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.

 

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.

Anatomy of a Japanese barbecue

Recently I had the chance to work at a Japanese barbecue.  I’ve been to plenty such cookouts before, but this time it struck me afresh just how unique they are–spiritual, even.  And I knew I had to sort out these impressions and write them down, because as strange as it sounds, the Japanese barbecue was surely part of my journey from atheism to the Catholic Church.

So here’s what I feel is unique about them:

  1.  Emphasis on the team.  First of all, when you have a Japanese barbecue, you do it en masse.  In this case, it was my employer putting on the BBQ, so dozens of my coworkers and I left the office and donned matching happi (traditional jackets).  Papers were distributed in advance dividing us into teams and each person was given a specific job to do.  Every procedure, from washing our hands at the outset to carrying the empty pans back to the kitchen at the end, was carefully choreographed.  I find that there is a lot of satisfaction in working this way–it seems to make honoring the dignity of the human person and of work as much of a goal as eating delicious grilled squid.
  2. A Japanese barbecue is lo-tech.  The men fetched bags of charcoal and poured them into a metal trough, then covered it with a metal grate.  Voila–the grill.  They then carried large styrofoam crates of fresh whole fish and squid from the kitchen, presumably just the way they were received from the fish market that morning.  Everything is reduced to its bare essentials–one could feel that it was the effort of our team that converted a grassy spot into civilization–which I find gives a satisfying feeling of connection to the earth, your team, and existence itself.  You haven’t felt the soul of a grill until you’ve seen one assembled from the minimal required elements.
  3. A Japanese barbecue is gendered.  We were given no particular directions regarding the happi, but most of the women chose red and most of the men chose blue–the traditional colors for the genders.  The men were directed to carry the heavy items out into the yard, and my very gracious partner offered to do any tasks that involved running up and down a hill.  My manager saw to it that I wouldn’t be assigned to the grill, lest I burn my hands.  And it was a delight to watch the women slicing the grilled squid respectfully flatter the men on their grilling skills (it seemed to me the men’s hearts were singing at the opportunity to grill!).  Some people’s worst nightmare, perhaps, but I find that approaching gender with such reverence is like water to my parched soul.

There are other aspects of the Japanese barbecue that I struggle to describe–one would be the childlike “scripted comments” that give many Japanese gatherings their uniquely innocent character–but perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

For now, I think I can conclude that, once again, it is the Japanese art of listening–to what a human being is, to what a team is, to what work, a man, a woman, a grill, and a fish are–it is their sensitivity to and reverence for the essences of these things that makes a Japanese barbecue such a satisfying and spiritual experience.

And I think that learning to listen to these things was one of the experiences that gently led me out of atheism.

Thank you, Japan!

There, there, child

I had an interesting conversation with my sister today about a certain politician.

“I agree that he says things that are unacceptable,” I said.  “But I don’t want to attack him personally.  I just think of what the Japanese would do.”

“What would the Japanese do?” she asked.

“Well, in Japan, when someone says something that demonstrates emotional immaturity, people don’t attack that person.  They treat him like a child.  I mean, like a child that they love.  They just say, ‘Okay, this is the level of emotional maturity that this person is at.  Let’s help him get to the next level.'”

In fact, the Japanese will often indulge a person who is demonstrating emotional immaturity by agreeing with them, giving them what they want, or at least sympathizing with them.  This can have the effect of embarrassing the person into acting their age when they realize they’re being condescended to.

Of course, sometimes the only result is a pampered adult.  Ultimately, change has to come from within; the most other people can do is encourage it.

But in the end, I don’t think the Japanese would vote for someone they viewed as childish.

In my opinion, it’s actually a brilliant system that combines compassion with prudence.  Help the child grow, but leave adult society to the adults.

A country with a dream

In his book Return to Order, John Horvat II argues that what motivates human beings is a desire for the sublime.

“The sublime consists of those things of transcendent excellence that cause souls to be overawed by their magnificence,” he explains.  We don’t merely appreciate the beauty of the sublime, he says, but also “read” a spiritual meaning in it.

