How Norway Responds to Catastrophe

Twenty years ago, I was living in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), when the civil war erupted there. Realizing that an attack on Zagreb was a distinct possibility after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, I thought it wise to consider an exit strategy. However, by the time I decided to leave, the airport was closed and the only option out was a train to Budapest. I left Zagreb with a small group of Americans who had either been employed at the American Consulate in Zagreb or were family of employees there.

Once I was settled in a lovely hotel room in central Budapest, it was time to consider the next move. The "aha" moment came when I remembered my friend Susan and her open invitation to visit her in Norway. Three days later, I was on an SAS flight to Oslo.

Susan Schwartz Senstad is an American author who married a Norwegian scientist and has been living in Norway for about 25 years. At the time of my visit, she was working on what would be come her multi-award winning novel, Music for the Third Ear.

Susan met me at the airport and I exhaled. My experience in Norway, especially juxtaposed to a nation at war with itself, was a healing experience. The peaceful quality of Norway and the Norwegian people was a reflection of their innate civility. The police didn't carry guns, no one locked doors, crime was minimal, and you could walk anywhere alone at night and be safe.

In Norway, healthcare is considered a "right," as are lengthy paid vacations. Childcare and all levels of education are free. Yes, the taxes are higher, but the people benefit from their tax investment. Their taxes don't go to unnecessary wars, bank bailouts, or corporate subsidies; they go to services for the people who pay them. Equally important, the Norwegian parliament mandates that 40 percent of its members must be women!

Recently, I contacted Susan to see how she and her family were doing in Norway after the catastrophe last week. Her response follows:

Dear All of You
We realize we're late in sending you word that we're fine, that neither we nor those close to us were injured in the gruesome attacks on Friday. Many of you have sent us worried e-mails, so please excuse this group message.

I'm shaken by insanity's diabolical "logic," but I'd rather share a taste of the wisdom of Norway's response to the murder of its children.

Our public officials have asked us to put compassion first, to nurture each other, listen to each other, put words to our feelings, to respect our vulnerability, to feel our anger and desperation but not allow hate or angst to take over. King Harald, Queen Sonja, their son Crown Prince Haakon and his Mette-Marit all let us see their tears. The King promised that our humanist values would not be shaken. The Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said: 'We will meet terror and violence with even more democracy, openness and humanity, though not with naivety.' He quoted a young woman from the Labor Party Youth organization who was present during the attack, 'If one person can show that much hate, imagine how much love we all can show together.'

Here in Norway, these aren't just pretty words. They well up from the depths, spontaneously, with tears, with tender brave hearts, with the force of mature, nuanced goodness.

I feel privileged to be in Norway.

I keep thinking what the U.S. might have become after 9/11 if the vengeful 'War-On-Terrorism Crusade' had not been the primary thrust, if we'd had leaders anywhere near the calibre of of Norway's leaders, including the young ones, who have proven themselves in these last two days."

Susan writes about the compassion of a truly civilized society. We have much to learn from those who have evolved beyond hatred, knee-jerk reactions and revenge. The true test of peace is not how we respond when things are rosy, but how we react when our world is turned upside down by terror and violence. Our response is a peace barometer. Norway's response is a call to peace, civility and care. May we all learn from them!

Norway, our hearts are deeply touched by your goodness.

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