Trusting Providence

An interesting thing happened as I was writing my previous post.  I realized that some of the feelings of goodness that I associate with Japan may be due to the fact that, throughout my early relationship with Japan, I was, without realizing it, trusting Providence to get me where I needed to go in life.  Since Japan seems to have a role to play in my vocation, naturally, pursuing Japanese studies gives me feelings of consolation.

But I think there’s something more to it, something that interacts with the first part in a cute way.  The Japanese, I think, are also good at trusting Providence.  They’re good at saying, “I don’t know where this is going, but it seems like for now I should be doing this.”  I actually have a postcard I picked up from a bunkasai in Japan that says nan to ka sureba, nan to ka naru–“try something, and it’ll work out somehow.”

In fact, I think this sense of trust in Providence was something I began to pick up from the Japanese before I ever went to Japan, back in my anime-watching days.  In a clever twist of, well, Providence, Japanese culture inspired me to trust in Providence, which led me to move to Japan to pursue my vocation, and living in Japan led me to believe in God, the One who provides.

So how about the Japanese, then?  How did they get so good at trusting Providence without even believing in God?

I can think of a few theories.  One is that, as I’ve written before, the Japanese are good at listening to reality.  The fact is that, if you throw away all your preconceived philosophy and listen to reality carefully, you will discern a benevolent hand in your life.  That’s exactly the experience I had as an atheist that led me to religion.

My second theory is that the Japanese penchant for creating eminently logical (and emotionally satisfying) systems with no room for exceptions gives them, from an early age, a sense of security that translates well into a later belief that “everything will be taken care of.”

My third theory is that the Japanese have a collective sense of destiny, perhaps based on the legends of the kojiki, which gives them a sense that things are headed in a good and purposeful direction.

Finally, I think that the humility of the Japanese may also allow them to be comfortable with not knowing how something will turn out, and their culturally-reinforced fortitude encourages them to keep trying hard regardless.  Moreover, as the plague of cynicism appears to be less advanced in Japan in general, the Japanese may retain more of the natural trust in Providence that any sensible person would normally have.

Whatever the reason for it, trust in Providence is a beautiful gift, and one that I have to thank the Japanese for.

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Why did you doubt?

About thirteen years ago, I was halfway through undergrad and the question of what to do with my life was becoming more pressing.  I was dry of inspiration and getting frustrated.  Then one day I was sitting in my mother’s car, reading an issue of Newtype magazine (yes, I was a total anime geek) when my eyes fell on an ad that said “Translators Wanted.”  And I had an epiphany:  I wanted to be a translator.

So I signed up for Japanese 101.  That’s right, I decided I wanted to be a translator before I spoke any Japanese.  I was fearless back then.

As it turned out, in that class I would meet a friend who aspired to join the JET Program.  “If you want to be a translator,” she told me, “you can’t just study Japanese in school.  You really have to live in Japan and be immersed in the language.  Why don’t you apply for the JET Program, too?”

It had literally not occurred to me that I might need to live in Japan to get my language skills up to snuff, but now that she mentioned it, it made sense.  “Okay, good idea,” I said.

A few years later, with four semesters of Japanese classes under my belt, I arrived in Japan with a vague plan to get really good at Japanese so I could be a translator.  There I happened to meet another friend.  “If you want to get really good at Japanese,” he said, “you should study for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.  That’s what a lot of people here do.”

Again, it had never occurred to me that I might want to formally measure my language ability, but now that he mentioned it, it didn’t seem like a bad idea.  “Cool, how do I sign up?” I said.

Back then the test was only held once a year, and I pretty much already knew enough Japanese to tackle Level 3 that December.  How I might go about studying for the subsequent levels hadn’t really crossed my mind until another new friend mentioned that she was getting a Japanese tutor.  “You should sign up for lessons, too,” she said.

So I did, and in the two years that followed, I would pass Level 2 and Level 1, respectively.  At this point I had spent five years studying Japanese–three of them in Japan–all without putting an ounce of thought into any kind of plan, or worrying about what would happen if things didn’t work out.

Then I moved back to America, and things got real.  I couldn’t find any job openings for translators, and actually, for all of my success in studying the language, I realized I had trouble following conversations at native speed–and there were still a lot of kanji I didn’t know.  I started to doubt whether I was on the right path, after all.  I fiddled around with other things.  I went to grad school.

But when the opportunity to go back to Japan presented itself, I jumped on it.  This time, finally, I was able to do translation work, although the specter of all the Japanese I didn’t know still loomed over me.  For once I wasn’t running into any helpful friends who were handing me my next step on a silver platter.

Then a lot of things happened at once.  My mother passed away, and I returned to the Catholic Church.  I learned there was a thing called “discernment,” and I tried praying about my path in life.  I got the feeling it would be a good idea to move back to America, but I had absolutely no idea what to do after that.  I was actually a bit angry about that fact, but the Bible furnished examples of times when God said to people, “Go to this city and wait for further instructions,” so apparently that was a thing.

