When the nation of Norway held a remembrance ceremony on August 21 to honour the victims of the horrendous attacks that occurred in July, the ceremony was intended to mark the end of a period of national mourning and to offer ways to move forward.
In his speech that day, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg gave his nation three “assignments:”
1) to help those who have only begun the path of grief;
2) to be alert for all signs of extremism, and to meet with those who have gone astray
3) to create safety through preparedness and with police that are visible, in control, trained and who have the proper equipment.
As an American living in Norway, I found his second “assignment” difficult to swallow. His words contained a compelling insistence on the idea of togetherness, emphasised by the repetition of the Norwegian word skal (“shall”):
“… we shall meet hate with discussion. We shall invite those who have lost their way into our homes. We will fight those who resort to violence with all the weapons of democracy, we shall meet with them, we shall meet with them everywhere.”
Unlike President Bush’s famous ‘Smoke ‘em out’ speech after 9/11, in which he depicted justice as an Old West ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ poster, Stoltenberg expected Norwegians to be on alert for extremists, but then to meet with them, to welcome them into their homes for a chat over coffee.
An incident prior to Stoltenberg’s speech suggested that Norwegians were already more conditioned to accept this assignment than I was. In late July news surfaced about a graduate student at the University of Bergen who advocated hatred and violence on his blog. I jumped to action, looking for ways to punish this student for the filth he had written, which included the expression of a desire to kill both police and feminists. Though not illegal, his words were certainly morally reprehensible and repugnant.
I contacted the police, wrote letters to the university, and spoke with members of the university’s steering committee. I hoped to have him kicked out of the university, or at the very least kept on a tight leash.
My views, however, were contrary to the wishes of every Norwegian I spoke with. Any outrage I expressed was met with sympathy and a desire to call the student into a meeting in which we would speak with him calmly and openly, sharing our views and listening to his.
“You’re kidding, right?” I asked one woman incredulously. “Sit down for coffee with a guy who, on 27 July, wrote that he thought he would be Norway’s first terrorist? With a guy who puts killing a cop on his ‘bucket list’?”
Well, yes. That is exactly what she meant.
My lessons on the Norwegian perspective of society did not end there. A few weeks ago I stood at the counter chopping vegetables for our dinner, while my daughter sat colouring at the kitchen table. I heard her say something about her pre-school that seemed not quite right.
“What did you say?”
“I wanted to play by myself today but the teachers said we’re not allowed.”
“No, sweetie,” I reassured her. “You can be alone. Of course you can be alone if you want to.”
“No. The teachers said so. It’s not allowed.”
“Well, I’ll ask the teachers about it tomorrow, ok?”
I was eager to make our way to preschool the next day and when one of my daughter’s teachers came out to greet us, I was ready with my question.
“Isabel said the kids aren’t allowed to play by themselves—?”
“Preschool is the place where we are together, and home is the place where we can be by ourselves.”
I was indignant and pushed the question further.
“What if they need some time alone? It’s not okay to have a few minutes to yourself?”
“It’s important to learn how to be together.”
Her voice was gentle and instructive, the same tone I was sure she used with the children when explaining the same thing, but I still couldn’t believe what I was hearing, especially as I have always championed “alone time” as equally good for parents and children.
When my son returned from school I asked him about this.
In his new pre-teen tone of “duh, Mom” to everything I say, he responded, “Ma-om. What did you think ‘Ingen Utenfor’ meant?”
Ingen Utenfor is the very successful anti-bullying campaign run by Save the Children in Norway. In English it means “No one outside.”
“Yah, but that’s for kids who don’t want to be left out. If you say you want to be alone, that’s different.”
“No it isn’t, Mom. No one is allowed to be alone. That’s how it’s always been, Mom. Since first grade.”
“But what if you want to be alone?”
“Yah, it’s kind of annoying. But that’s how it is.”
This conversation astounded me, but recently, when listening to an interview with the Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store on PBS’s News Hour, something started to sink in.
Reporter Judy Woodruff began by inquiring about Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s statement that, ‘It’s important to affirm that we respect one another’s beliefs. Against that backdrop, diversity must be allowed to blossom and to colour the picture of the Norwegian ‘we.’”
Foreign Minister Store explained, “The notion of ‘we’ is very important. I think, for any family, any community to be able to say ‘we’ in this family, it means something. It’s dangerous to society when somebody places himself or herself on the outside of ‘we.’ ‘I’m not included. I don’t have responsibilities.’ . . . And we all should be part of that ‘we,’ you know, which needs to be larger and more inclusive now with a more diverse society than the one I grew up in . . .”.
I think of the divisiveness in the US these days, the “with us or against us” mindset that prevails in so many of the debates, the seemingly divine-given ‘right’ to individual freedoms that absolves everyone of real responsibility, and I think: No, we don’t need to learn to spend time alone. What we need is to learn to spend time together.