person I thought I knew one day had become someone else the next.
But there were ways to stay, had I mustered the courage and patience to do so. I might have been an anchor for her, a port in the storm; instead, I became one of the many who disappeared. In that act, I breached a fundamental promise of relationship: constancy. That we will be there. That we are not expendable to each other.
I struggled inwardly with that betrayal for a year; then I wrote my friend an apology. I made none of the excuses I’ve made here. I told her I was sorry, that I knew I hurt her deeply, that I could have done better and wished I had. I didn’t ask for another chance — I wasn’t angling for redemption, or wanting anything from her — but I was grateful when she opened again to the possibility of friendship.
She may never trust me as she once did, but she could, safely. Our relationship, like a handful of others I cherish, is now bound by what I think of as the Sweden Principle, which stands on its bloated head the throwaway ethic of our time, which we apply not only to material goods, but too often to each other.
Repair rather than replace, the principle says. Mend, rather than discard. Stay put, rather than moving on.