In the Midst of Life

Condolences and Strong Thoughts for Norway


Norwegian flag

Norwegian flag flying over the remnants of Nazi construction at Kristiansand Kanonmuseet

Objectivity isn’t Americans’ strong point. So this is not going to be objective.

It has been deeply painful for me to watch the events of 22 July unfold in Norway. We so often rely on comparisons – “It’s like Oklahoma City,” “It’s like 9-11,” “It’s like Columbine” – both to grasp what has happened and make some sense of it, and to distance from feelings of loss, anxiety, helplessness, and confusion. The strange mental logic runs, “If I’ve seen something like this before, I should be able to manage this better.”

But each tragedy is unique. Each community, each nation, each individual is specially and specifically affected. There can be no useful generalizing when 93 lives are ruthlessly taken and scores of others shattered; when 86 young people are gunned down by a megalomaniac.*

Every community’s sense of knowing one another – very strong in so small a population as Norway’s, and an immense part of the conflicted feelings of anger, sorrow, and a desire to manage things now (“I know someone who is directly affected” – and “How could we not know this person was out there?”) – is its own.

But that never means you are alone.

I offer my condolences to the nation, and especially to all my friends who struggle with these events in their individual ways. And I want to share with you a little of how I came to know your country – of the gift of encounter and welcome that I have received from your openness to me and to the world.

This quality of accepting others while respecting their individuality is at the heart of your strength, your guiding ethos of equality. It is an example to all of us.

Downtown Oslo

Downtown Oslo, 2007

My first adult awareness of Norway came via The Cosby Show around 1990-91.

I had become friends with two Swedish students while we were all at the University of Sussex near Brighton, UK, in 1988-89, where we shared a multicultural apartment (Swedish, South African Zulu, American) in a multicultural house. It was one of the best years of my life. So I had revived childhood memories of Scandinavia – conveyed by my Midwestern mother and via Lutheranism generally – and developed an interest in the region, particularly in Sweden.

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, I was a regular viewer of The Cosby Show. And when 60 Minutes advertised a segment teaser, “What does Cliff Huxtable’s father have to do with the Scandinavian nation of Norway? Find out on 60 Minutes,” they had themselves a viewer. I learned that actor Earle Hyman, who played Bill Cosby’s (Cliff’s) father on the series, also had a home in Norway, spoke fluent Norwegian, and was active on the Norwegian stage. He spoke about the openness of the country and how Ibsen led him into his career as an actor.

From the American Negro Theatre to the St. Olav’s medal for his work in Norwegian theater – yes, Norway would bear some investigating, for more than aquavit.

I got more insight four years later, during the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994. Always more of a winter than summer fan, I watched these avidly, learning also about sparker and the Sami, and that Norwegians had a strange predilection for country music. (A group of Norwegian fans line-dancing to Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” gave me more than a moment’s pause, but I got over it. I hope they did too.)

Hamar Skating Rink

Hamar Olympic Hall (Vikingskipet) – speed skating site in 1994 Olympics

The Olympics have always presented a moment of openness to the world, as in the words of the Olympic hymn sung by Norwegian artist Sissel at Lillehammer: “People from every nation are coming here today.” In Norway, this openness has extended well beyond the Olympics.

It wasn’t until 2005-6 that I actually met Norwegians – in Philadelphia, of all places, thanks to the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard. Several friends and I made the acquaintance of a number of the Norwegian and Swedish workers from the yard at a pub where a couple of us played darts. Over a couple of years we developed friendships and romantic relationships, attended their sporting events and barbecues (including one held by the Vietnamese Norwegian workers), and conducted many conversations about Norway, Sweden, and the United States – conversations we continue today, on visits and via Skype and Facebook and email.

Two of my friends married Norwegians. One now lives in Norway with her husband; the other couple remain here.

I have been fortunate to travel fairly frequently to Oslo and points south and west in Norway over the past four years, visiting both Norwegian and American friends; and to renew ties with my Swedish friends, in their country (which I’d previously visited in 2000). Both Sweden and Norway are beautiful; Sweden in a softer way, for Norway is dramatisk in its beauty. On seeing the Norwegian countryside, you understand instantly what stirs the love of the land and outdoor activity.

