A Nation of “We”
On Sunday night Norway held a remembrance ceremony to honor the victims of the horrendous attacks that occurred in Norway one month ago. The ceremony also marked an end to the period of national mourning. In words that covered the pages of newspapers on Monday, King Harald began his speech by saying, “Nå er nesten alle ord brukt opp.” Now are nearly all words used up.
The phrase was delivered silently, reverently. The weight of the words carried both sorrow and relief. We are weary of living with this tragedy, and we have come to the end of what mere words can express.
To help people begin to move forward from a time of sorrow, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg gave the citizens of Norway three “assignments:”
1) to help those who have only begun the path of grief, a path that will continue when there is an empty chair for Sunday dinner, a birthday without a birthday child, and at Christmas.
2) to have all of our senses on alert for all signs of extremism, and to meet with those who have gone astray (“… 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.”)
3) to create safety through preparedness and with police that are visible, in control, trained and who have the proper equipment.
His second “assignment” is precisely the one I struggled with in my recent post, “Carry a big stick, or speak softly?” In it I expressed my frustration with the Norwegian mentality that says, “Be on alert for extremists” and then, when you find them, “Invite them into your home and have some cake and coffee.” This way of thinking fundamentally does not make sense to me, and yet I want it to make sense.
In thinking about Stoltenberg’s three assignments I remembered something I learned at the beginning of the summer that sheds some light on the “invite them in” approach, and also illuminates the enormous difference between a Norwegian perspective and what I will generalize as a particularly American perspective.
I was standing at the counter chopping vegetables for our dinner, half of my mind thinking about all of the things I still needed to do, one-fourth paying attention to the knife, and the other fourth making all the right sounds of attentiveness to my daughter as she sat coloring at the kitchen table. (“Umm.” “Oh!” “Ok,” and occasionally “Really?” so she knows I really am (sort of) listening.)
Something caught my attention. Something that sounded not right at all. It caused me to put down the knife, turn around, and actually listen. “What did you say?”
“I wanted to play by myself at barnehage [preschool] but the teachers said we’re not allowed.”
“No, sweetie. 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?”
We speak English at home and Norwegian everywhere else, so it was quite possible she had misheard or mistranslated, but I was confident I would be able to clear things up.
“It’s okay to need time to yourself,” I reassured her.
Then next day when one of my daughter’s teachers came out to greet us I was ready with my question.
“E– 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.”
Well, that certainly explains a lot about the neighbors! I thought. But 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.” Everybody needs some time alone! It’s good for you! It’s good for me!
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.”
“No one is allowed to be alone?!” This was just ridiculous.
“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 for weeks, 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 color 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 will place himself or herself on the outside of ‘we.’ ‘I’m not included. I don’t have responsibilities.’ . . . And we all should, you know, be part of that ‘we,’ which needs to be larger and more inclusive now with a more diverse society than the one I grew up in . . .”.
I look at the divisiveness in the U.S. right now, the “with us or against us” mindset that prevails in so many of the debates, of 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.