Sometimes the week can begin to seem rather gnarled. Time passes and one wonders: Where did I get to this week – what did I actually achieve? I look at my to-do list and see that about half of it is checked off. There are some to-dos that are beginning to look like old knots in trees and then there are those new shoots that have suddenly sprung up in the most unexpected places and mischievously redirected the energy needed to grow.
That question, “Have you achieved what you wanted to – have you succeeded?” is puzzling at week’s end. For whom? At what level? At the level of my to-do list, my bank account, my family, my community, or the country I live in? How about the planet and humanity? Thinking about these questions can either bring great clarity and perspective, or it can bring up that difficult question of “why am I here?”
This biggest and most difficult of questions was one surrounding us at a conference I attended yesterday run by the government of Sweden concerning how to bring about greater integration in this country. The only problem is that no one who ran the conference saw this question, which felt something like a very colorful and remarkable bird chirping up in the branches with no one noticing it because they all had their eyes on the ground. After this summer’s tragedy in Norway, which highlighted the need for more innovative thinking about this challenge in the Nordics in general, it seemed that this conference had a more urgent mission than it might otherwise have had. Unfortunately, it collapsed into the specific research interests of a handful of academics who, although working with the best of intentions, led us all straight for the minutiae, which had been studied a thousand times, and in this way completely lost track of the big question.
As an immigrant trying to become a part of this society, there is one big question that has hovered over me through the 15 years I’ve been here: How can I contribute in a way that suits my interests as well as the needs of people who live here (thus in some way addressing the big question of why I am here)? Finding that intersection can be extremely difficult if other people are not acclimatized to the question. Of course, everyone wants to find that intersection – it is the very thing that fulfils our human need to belong, a need which is critical to our psychological and physical health.
In order to fulfil this need, some years ago I marched into my children’s school and offered my services in reading English language stories to a few of their classes. It seemed to me that an English Literature graduate who was a published author could actually do something useful in a community where English language was required in schools but where it wasn’t a strength of the teachers. At first, there was puzzlement at my readiness to do this and I felt as though I was having to force my way through the classroom door. Eventually, however, I had calls and comments from delighted parents. In this way, eventually I got to know the vast majority of parents and teachers in the school, and thereby most people in my surrounding community. Although my past experiences were a world away from those living in this community, I felt that we had found a meeting point in our interests and that at some level I belonged.
One can, of course, argue that I am an immigrant who is educated, who was able to work as a volunteer and who looks Swedish. All of these things help. However, I don’t believe that any of these factors actually assures that one will feel a sense of belonging. That is a combination of personal will and people in the established community who are open to new ideas of how we can move forward together. Encouraging and facilitating both of these is the way to create a new and valuable sense of belonging. It requires a great deal of creativity – something which Sweden is apparently now number one in the world at, according to Canadian researcher Richard Florida’s new study.
This morning when I walked out into the park with Lucy the dog, I took a good hard look at some of my favorite trees there. I’d seen my week as a bit of a gnarled tree and it seemed a little unfair to all of these great beauties in the park. They were complex with the grooves in their trunks winding in unexpected directions; they had parts that seemed to have grown into them and evidence of the way they had interacted with their environment, creating greater uniqueness and adding special value to the park; some had hideouts in their trunks where animals could find shelter. It seemed to me that these most beautiful and unique of all trees were the way that we wanted our lives and our communities to be. Perhaps ten minutes’ meditation on the image of a most interesting tree would be a good way to start the next conference on integration.
Julie Lindahl is chairperson at Stories for Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to learning and communication through storytelling.
Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s prize-winning new book, “Rose in the Sand,” a memoir of a decade lived on a Swedish island. Other books by Julie Lindahl available are: Letters from the Island (listen also to Julie’s podcasts from this site) and On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-being.