Experiencing God's Love in a Secular Society: A Christian experience with socialized medicine
By Alison Noble
“Mommy, my eye is hurting,” whispered my eight-year-old daughter, Anneli, as I bent over to tuck her in at the Balestrand Hotel, a balconied hotel nestled between the water and mountains of Sognefjord in western Norway.
My family and I were traveling Scandinavia with twenty-one American Christian college students. My Swedish husband and I had teamed up to guide students through cultural exploration and appreciation. I knew Anneli would need a doctor, but I was concerned about navigating a foreign medical system while making tight travel connections and keeping the students engaged in learning.
As it turned out, this problem was anything but a distraction from student education. Instead, it showed us just how much we American Christians can learn from secular Scandinavian societies and how God’s love crosses societal boundaries and comes to us in unexpected places.
Accessing medical care in a foreign country is stressful. “Where is the doctor’s office? What are the doctor’s hours? How will I pay?” But in this case, I had to combine the complexities of a doctor visit with our plans to leave Balestrand (along with our twenty-one college students) on a ferry early the next morning followed by a tight bus connection and a train ride on our return trip to Oslo. I should mention that Scandinavian ferries, busses, and trains—well, to say they are punctual would be like saying that Switzerland has a few mountains. Amid this logistical extravaganza, I had a daughter with an infected eye.
After getting the number for a local doctor from our hotel proprietor, I called the office the moment we stepped off the ferry. “We have a very busy day today, but I can see you at 12:40 PM,” said the receptionist. Hmm, not so good since it was 8:05 AM and our bus to Voss (where we could catch the train) would be departing in an hour and twenty-five minutes.
“Well, it’s my eight-year-old, and I think she has an eye infection. Is there any chance you could see us earlier? If not, do you happen to have the number for a doctor in Voss?” I asked politely. (Word to the wise: be polite in Scandinavia. The louder you get, the less well Scandinavians can hear you.)
“The doctor in Voss…? No, I don’t have that. But hold on, I will see if I can help you.” After a short pause, the receptionist returned and asked, “Are you here now, at the harbor? Can you come right away? We will see if we can help you.”
We split off from the group of college students and hiked, suitcases in tow, up the hill, around road construction, and beside buildings covered in Norwegian signage toward what had been described to me as “the building near the big white church.” Of course they recognized us immediately: the foreigner accompanied by the eight-year-old with a puffy right eye.
After a socialized medicine wait of perhaps 2.5 minutes, we were called in to the examination room. The doctor was a soft-spoken young Norwegian man who introduced himself and explained to Anneli that he had finished medical school recently and was a resident at the clinic. He asked Anneli about her eye (he occasionally looked at me too, but Scandinavians have atypical egalitarian attitudes about children, which is often reflected in the respect afforded to them). After a short exam, he concluded that Anneli did indeed need antibiotics. The physician Google-mapped the pharmacy for me, and suggested I leave our suitcases at the clinic to ease the walk through town.
Then it came time to pay. I offered Anneli’s MedEx travel insurance card. We were prepared to pay and happy to settle our bill; gratefulness was surely oozing from my pores at that point. After all, we still had 31 minutes left to buy medication from the local pharmacy before we would miss the bus to Voss.
“Ah yes.” said the doctor. “Well, there’s a problem”. He frowned, and my heart rate increased. “You see, I don’t know what to charge you. Children under sixteen are free here in Norway and, well (glances at Anneli), she’s not sixteen.” With a shrug and a smile, he double checked his computer and said, “Yes, well, that’s correct. There’s no charge. I hope she feels better soon.”
Controversy over socialized medicine in the United States won’t be resolved with anecdotes, and I imagine some Norwegians are occasionally grumpy over a long wait at the doctor (though I’ve never met a single one that would trade their system for the US system). But I do contend that adopting socialized medicine says something about the ethos and values of a society. It says that communally, they don’t want little girls to suffer eye infections if it is within their power to do something about it. Even if that little girl isn’t one of them, even if she is a foreigner, her humanity itself is enough to warrant compassion.
I’m an American, daughter of an Air Force Veteran, and eligible (so my father says) to be a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I’ve learned the value of strength and independence in the context of a Christian family of origin. While I’ve developed ideas and opinions in adulthood that differ from those of my youth, I still believe in individual responsibility and hard work. But here’s the thing, Scandinavians believe in that too, but with a sense of earnest humility. Scandinavian pragmatism has enough humility to recognize that, even when we all do our part, we all also need help. A community is stronger as a “group of one” than it is as a group of ones.
If we consider church attendance or public proclamation invoking faith or deity as metrics, Scandinavian culture is clearly more secular than American culture. That being said, my experience being married to a Swede for nearly thirteen years and spending significant amounts of time in both Sweden and Norway, I am often struck, as I was on that day at the doctor’s office in Vik, by the societal way in which Scandinavians live out, and even formalize into policy, the humble and gentle strength that ought to mark the essence of Christian community.
As we boarded the bus to our next destination and I gave Anneli her first dose of healing antibiotic eye drops, I shared our experience with several of the students seated near us. The opportunity to know the compassion of socialized medicine - actively loving one’s neighbor — in a secular context is precisely the kind of cultural learning that breaks down stereotypes. Earlier in the course, I had asked the students to consider what happens to God in a secular society. On the road through a doctor’s office in Norway, I found my own answer: Here I am and this is what my love is like.
Alison Noble is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania where she teaches physical, environmental, and general chemistry; her published research focuses on the areas of surface science and chemical education. Dr. Noble earned her Ph.D. in Chemistry at the University of Illinois in 2002 and discovered the richness of the liberal arts and sciences tradition while an undergraduate at Westmont College in California (B.S., Chemistry ’97). She enjoys interdisciplinary study, particularly in history, philosophy, and science, as well as co-teaching a May-term Scandinavian cross-cultural course. Dr. Noble grew up in California and, prior to her academic career, worked as a Senior Process Engineer for Intel Corporation in Hillsboro, Oregon.