An ecumenical tidying up

At this point I am probably the last person on the planet to read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  But I did finally read it, today.  I am not sure I am the intended audience for this book–I don’t own a lot of things, and my main tidying problem is the heaps of junk mail I get that lie around unopened on my floor.  I probably need a book about how to position your garbage cans so you actually use them.

But I did find the book interesting.  What struck me the most was the idea that our purpose in life is to seek happiness, and owning gobs of junk gets in the way of that happiness.  Yet for some reason we can become more loyal to our gobs of junk than to our own happiness.  In other words, it becomes an idol!  Probably not a very conscious one for most people, since no one in their right mind would make that choice if it were presented as such.  But aren’t a lot of idols like that?

Ms. Kondo explains that proper tidying up is meant to be a major life-changing undertaking, and maybe even a little painful (in a good way).  Ineffective tidying up is tepid and surface-level only.  Again, this is true of any spiritual revolution, and seems to be an especially fitting metaphor for our times, in which boldness is often encouraged in every area except spirituality.

Ms. Kondo makes no secret of the fact that she considers tidying up to be a spiritual pursuit.  As she is a Shintoist, much of her advice supposes that inanimate objects have feelings, and that people can communicate with their houses as if they were alive.  On these points, of course, I don’t agree.  But I found it fascinating that we had had similar life experiences of rejecting materialism simply because we were both listening to reality and heard the same thing:  that our possessions are meant to serve us, and not the other way around.

(Interestingly, as a child I was very much convinced that inanimate objects had feelings, and it was only after returning to the Catholic Church that I found an intellectual basis for rejecting that belief in the idea that human beings are stewards of the earth and its resources, and not their friends or equals.)

So while Ms. Kondo and I might not describe the spiritual significance of tidying up using the same terms, or agree on the particulars, it seems to me that broadly speaking, we have moved in the same direction throughout our lives.  In her book I found one more example of my spiritual journey back to the Catholic Church being reflected in Japanese culture.

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Kado: A historical reading

Another interesting way to look at Kado:  The Right Answer is as a retelling of Japan’s history.  This, in turn, brings out another facet of the show’s religious connection.  Warning–spoilers ahead!

If one considers ‘the anisotropic’ as a symbol of ‘the world outside Japan,’ then Yaha-kui zaShunina, who forces his way into Japan proffering dreamlike technology and spouting a Nietzsche-esque cosmology, represents Western influence in the Meiji Period.  As at that time, Japan attempts to combine the foreign technology with its native values.

From the beginning, the show is unabashedly nationalistic–consider, for example, the episode where Japan outwits the UN with the power of origami.  As the show progresses, we are also given a tour of traditional Japanese values through the character of Saraka Tsukai, who takes Shindo on a day-long date to the places she spent her childhood.  She emphasizes Japan’s traditional crafts, the very human quality of low-tech production, living in harmony with the environment, and the joys of family life.  Accepting technology from the anisotropic (symbolic of Meiji industrialization) will change all that.

Shindo takes her appeal to heart (and, er, also takes her as his wife–we even get a baby before the end!) and begins to push for these Japanese values.  In the end, when Japan has been defended from zaShunina’s encroachment, we see the CEO of Setten (a stand-in for Google) conclude that what Japan has gained from this whole ordeal was knowledge of the existence of the anisotropic, which will henceforth be the subject of further research.  In other words, the philosophy safely rejected, Japan will pursue the technology.

It’s interesting to consider what, exactly, the rejected philosophy consisted of.  At first, it seems like the writers of the show want us to accept zaShunina’s claim that anisotropic beings created the universe out of boredom.  Later, it seems likely that this was only zaShunina’s delusion of grandeur, or even attempted trickery (one could also argue that zaShunina is a symbol of the devil, although that’s a topic for another post).  It’s revealed that zaShunina is proud and requires personal growth that will start with a sense of humility.  Providentially, he has come to Japan–just the place where he can learn that virtue.

Is the show suggesting a historical parallel with proud Westerners barging into Japan, all but claiming to be gods, and leaving with a healthy sense of humility?  It just might be.  After all, here is one person who went to Japan an atheist and came back a Catholic.

Kado: The Right Answer (apparently, they found it in the Catechism)

I don’t watch much anime anymore, but when I heard there was a recent series about the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I had to give it a try.  I’ve known a few diplomats in my time, and I was curious whether I could learn anything about the way they think.  After finishing the series, I can’t say whether I’ve levelled up in diplomatic mind-reading skills, but I did find a surprising Catholic connection that I wanted to write about here.  Beware:  spoilers ahead!

The series is called 正解するカド, or Kado:  The Right Answer, and the basic premise is that MOFA has to negotiate with aliens.  Specifically, an ‘anisotropic being,’ Yaha-kui zaShunina, lands his giant cube in Tokyo and begins offering mankind fantastic devices from beyond the universe with the ability to alter time and space.

As the series goes on, it becomes clear that zaShunina’s motive is, more or less, boredom–he feels that he knows it all, and resents this.  Through his contact with humans, however, he begins to develop more of an emotional side to balance out his intellectual side.  He falls in love, his love is not reciprocated, and he gets irritable and tries to impose his will by force.

Opposite zaShunina is Shindo Kojiro, a former MOFA diplomat who quits his job to become a negotiator for ‘the anisotropic.’  Shindo projects an aura of invincibility, displaying almost no emotion, which causes the codependent characters in the story (of which there are more than a few) to desperately seek his validation in the form of romantic attention.  Shindo identifies strongly with his mission as a negotiator, following the basic rule of “both sides getting something they want.”  As the series goes on and it becomes clear that zaShunina’s motives are not altruistic, Shindo considers the best outcome for humanity, while still trying to give each side something it wants.

And this is where things get Catholic.  After unsatisfying attempts to clone Shindo, zaShunina realizes that human beings are more than just ‘information’–they have a soul which can’t be copied or replaced.  What zaShunina really wants is for Shindo to ‘come back to the anisotropic’ with him, but Shindo refuses, and zaShunina realizes that to interfere with a human being’s free will is to make him something less than he is.  In other words, he cannot obtain love through force.  Frustrated, he decides if he can’t win Shindo’s love, he will kill him instead.

Shindo, who for all his lack of emotion shows a surprising capacity for self-sacrifice, first risks his life to protect Saraka Tsukai, the MOFA diplomat in charge of negotiations with the anisotropic.  Faced with the opportunity to destroy zaShunina, Shindo chooses instead–much to Tsukai’s consternation–to give zaShunina something he wants.  Not to return to the anisotropic with him, but to solve his real problem–his existential boredom–by knocking him off his high horse, solving his God complex, and proving to him there are a lot of things in the universe he doesn’t understand and can’t control.  In the end, zaShunina kills Shindo, who dies in his arms, both seeming to accept with sadness that Shindo’s ultimate motive was love and the growth of zaShunina’s soul (and by the end, it certainly appears that he has one).

I’ve necessarily left a lot of threads in the story untouched, but it seems to me that the ultimate message was that humanity will not be saved by technology or by merely human love.  It must be saved by God–by a selfless love that seeks the good of the other.  That good is to be drawn out of the myopic, mistaken little worlds we have trapped ourselves in, into the freedom of truth.  The truth is that none of us are God, and the humility to recognize that is the first step toward happiness.

And that, my friends, is about as Catholic as you can get.

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.

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.