I moved back, and was actually surprised at the ease with which I found a Japan-related job.  But I was at another impasse.  Where was this all leading?  I wasn’t getting any younger.

Then, the other day, I met with my spiritual director, and after greeting me, he immediately asked, “So what are you doing with your Japanese?  Are you keeping up with that?”  It’s not like my spiritual director to be very forceful about things.  I got the feeling he and God had been talking about this.  Listening to myself answer his questions (“Well, I might be more inclined to study if I had a clear goal . . . I’m not really sure if I’m going to keep up this connection with Japan or not . . .”) I realized he’d hit the nail on the head.  I’d been running away from my Japanese studies.  As if to add an anvil to a piano, that night, my Gospel meditation was on the Parable of the Talents.

And so, here I am, ready to tackle Japanese one more time.  I don’t know where this will lead, or even what the next step is, but that’s okay.  God has a plan.

 

The tricky business of forgiveness

Recently I saw the movie Unbroken.  This is the true story of Louis Zamperini, an American soldier who was shot out of the sky in WWII and survived on a raft in shark-infested waters for 47 days.  When he was finally discovered, it was by the Japanese, who took him to a POW camp.  There, he became the favorite victim of a sadistic officer called Bird, who took a special interest in torturing him until the end of the war.  The movie ends there, but I’m told that the book goes on to describe Mr. Zamperini’s struggles with PTSD after the war, and finally, his conversion to Christ.  He would eventually return to Japan to meet and forgive his captors.

As a matter of fact, one hears WWII reconciliation stories between Americans and Japanese fairly frequently (at least in my line of work).  It appears there’s been a great deal of healing and forgiveness on both sides, which is a beautiful thing.

But let’s be honest–forgiving someone who’s intentionally hurt you is not easy.  Even watching the movie, I found that Bird reminded me strongly of someone I know, and I began to feel angry and hateful until I reminded myself that, like Mr. Zamperini, I needed to forgive.

It’s a blurry line, sometimes, between forgiving and enabling, one that I’ve struggled to clarify since returning to the Church.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing to acknowledge one’s pain, sadness and anger at being mistreated.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be assertive in order to put an end to abuse.  I think where the trouble starts is when the bitterness and desire for revenge creep in.

Isn’t it the most maddening thing to picture one’s enemy laughing gleefully and getting away with everything in the end?  But as a Catholic, I’ve come to realize that’s impossible.  Everyone will face their sins eventually.  Either they will repent of them and be forgiven, or they will be punished for them.  There is no gleeful “getting away with it.”

When I think of my sins, how I regret them, and how overwhelmingly grateful I am to God for giving me a second chance,  I find that I would sincerely wish for that same forgiveness to be extended to my enemies should they come to repentance.  And I would much rather see my enemies repent and become the loving people God intended them to be, than to see them choose evil and suffer for it.

These are the things I want to remember as I strive to become a forgiving person.

 

The religion question

I’ll never forget the time I was sitting around the lunch table with my Japanese coworkers and someone asked me about my religion.

At the time, I subscribed to a New Age religion.  Nervously, I told them its name.

The reply?  “I’ve never heard of that before.  Where is it from, Europe?”

My religion wasn’t “from Europe” or anywhere else, really.  It wasn’t anybody’s tradition; it was a modern invention.  As I struggled to answer, I felt the dissonance between our worldviews.  To my Japanese coworkers, religion was as matter-of-fact as nationality.  Having a personal, pet explanation of how the world works, some kind of “ism” that one subscribes to, might be considered enlightened and fashionable in the modern West, but in Japan it makes you sound like you’ve given up on reality and gone off to live in la-la land.

Which, to be honest, I had.

I realized, in that moment, that my religion was something fragile that needed protection inside an accepting mind.  When it was exposed to the harsh light of reality, it was exposed as disconnected from that reality.

And I felt that the next time I was asked about my religion in a Japanese office, I wanted to give a different answer.

It was an opportunity I would be granted.

Some time later, my organization rented out the second floor of an Italian restaurant for the welcome party for our new coworkers.  As was the practice, we drew numbers to see where we’d be sitting.  My tablemates turned out to be my boss’ boss and his boss, two men each old enough to be my father.  They belonged to a  strict and serious generation with impeccable posture.

Just when it looked like things were about to get horribly awkward–they didn’t.  Both men turned out to be humble and fascinating, and we were soon deep in a conversation about Buddhism.  Then my boss’ boss turned to me and asked, “But you’re a Christian, aren’t you?”

I was still a New Ager.  But I knew what he meant.  I was your average white American.  It was safe to say that my family had Christian roots.  In the context of a conversation with a Japanese man of his age, the correct answer to this question was yes.  It wasn’t about my personal opinions.  It was about where Providence had placed me.

Then it struck me.  Looking into the grave but kind face of this man old enough to be my father, I got the feeling he wasn’t the one asking me the question.

I got the feeling things were about to get crazy.

“Yes,” I said.

