April 24. 2012 10:19AM

Do Norwegians know something we don't?

By Julie O'Keeffe Henszey

  
While Americans live in a fear-based society, Norwegians show more tolerance and compassion.

Last July a Norwegian man massacred 77 of his fellow countrymen, many of them teenagers at a summer camp. Anders Behring Breivik confessed to both the bombing of government buildings and the mass shooting at the camp. His trial starts today.

I lived in Norway my junior year of college. I attended classes and immersed myself in the culture, working at a jewelry store, a kiosk, a restaurant, and an amusement park over the course of 12 months. I also spent five months in a mountain survival and recreation program, so I was constantly close to nature. I majored in Norwegian, so I speak the language fluently. My heritage is half Norwegian. I'd go so far as to say that my psyche is largely Norwegian.

Response to crises

So I find it curious how Norwegians are responding to their domestic tragedy, compared to how Americans have reacted to threats and acts of violence.

Granted, the U.S. has suffered losses far greater than Norway in terrorist attacks, whether the perpetrators be local citizens or foreigners. Still, Norwegians have always displayed this incredible sense of compassion and calm restraint that runs deep in their veins. I believe it has largely to do with their ongoing connection to nature.

From a young age, Norwegians learn to embrace nature. They say that Norwegians are born with skis on their feet and it's entirely true. I've seen 3-year-olds tear up the ski slopes and ten-year-olds cross-country ski for miles across mountain tops. Have you ever seen a Norwegian bracing themselves against the cold? I haven't.

Similarly, Easter week vacation in Norway only means one thing: every family heads for their mountain cabin. I vividly remember watching a stream of bumper-to-bumper traffic crawl down a narrow strip of valley road back to Oslo from my dorm window on the last day of Easter break. The dramatic display was a powerful symbol of Norwegians' enduring connection to nature.

What does it mean to be a mass of humanity? Who are we? Are we killers, lovers of nature, some evolved but crass species? What's our common denominator? Are we somehow all connected, despite religious affiliation and race?

Norwegians have had their share of natural disasters, too. I know a person whose parents were buried in an avalanche. While death is hard to accept in any culture, I sense that Norwegians don't feel a need to blame anyone. They don't have to have an outlet for their own inability to deal with fear. Their fear has less power over them.

Learned responses

Brain research shows that we learn to self-regulate and control our responses to events. We learn acceptable responses. This is a common denominator in the human species. An acceptable response to murder in medieval Iceland was to seek revenge. Honor killings are acceptable in a variety of cultures yet today. In those cultures, honor is one of the most highly-regarded values. In other cultures, justice and tolerance are highly-regarded. Iceland no longer has honor killings. Over time, I guess it just seemed like a bad idea.

In Norway, the man on trial sits in the courtroom, not in handcuffs, but in a suit. After the attacks last year, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg promised "to respond with 'more openness, more democracy and more humanity' to these most inhuman of crimes" (CNN, 4/17/12). I somehow doubt Norway has their own Rush Limbaugh. Tolerance and compassion remain the prevailing winds.

I don't have answers, but I have observations from living in Norway and the U.S. I have observations from living in Iceland and Australia, from discussing civil strife with a maid on a hotel roof in Tanzania, and from receiving strangers' kind gestures while hitch-hiking throughout the world.

My bottom line: Fear can ruin your life. A positive outlook can save it.

Stop the negative messaging

As a favorite researcher of mines says, "Fear closes down our minds and hearts. Positive emotions can open them. Hope and other positive emotions change our mindsets and biochemistry. It allows us to flourish, rather than languish." (Barbara Fredrickson, UNC)

Which is why I'm fascinated by the way Norwegians react to stress. Stress seems less likely to trigger the threat response in their brains. Neurological research shows that a threat response leads to more anxiety and an inability to think expansively. It leads people to "hunker down' and say things like "You're either with us or against us." "You're either with us or with the terrorists."

What if other human beings are not the enemy? What if fear is the enemy?

Are you with fear or against fear?

Norwegians know that fear is the enemy. Hatred is the enemy. They don't hate the man who terrorized their nation. They condemn his actions. They loathe his mental illness that led to a massacre.

CNN reporter Diana Magnay reported: "When I press [a survivor] about whether he felt [it] would have been the best thing for [the accused murderer to be killed rather than captured], he replied: 'I owe him a punch in the face for firing at me.' But his desire for revenge stops there. 'He will get the treatment he needs,' he said."

Get back to nature

Nature teaches me that we are all connected, that the cycles of life march onward with or without my consent, and that I'm happiest when I understand and accept this. For many of us, nature helps us let go of our need for certainty. It teaches us to be present, to enjoy life in the moment without the blanket of suffocating anxieties we habitually carry around. We've all experienced the serenity of sitting by a lake, the awe of examining an intricate spider web, the inspiration of reaching the top of a bluff, and the joy of spotting a wild animal.

Positive emotions and experiences reduce the voice of fear in our lives. Seeking out natural environments that yield positive emotions strengthens our resiliency and ability to deal with stress.

We can try prescription drugs to fix our fear-induced anxieties, or we can strap on some skis and hit the slopes. Or go for a walk in the park near our house.

Norwegians regularly practice the best prescription.

My advice for the next time you are in a funk about a relationship, job, or financial situation: Go play with your dog, examine the veins in some flower pedals, or listen to the wind in the trees - one of my fiance's favorite things to do.

Breathe in compassion, breathe out fear.

Julie O'Keeffe of Wauwatosa is a speaker, coach, author and owner of Next Step Goals LLC.

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