A wonderful component of my summers over the past four years has been The Scandinavian Institute, an extended visit to Decorah, Iowa, and surrounding areas by residents of the Scandinavian countries. These guests travel to Decorah and Luther College to learn about America in all of its dimensions through lectures by Luther professors, visits with surrounding societies such as the Fox Native American settlement and local Amish communities, interactions with local residents, dinners with host families, and an overall immersion in American life as experienced in the midwest. Their weeks spent here are intended to be not only informational and broadening, but also to provide the fun and enjoyment of experiencing a different culture. I have participated with these groups over the years as presenter, dinner host, participant and friend. I have found new friendships and learned more about the cultures to be found throughout Scandinavia than mere books and myths can impart. The point of the visit is to provide a learning opportunity to our guests, but in reality, those of us who participate are given an equal opportunity to grow culturally, socially and emotionally.
On Thursday evening my wife and I hosted a Norwegian couple for dinner at our home. Jann and Marit are absolutely delightful people who are soaking up every moment of the experience here, during this, their first-ever visit to the U.S. We dined outdoors on a warm summer’s night, escorted by the evening cheering of Cardinals and the phosphorescence of fireflies, a lovely local specialty. We shared stories of family, cultures, careers, loves and losses. There are few occasions when four hours pass by so quickly and richly. By the time we walked them back to their campus quarters, a bond had been formed in this world which had not existed before; we made arrangements to attend church together on Sunday.
And now, the news from Oslo, Norway, where a gunman has destroyed government buildings and many young lives. The pictures are difficult to watch, the anguish in parents’ eyes indistinguishable from past faces from 9/11 or from shot-up schoolyards across the U.S. in recent years. The news is eerily familiar although distant, but this time it has a new dimension to it. It’s the homeland of not our own, but of new friends, who are forced now to grasp the enormity of this event from afar, to wonder and worry and anguish from here in the U.S. while those in Norway do so with each other. The tragedy is a national and international one and thus is best absorbed and grieved over with closest family and friends. But that will not be available to our summertime guests in Decorah. They will have to use the good wishes and prayers of relative strangers for comfort during this crisis, tiding them over until their eventual return home.
The visiting members of the delegation have all expressed horror, of course, and have cited the surreality of seeing such a senseless act of violence occur in their own country. “That’s not something we experience in Norway,” several have said. “This has been only something from the United States or elsewhere in Europe,” some have observed. But unfortunately the carnage in Norway is all too real, and, in a way, made even moreso to us by the presence of new acquaintances who live there. The sadness has been made more tangible for us in Decorah.
That reaction is a universal one. Naturally, we feel a greater intensity of emotion when we have a personal connection with a victim, as we recognize a closeness to the tragedy that otherwise does not exist. It’s an outgrowth of the instinctive question, “How close did this come to me?” or, “How will this affect me?” We are, after all, very egocentric beings.
This summer, this day, the answers to these questions have become crystal clear: every incident of hatred comes too close to us, every episode of violence affects each one of us, each injustice makes us less than we might be. We do not escape the impacts of evil, only the intensity. Whether the victims are family or friends, unnamed strangers from Nordic Europe or Central American Nicaragua, we hurt with our fellow human beings because they are us. We are the same. One only requires a simple meal with visitors from far away to recognize how quickly, how naturally, “one” becomes the “other.” Today, the English in me is as Norwegian in character as if I had been born in Norway, as if the pale faces of the terrorized were those of my own children.
We have everything to gain by understanding that facet of our existence together, and everything to lose by ignoring it….