 

 

Shin Godzilla: A question of approach

Today I went to see the movie Shin Godzilla.  It’s actually the first Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen, and was more thought-provoking than I expected.  Specifically, I think the movie is a nuanced critique of Japanese and Western decision-making processes.

The first part of the movie is a scathing–and hilarious–commentary on the frustrating ineffectuality of Japanese bureaucracy.  Godzilla wreaks destruction on the capital while the government squabbles over which department’s jurisdiction the monster falls under.  Entire neighborhoods are flattened while higher-ups bemoan their names being tied to the whole affair.  And of course, all decisions have to be approved by the Prime Minister via a maddeningly long chain of subordinates.  As someone who’s worked for the Japanese government, I’ll say . . . it was funny because it was familiar.

The hero is a young bureaucrat who’s frustrated with the system.  He warns his colleagues that wishful thinking policies are what lost the last war for Japan, and they need to stay rooted in reality.  He longs for a more results-oriented approach–something that’s generally seen as more Western.

But the movie doesn’t blindly sympathize with the West, as we see when, inevitably, the rest of the world gets involved in the Godzilla situation.  When the UN decides that it must drop an atomic bomb on Tokyo in order to defeat the monster, the characters struggle for the space to come up with a less destructive solution, complaining, “What do they care if a bunch of people in Asia lose their homes?”  Contrast this to the scene earlier in the movie when the Prime Minister calls off the first attack on Godzilla when it might endanger the safety of even one or two citizens.  One can see both the Japanese stereotype that foreigners tend to overuse the brute-force approach, and the strength of belief in the benevolence of the Japanese government toward its citizens.

What’s very foreign to the Western mind are the glimpses we get of Japan’s nature-worship when characters muse that perhaps Godzilla is a kami (roughly, god) and ought to be left alone, and again when the hero states that “humans and Godzilla will have to learn to coexist.”

But this is, in the end, an American-style action movie, and just when I was bracing myself for some contrived scene in which the (Japanese) hero gets the (American) girl, I was surprised when instead, she says that maybe he will become Prime Minister around the same time she becomes President, and he remarks in disgust that that would make him her puppet.

Well, wow.  At least we know how you feel now, Japan.

In search of faith

When I returned to the Catholic Church at the age of 29, I had a burning question:  What does it mean to be Catholic?

Every day after work, I went straight home and consumed the spiritual classics (which, alas, sailed right over my head).  I obsessively checked to make sure I wasn’t breaking any commandments.  As a result, for a long time, I utterly failed to understand what Catholicism is all about.

In the end, I realized, Jesus told us plainly:  the two greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor.  Catholicism is basically about love.

My next question was, how do I become a loving person?

Faith, hope, and love are the three quintessential Christian virtues.  And I’ve heard it argued that they go in that order:  faith in God’s goodness allows us to hope for good things in the future, and when we have hope for ourselves we then have positive energy to spare for loving others.

So that meant I had to start with faith.  And, as I would come to realize, accepting a creed on an intellectual level wasn’t enough.  I had to really live my life as if I trusted God completely that even when things looked like a total mess, they were going to work out somehow.

As it turns out, I am really, really bad at that.  I’ve met people who wouldn’t call themselves Christians at all who seem to do that better than me purely on instinct.  But I’ve come to believe the important thing isn’t to compare and nitpick and intellectualize things.  I just have to point myself in the right direction and keep walking.

I have a little angel on my desk now that says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.”  Throughout the day, whenever it catches my eye, I recognize that frustration, impatience and cynicism have crept into my heart, and I remember to return to a place of patient trust and peace.

It almost feels as if, three years after returning to the Church, I’m finally taking the first step in becoming Catholic.

When fitting in is a sign that you’re crazy

In Japan, it’s called “culture.”  Staying at work until late at night (or early in the morning) without overtime pay.  Maintaining perfect deference to your superiors even as they bully and abuse you.  Basically perfecting the art of denying yourself a lot–even healthy things.

So why are some foreigners so eager to fit into this culture?

“We’re full of self-loathing,” an American colleague once remarked at the lunch table.  I had come to suspect the same thing.  Maybe there was something about Japanese culture that appealed to us codependent types.

Only, as I had discovered, it was difficult for someone from a Christian background to sink to the depths of self-abandonment the Japanese were capable of.  My self-loathing had limits, and when I reached them, I would direct my anger outward at whoever it was who was currently making my life difficult.

Perhaps only the Japanese could have pushed me to my breaking point, and perhaps that needed to be done in order to wake me up to my own expectations of how people should treat me.

Interestingly, I think it was beginning to realize this–that there was some part of me, deep inside, that would not accept the erasure of my healthy sense of self-assertion–that cured me of my desire to assimilate into Japanese culture.  As the Church would say, I became aware that I believed in my own dignity as a human being.

After returning to the Church, though, I would eventually learn that anger–whether directed inward or outward–was not something to aspire to.  And so, after praying many novenas to Mary, Untier of Knots, and slowly becoming aware of my issues, I’ve embarked on a journey of learning to be assertive–changing the things I can and accepting the things I can’t, as the prayer goes.