There is an old saying in my Norwegian mother tongue, which suggests that: ‘like barn leker best’; in English, ‘birds of a feather flock together’. The Danes say, ‘krage søger mage’; in English, ‘one crow seeks other crows’.

These sayings or proverbs are true, at least to some extent and in certain ways. Yet, it is also possible to appreciate that the opposite is valuable, notably that diversity gives strength. Whereas we may want to spend more time with ‘our own kind’, we gain from learning about the unknown. What is otherwise learning? Well, learning can also be to deepen knowledge in limited sectors and become expert in one or a few fields. Or, it can be to de-learn prejudices and misunderstandings and replace them with more correct and true knowledge. Comparative knowledge will always make us more insightful, tolerant and wise.

Last week, the Norwegian Geir Lippestad’s book, ‘Et større vi – til forsvar for livet’, in English ‘A Greater We – In Defence of Life’, was released. The venue was Frambu Centre for Rare Diseases, outside Oslo.

The book is about his daughter Rebekka, who passed away at the young age of seventeen, after having lived as a sick person throughout her life. She suffered from multiple muscle and other handicaps, bound to a wheelchair. The last six years, she could only breathe by the support of a respirator, which was then finally switched off at an agreed time so that Rekekka could die peacefully.

Before she died, her father lay next to her in her bed for several hours. It was the most unbearable day of his life, he writes in the book.

“But somehow the family managed to get through it”, he adds.

The day before Rebekka died, she asked her father, in her language without spoken words any more, but somehow still managing to communicate: “Will I go to heaven now?”

“Yes”, said her father. And then Rebekka added, “Will you come after me later?”

“It was difficult to know what I should answer to such a question”, he writes. “But I said ‘yes’, and we were both tranquil”, he says.

In the book, Lippestad says that his daughter taught him to rethink his own prejudices, even more than those of the society.

“When we as parents realised that Rebekka was never going to live a ‘normal’ life, we were very sad on her behalf, maybe also on our own behalf. Friends told us to have another child as soon as we could to lessen the disappointment”, he writes.

“I placed my own understanding of what a good life is, in my daughter’s life”, he says. “But I came to realise that even she lived a good life – her life – in spite of being sick throughout the years we had the opportunity to have her with us, the time she was on the earth”, he says.

Lippestad came to reflect on many aspects and concepts related to a ‘different life’, such as dignity, quality of life, and all about being different. “I felt sorry for Rebekka because she would never be able to do all the things that other children do; go to school, graduate, get married, give us grandchildren, and so on.”

But then he questions whether these are the only and main things that are meaningful and can give happiness, or if they are ‘acquired tastes’, based on standardised thinking. He teaches his readers to reflect and think deeper, and he says that the standards are many for a meaningful and good life.

“I would not for a single day have been without my daughter”, writes Lippestad.

To most of us, this may be difficult to understand. In Pakistan, we may also say that it is easy to say for a Norwegian, living in one of the world’s richest lands, where the welfare state provides generous medical support, treatment, relevant education, activities, and so on. In poorer countries, the challenges would have been more, and Rebekka’s life would probably have been much less comfortable and shorter.

However, if Rebekka had been born in a similarly caring and enlightened family as the Lippestad’s, with six sisters and one brother, she could also have lived an acceptable, maybe even good life in a poorer country. Alas, often handicapped children are hidden away and not given required stimulation to grow, and also not being allowed to contribute in their own way. It depends on the family, usually the mother, and in Lippestad’s family, indeed the father, too, and the siblings.

Lippestad discusses conventional thinking and attitudes to special needs children and handicaps in his book. He says that is was totally unexpected, yes, out of character, for his family and environment, that his first child would be a handicapped child. In addition, one of the later children was also born with a handicap. This wasn’t part of his family’s background, experience and knowledge.

For a few years, Lippestad was chairman of the Norwegian interest organization for the deaf and persons with hearing impairment, leaving his law practice for this public service. He has also chaired a church committee about the right to life and ethical issues.

But Lippestad’s book is a tribute to his daughter, not the father. It is a wake-up call for all of us to see diversity in life; to consider our values and ways we live; to consider what it is that is good. People with physical and mental handicaps are part of God’s creation – yet, handicaps may be difficult to understand and accept.

In the world we live in, many mothers would take an induced abortion if it is diagnosed that the baby will be handicapped – even if it is of the ‘wrong gender’, as is not uncommon in India, China and other countries. We should think hard about our values in such case, but perhaps not point a finger in individual cases.

Lippestad says that one of the purposes with his new book is to question our eagerness to seek the perfect and optimal in our time, and that we fear what is different, yes, maybe lesser in certain ways. “I mean it is wrong always to seek perfection”, says Lippestad in his book.

And then we may ask; is Lippestad a perfect high-achiever himself? I don’t think so, but then I don’t know either. I think he is a man who listens to his conscience, his inner voice, his ethical, moral and religious principles and values in a land where many of these things are not spoken openly about. Faith is usually left to the private sphere – yet, even Norwegians may say a prayer in despair and need, as long as nobody knows.

Let me mention at the end of today’s article (although not quite related to the topic of it) that Lippestad was the defence lawyer for Anders Behring Breivik in 2011at the trial after the terrible mass murder terrorist attacks. First, both the defence and prosecution thought that Breivik was insane, but in the end, the conclusion by the psychiatrists was that he could stand trial (instead of being convicted to forced incarceration in a mental hospital). After Breivik was given life imprisonment, which in Norway is 21 years, Lippestad continued to work for his former client for several years, without pay. Today, Breivik has another lawyer, who handled his defence at a recent appeal court case about Breivik’s prison terms; he is kept in strict isolation from other inmates, with limited possibilities even to communicate in writing with the outside world.

Lippestad has also written a book about the Breivik case, entitled ‘Det vi kan stå for’; in English, “That What We Can Stand For”. And he has said that the case was deeply disturbing for him, and that it could ‘eat up’ even the lawyers, policemen and wardens involved. Let me add, Breivik is himself a victim of the terrible terrorist attacks. He, too, needs our prayers – but so do indeed the friends and family of those young people whose lives were so brutally and senselessly cut short.

What I like about Geir Lippestad is that he takes up issues and deep questions, but he doesn’t draw absolute conclusions. He makes us all a bit more aware of how multifaceted life is and the surprises we may encounter. Often we have to live outside the prescribed ‘A4-size’ standardised format. That may be a good life, too, for us and for those we live with. We are all God’s creations. We are all valuable. We are all different and unique – at the same time as we are equal and the same.