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 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.

 

 

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.

Holiness, healthiness, and feeling the feels

Recently I have been reading The Tao of Fully Feeling by Pete Walker.  In this book, Mr. Walker argues that in order to be fully human, we have to allow ourselves to feel and express the full range of human emotions.  We can’t, for example, decide that we are above feeling or expressing sadness or anger.  Repressing these emotions only causes psychological dysfunction.

Reading this and Mr. Walker’s newer book on CPTSD, I realized that anxiety is an almost constant state of being with me, and has been for about as long as I can remember.  I finally had a breakthrough when I realized that my anxiety is not actually warning me about danger in the world around me–it’s my repressed childhood emotions leaking out sideways, so to speak.  Dismissing this anxiety as something unreal and not productive gives me an astonishing–and unfamiliar–sense of clarity.  I guess that’s what normal feels like.

An interesting thing happened when I went to church in this state.  I felt that God wanted me to be free of anxiety because it was crippling my ability to live as a healthy human being.  I was surprised by the thought that being holy includes maintaining one’s mental health, since this is one part of pursuing what is good, rather than what is disordered, in all areas of life.

Interestingly, Mr. Walker’s words, “fully human,” have a deep significance in Catholicism–it’s been said that to become a saint means to become fully human.

But I didn’t realize this when I first returned to the Church at the age of 29.  When I wanted to know how to be a good Catholic, I looked back to my childhood and its distorted idea of what holiness meant–basically I thought that the more I denied myself, the holier I would become.  However, I came to realize that thwarting myself was not actually producing the fruits of the Spirit.  It seemed to me that I’d been living a healthier life before I returned to the Church, but I couldn’t justify returning to that way of living without any intellectual basis for it.  Finally, with Mr. Walker’s books, I realized that my concept of holiness was lacking in humanity.

Mr. Walker himself touches on religion and points out that my issues are not uncommon in the West–we seem to have lost some of our groundedness in the reality of what it means to be human, especially in terms of accepting our negative emotions.

In fact, it seems that sometimes we can’t even understand our own spiritual heritage because of this.  How many people have, like me, been perplexed by all the “complaining” in the Psalms?  Isn’t complaining a sin?  Reading the book, I had an “Aha!” moment where it finally made sense–they’re not complaining (which is non-productive), they’re engaging in healthy emoting (processing feelings)!  Mr. Walker even points out that Jesus’ words on the Cross–“My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”–are also an example of this healthy expression of negative feelings.  Remember that the Church teaches us that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine!

One of the tools Mr. Walker suggests to rectify issues with healthy emotional expression is “reparenting.”  I think this is essentially what happened to me the first time I went to Japan.  Being a somewhat helpless foreigner encouraged grandmotherly types to dote on me anyway, and sitting in on the assemblies in the elementary schools where I worked was probably as educational for me as it was for the kids!  I can’t speak for the cities, but at least where I was, in the countryside, I feel there was still very much a holistic sense of what it means to be a healthy human being that included our emotional nature.  I often saw adults help children put words to what they were feeling, and gently suggest a healthy response.  Even adult society seemed to have more consideration for our emotional nature as human beings, lending it a charming, old-fashioned, pre-industrial feel.  I think absorbing these lessons helped me to heal from the truncation of my emotions.

It fascinates me how my experiences living in Japan, of all places, helped me to understand what Catholicism is really about.  Becoming a better Catholic requires embracing reality–something that the humble Japanese are very good at teaching.

 

Breezes and pigeonholes

In The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Father James Martin explains that the Jesuits (a Catholic religious order) are characterized by their practicality.  When it comes to finding God, they turn first to experience, rather than lofty theology.  The fact that God chose to be incarnated into this world, Father Martin says, proves that He wants to communicate with us in our everyday lives through the things of this world.

Here’s an example of one of Father Martin’s spiritual experiences in the everyday world:

Fat grasshoppers jumped among the daisies and black-eyed Susans.  Crickets hid in the grasses and among old leaves.  Bees hummed above the Queen Anne’s lace and the tall purple and pink snapdragons.  Cardinals and robins darted from branch to branch.  The air was fresh, and the field was alive with creation . . . I felt an overwhelming happiness.  I felt so happy to be alive.  And I felt a fantastic longing:  to both possess and be a part of what was around me.

This longing after the mysterious and beautiful, Father Martin says, is ultimately a longing for God.  But, he points out, the idea that God communicates with us through our experiences in this world is antithetical to the mindset of the modern West, which denies spiritual experiences altogether, instead lumping them in with “emotions”:

So you disregard that longing you feel when the first breath of a spring breeze caresses your face after a long dark winter, because you tell yourself (or others tell you) that you were simply being emotional . . . It’s a natural reaction:  much in Western culture tries to tamp down or even deny these naturally spiritual experiences and explain them away in purely rational terms.

I love his wording here:  “Western culture tries to damp down or even deny . . ..”  Isn’t that just the case?  We all have these experiences–we just don’t talk about them.  After all, the great project of the Enlightenment was to explain the entire world with no reference to the spiritual.  This necessitates lumping a whole lot of things, from spiritual experiences like the above, to inspirations, movements of the will, nudgings of the conscience–into the laughably inadequate category of “emotions.”

Guess what:  Japanese people talk about their spiritual experiences.  They’re not embarrassed to get poetic about, for example, the ways they feel inspired by the sky.  And it’s refreshing.  It makes more sense to simply admit to these things than to write a thesis trying to explain them away.  It’s more freeing–more human.

Reading Father Martin’s book, I was reminded that encouraging me to acknowledge reality–including its mysterious, beautiful and poetic aspects–was a major way in which Japan coaxed me out of atheism and prepared me to return to the Catholic Church.

If beauty makes you sad, what makes you happy?

A Japanese coworker once told me that he wasn’t happy.  He didn’t want more money or a better position.  He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.

“You need a vacation,” I told him.  It was an objective fact–I’d never actually witnessed the man leave the office.

Knowing that he liked camping, I added, “Why don’t you go camping and think about the meaning of life or something?”

“No, then I would get depressed,” he said.

That broke my heart.  I’d always thought of spending time relaxing in nature as an uplifting and spiritual pursuit.

Then I remembered a T.V. show I’d caught a snippet of once in a Japanese dentist’s office.  On this show, a group visited different tourist attractions and restaurants in Japan, and gave a witty running commentary.  One joke, in particular, made an impression on me.

After a particular experience that everyone was raving about, one man quipped mournfully, “But this will fade into oblivion too someday!”  I felt it was a particularly revealing joke, as the sincere emotion that he was making fun of was that Japanese wistfulness at the transience of things.

And I wondered if sometimes Japanese people look at beautiful things and feel sad.

Fast-forward to today, when I visited a particularly beautiful garden.  It was one of those gardens that somehow feels like a map of the heart.  It felt like a place I’d longed for–remembered or dreamed about long ago–and I couldn’t believe it was real.  It occurred to me that maybe such a place is a spiritual symbol for Heaven.

Then my mind wandered back to that coworker, and I wondered if it would do him good to spend some time in such a garden.

Or would it make him sad?