Both nations are welcoming – and, as nations, sane. This is important to remember.  The ideals of equality, respect for others, caring for the whole community and not just for the privileged, and responsibility for one another as humans run deep in these countries. There are debates over how best to achieve this, but few who would abandon the ideals and, as many here in the United States would do, hold onto things only for themselves.


The Numedal River

It is a source of anguish when someone violates those ideals. But a few vicious zealots do not change the character of a nation, though they may cause distress and much soul-searching. Norway learned that lesson in World War II.

It grieves me that you are undergoing such deep national pain today. I understand well what the prime minister’s father meant when he said Saturday, “It gets worse and worse.” To see the death toll rise and begin to absorb the losses and the individual nightmare experiences, is almost unbearable: a mother of three killed in the explosion in Oslo; an 11-year-old on Utøya telling the gunman, “Don’t shoot me, you have already done enough shooting. You have killed my father. … Let us be”; an 18-year-old hiding behind a rock, seeing people diving into the water and being shot.

So many lives.

That this is terrorism, there can be no question. It is one of the harsh facts the world takes away from the incidents in Oslo and Utøya: hatred is not the province of “somebody else,” nor is its influence limited. I was struck by the Norwegian woman quoted in the Washington Post, who said, “If a white Protestant does something bad, you just think he’s mad. That’s something we need to think about.”

It is indeed.

The past few days have raised in my mind a text heard in childhood:  “In the midst of life we are in death.” I probably first heard them when I was 8 years old, at my mother’s burial. It is part of the Lutheran order for the dead, as it is in other Christian traditions. The sequence is a translation of a Latin antiphon – Media vita in morte sumus – with various legendary associations, which speak to a realization of the sudden intervention or nearness of death in the midst of human life.

I knew none of that at the time, of course. Only that life had gone horribly wrong, tremendously fast. It was not fair or right in the safe trajectory that I had for myself in my mind. But it was an unavoidable reality, if a constantly difficult one to work with.

That death doesn’t make clean, organized appointments or stay away altogether comes as the greatest shock to us, and this is greater when accompanied by human violence. Natural disaster and disease are “irresponsible” enemies; it always seems that the human heart and mind should be more controllable.

Yet in every instance, in the effort to get back what we have lost, we struggle against the larger truth: that we cannot know or control the heart and mind of every human. We cannot predict every event and be prepared for every eventuality.


Flowers memorialize the victims along the Domkirke in Oslo, a month after 22 July

Reason may know this; emotion does not always embrace it.

So we analyze the hows and whys of events such as those of 22 July in Oslo and Utøya – and of the Oklahoma City bombing; the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Jokela, Kauhajoki; and too many other episodes of “domestic terror” – in the hope that we can control the pain by understanding, and control the future by preventing. And perhaps we learn things that inform us in that quest, such as a willingness to say no to small demonstrations of hatred – to assert greater values in the face of evil.

But cause-and-effect, find-and-fix logic runs aground on the fact that death and life are intertwined, always. Life is defined by death, and death by life. Questioning and anger are part of grieving. But the way beyond pain is through: the road of coming to terms with one’s eternal vulnerability.

In my country, we have a miserable time with vulnerability. And that is one of our weaknesses. Often we do not allow ourselves that honesty of feeling the hurt and confusion and accepting it, holding it as something precious that identifies us as human and life as valuable. I believe that our refusal to allow ourselves to need one another, as community, is part of our crisis today.

I have been moved by the people gathering at the Domkirke in Oslo, to light candles and leave flowers, and by the torchlight processions all over the country. To see Norwegians allowing themselves memory and grief and reflection – together – is to see a very great strength, and a strong connection with this moment and what is real. And I see in the young people – both those who endured the shootings firsthand and those throughout the country who are shaken by them – a competence that should be trusted.

We do not like to see suffering, especially young people’s. We want to protect them.  But despite the harshness of their encounter with death in the midst of life, I am encouraged by the trust they demonstrate in their own spirit, and that of their friends and companions.

And I am encouraged by the father who drove five hours to attend the memorial service, saying of his 6-year-old daughter with him, “You can’t take them away from everything. They have to learn that life is hard.”

The lost lives can never be recovered – but what they believed and lived will endure.

As writer Roy Jacobsen has said: “We know who we are, and what we stand for.”