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A Nation of “We”

23 August 2011

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—”

“That’s right.”

“That’s right?”

“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.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 August 2011 12:57

    Interesting post you wrote this time.

    Ever since I came to Denmark, I have been thinking a lot about this issue. As you probably could guess, DK has the same view toward “togetherness” with Norway. Everything’s in group, group works, you name it, they have it.

    At some point during my master’s study in a university here, I wonder if I could do the assignment on my own and got told that I wasn’t allowed to do so. I also come from individual culture, where it’s your individual work that’s judged upon, not group work, and how hard it is to work together with bunch of different students from different nationalities that have different work ethic. I could very well see the good intention of having to (bordering on the word “forced”) to work together in any situation but there are situations when it’s highly unfair to work in groups, especially when we know that there are always some kids who just don’t feel like pick up and do the work.

    Ok, maybe this is off topic a bit – but then the other day I talked with a friend why Danes are so similar, they dress alike, they even have the same topic for conversation, their haircuts are alike they look alike, is it because they’re told that they’re a part of a community since they were children and that they’re not supposed to “stray” from it?

    The problem is once you grow up, you feel uneasy not being accompanied by your peer while me, I have no problem spending my time alone. I guess that’s just my two cent. Everything’s got advantage and disadvantage I suppose, but just basically tell a child that he / she can not play alone is rather extreme :S

  2. 23 August 2011 13:42

    No, I think you are right — I mean there needs to be a balance. In the US we have gone the complete other way and no longer know how to work/be together. (I heard someone complain about having only one sink in the bathroom and having to share it!) And it probably takes just as much effort to learn to think/act/be on one’s own as it does for me to learn this whole “togetherness” thing.

    One experience I haven’t shared yet was a recent DNT hike with my family. I didn’t really want to share the cabin with anyone else and kept thinking it would be so nice if no one else showed up because then you have to wait your turn to use the kitchen. Of course bunches of people turned up and I was grumbling about this man making TONS of pancakes and hogging the stove FOREVER while we all wanted our dinner. But then he shared the whole pancake platter with us AND the cloudberry jam he’d made himself and I felt like the biggest selfish jerk. We have forgotten the benefits of working with other people, we have forgotten why we NEED other people. At least in the U.S. anyway.

    I loved your story about being a masters student. I don’t think I could have survived group work at that level! 🙂

  3. 23 August 2011 19:51

    I think you are on to something there, but yes, it does explain how neighburs can not know each other over here…

  4. RHR permalink
    23 August 2011 20:52

    I did my masters at a university college not too far from Trondheim a few years back, and while they encouraged you to do it in groups of 2 or 3, it was not required there at least (I did mine alone, though in retrospect there were times when having someone extra to talk to besides the advisor would’ve been very beneficial)

  5. 23 August 2011 21:21

    Hi RHR! Yes, this is what I mean by how we “individualists” get to thinking that ALONE is best. We don’t even consider the benefits of working in a group because we assume we can get it done best/fastest by ourselves. I fight the group mentality in Norway, but it is teaching me a lot. (Mostly about myself and why I’m so afraid of or averse to groups!) I think in the U.S. we are taught that to belong to a group, a “we,” any “we” is to sacrifice your individual rights or your great, important, talented “self”. But the best of both worlds would be to learn how to maintain one’s sense of individuality while learning how to belong. I think Norway does that better than the U.S.

  6. 23 August 2011 21:32

    I haven’t ever really thought about this, but it’s really fascinating. And you’re right– in America, so much emphasis is placed on the individual that creating community becomes the oddity as opposed to the norm. This, I think, puts its finger on part of the culture shock I felt when I moved from the East Coast to North Dakota. I remember being annoyed that I couldn’t go to the store without someone stopping me to say hello, and then being relieved that my neighbor across the hall was from New York (like me), and never even made eye-contact when we met in the hallway, but now that I’m back on the east coast, I miss being part of a culture which WANTED to make connections and create an inclusive community. North Dakota (a heavily Scandinavian-American region, coincidentally) was still a far cry from what you describe in Norway, but it was wonderful to feel part of something, even if I was fighting against it, and I very much miss being stopped in the grocery store by people who didn’t even know my name, but remembered my face.

    • 24 August 2011 10:41

      Thanks for your comment and for reading, Amalia! My sister lives in Minnesota — also a large Scandinavian community — and when I visited I felt attacked by all the ‘hellos’ and was actually really surprised by people I didn’t even know stopping to ask us personal questions! Like if my sister and I were twins (we are not) and where was I visiting from and what I am doing in Norway … I mean, all of this just at the grocery store check-out line! And the really funny thing is that Norwegians are not this way at all. They don’t talk to strangers in the grocery store, don’t say “hi” or smile when walking down the street (or at least not in Bergen — I’ve been told Bergen is extreme for this). So I can only assume a wonderful blend of American happy, friendly culture and Scandinavian community has been created in Minnesota and N.D.!

      It’s fun to hear your similar experiences.

  7. Jennifer Wingard permalink
    23 August 2011 21:41

    As always your writing sends me to a very thoughtful place. JMW

    • 24 August 2011 10:43

      Thanks — but you should know you in part inspired me by going out and getting to know people in your community. And really trying to be an active participant in it!

  8. 24 August 2011 08:12

    Excellent post Jena!
    When we first moved to Norway, I had such a difficult time relating to the odd-ities (rules) tossed at the children both in barnehage and school. I had not adjusted to the system, and I certainly wasn´t comparing apples to apples.

    Norway has so much good to offer, and sometimes those of us accustomed to a more disciplined regimen find it difficult to relax and let the good in. However, on occasion I still question the system. An example… we went through a challenging period when our oldest son was being bullied by two different kids for being small and on occasion a smart mouth. These bullies would occasionally pick on someone else, and our son would spout off on the big guys earning a black eye for his heroic efforts. The teachers continuously forced my son to partner up on assignments, or in gym with these guys, and not buddies of his own choosing like the other children. He came home each day deflated and frustrated. It broke my heart. It took SIX years, but finally my son, who had been forced to face the enemy on a daily basis learned how to deal with the uncomfortable situation, and is now friends with and often involves these guys in extracurricular play. Was this a healthy thing for a child? Did it actually help or did the boys simply mature? I don´t know. I do know I am glad this is behind us…I hope.

    (I laughed out loud at the neighbor correlation;)

    Kimberly

    • 24 August 2011 10:46

      Thanks, Kimberly. But your story sounds really tough. If it were my son I would not be able to accept that. I wonder if they intended it to be a healthy thing for your child, or a healthy thing for the bullies? Uff, as they say.

  9. 24 August 2011 20:17

    Send this to the New York Times.

    • 27 August 2011 07:35

      Thank you! Although they won’t print anything that’s already been “published” online.

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  1. “A Nation of ‘Me’” – A Reprise of Sorts « up-rooted

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