I am just about to conclude nearly a full month of “hanging out” with a group a Scandinavian educators, here visiting the Luther College campus. The Scandinavian Institute brings visitors from Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland to this middle-of-America location to learn about American history, culture, people and attitudes for nearly a month of immersion. They headquarter on the Luther campus, where they are exposed to lectures covering such diverse topics as public education, healthcare, the culture of the Amish, Hispanic immigration, philanthropy, Black American experience, Obama’s economic and international challenges, Native Americans, environmental sustainability, the U.S. system of government and religious trends. It is a month-long crash course on all things American, mixed with lots of opportunities for the participants to travel the region in order to meet and speak with everyday midwesterners. On top of it all, they even get to participate in perhaps the largest summer festival honoring Scandinavian-Americans in the country, the local NordicFest in Decorah.
I’ve been privileged to address groups each of the past two years, talking about Winds of Peace Foundation and the work we do in Nicaragua. Katie and I have also been favored with the opportunity to host two visitors for dinner each year, part of the program’s “get-to-know-the-locals” effort. As a result, we’ve been invited to participate in many of the events that our visitors experience while here, a unique opportunity to re-learn about America, to see ourselves through the eyes and experiences of others, and to broaden our own perspectives with regard to how we live here in this country as compared with other places. All of that within the confines and comfort of our own community, even our own home.
What this annual interaction provides is a reality check of sorts, an occasion to step back and consider our country and society from an outside perspective, always a valuable exercise. Hearing lectures about American fundamentals reminds us of the foundations of the country and how we have, in some cases, strayed significantly from them. Hearing questions about American life and lifestyle posed by people who live outside our borders- maybe especially when they have come from another westernized culture- is a sure cure for nationalistic myopia. We live on a shared earth, so it’s important for us to recognize how everyone sees reality. And it’s pretty much impossible to do on our own because so much of what we create for ourselves is illusion.
It’s like the familiar eye test: what do you see when you look at this picture: a beautiful, young girl or a haggard, old woman? The fact is that there is no incorrect answer to the question, only a difference in the ways that we see the very same things. If all that I have ever seen in this drawing is an old woman, then I am grateful to those who can show me a new view. It may or may not change the way I see the drawing in the future, but it’s valuable to be able to see it in a new way. On the other hand, it just may convince me that a different perspective is somehow of even greater value. But at least I have the benefit of both truths.
Such has been my education over the past several weeks. Once again, it has been intriguing, educational, introspective and refreshing in a curious way. It takes me away from seeing the world in status quo and gives me new reasons to feel thankful for the incredible blessings that I have as well as chagrined about that which I have overlooked, both of which are important realizations. I have discovered that, even without any traceable Scandinavian blood in my heritage, I have a world in common with these guests. Although they traveled here to be educated, they, too, have served as the educators. I have new insights, new energies, new friends.
The bus will load on Sunday and once again we will head our separate ways. I experience both happiness and sadness at the prospect: happy to have had the opportunity to make such connections and to grow in the process, sad to lose sight of new friends who have taught me a great deal about myself through their presence. And as I reflect on the emotions, I am suddenly struck by a sense of deja vu.
This is exactly the way I feel when returning from the south, from Nicaragua and from people who help me to so clearly see the realities of where we both live. Each time I pack up to return home, I am happy to be headed back to my family and the lovely community in which I now reside, and yet melancholy at separation from new acquaintances who cultivate my sensibilities so deeply. Both of these people connections have a feel of circularity, of completeness, of holism, that convince me of the dependence and oneness that define us as human beings. These are the moments when I am most hopeful for the future, when I see a clear means by which the human condition can be made well and strong, capable of overcoming that which so artificially separates us.
It is far too easy for most of us to avoid such self-confrontations by distancing ourselves- north and south, east and west- from the experiences and perspectives of others who are viewed to be so different than us. But therein lies the false assumption, the falsehood which prevents us from being fully who we can be and prevents the world from its true identity….