This brought to mind my tour of the Rococo architectural masterpieces of Europe during my atheist/New Age phase, which was motivated precisely by a desire for the sublime.  Indeed, Mr. Horvat cites the building of the cathedrals of Europe as an example of a civilization being moved to express, in the form of architecture, the magnificent spiritual order it perceived to exist.

A civilization can collectively pursue the sublime, Mr. Horvat explains, when it is united under a single dream, or a myth* that explains the origins and destiny of a people and gives them a goal towards which they can direct their labors.

And that made me think of my recent musings on the Kojiki.

I realized:  Japan still has a dream.  Vestigial though it may be, the Japanese are still culturally united in their purpose to serve the Emperor.

At least, I feel such a thing in Japan that I don’t feel in America.  Mr. Horvat describes it as the “metaphysical joy of being linked with an order of being that completes our own.”

So am I suggesting that the world should unite in the service of the Emperor of Japan after all?  No, of course not.  The Japanese themselves would be the first to point out that the West has its own dream, and that when we were true to that dream, it outshone anything else the world had ever seen.

Nowadays we embarrass the name of Christianity with our tepid commitment to its ideals.

It’s time to get back to our dream.

*Used in the broad sense of the term

Decorum: Still a thing in Japan

Normally I am not the kind of person who will jump through hoops for the “privilege” of buying something.  Telling me that something is “limited edition” is the fastest way to get me to lose interest in it.  I sleep in on Black Friday.  My feeling is, if you want my money, you had better make it convenient for me to buy your product.

But there was one time, in Japan, when I ventured out to a store to stand in line for a new release (it helped that this occurred at a decent time of day).  I was wary, though, halfway expecting a Black Friday-style mob and fistfights, visions of the news coverage on Tickle Me Elmo dancing through my head.  When I got there, what I saw shocked me.

Everybody was standing calmly in a single-file line, chatting pleasantly with the staff.  When the store opened, they let in just a few people at a time.  Nobody pushed.  When it was my turn and I entered the store, there was a refreshing sense of space.  Classical music played quietly in the background.  It was relaxing.  I found what I wanted to buy and checked out, a little bewildered at what had just happened.  It was so delightfully civilized.

Speaking of orderly lines, something that impressed me when I lived in the countryside was the way kids walked to school.  The kids walked with good posture in a neat single-file line along the side of the road.  They all wore sharp-looking uniforms right from first grade in elementary school.  Whenever the line passed an adult, they would call out “Good morning!” clearly and respectfully.  It was so delightfully civilized.

So what’s up with Japan?  At the time, the only thing I could think was that it seemed old-fashioned, somehow.  I could never quite put my finger on what it was until I returned to the Church.

When I read the Catechism, I realized that a major belief of the Catholic Church is the belief in human dignity.  It’s easy to understand this by contrasting it with its opposite:  the modern, atheistic belief that human beings are nothing more than animals.  As it turns out, this belief manifests itself in many ways in society.  When people consider anything other than a desire for food, sex, or lower prices to be “affectation,” we lose a lot of our “old-fashioned” ways that affirm each other’s dignity and worth as human beings created by God.

I find this to be especially apparent in advertising and airports.  You know what I notice?  The fonts.  There is a trend in America nowadays to use the plainest, bleakest, sans-serif fonts.  It’s as if the signs are proclaiming, “The ONLY reason this sign exists is to tell you that the razors are in this aisle.  Heaven forbid the lettering should witness to the beauty of language or remind you of anything noble in life.  This sign will emphatically NOT uplift your soul.  If we could mark this aisle with urine instead, we would.”

Okay, so fonts are far from the biggest problem we face, but I do think they’re a visible symptom of a certain mindset.  The Church has a name for this outlook:  Modernism.  My own theory is that, since this heresy is specifically a rebellion against the Church, it never took hold in the same way in Japan, where the Church was never a major influence to begin with (at least openly–but that’s a topic for another post).  So we see a situation where Japan is actually acting more Christian than America, because America is trying really hard not to be Christian, even to the point of absurdity.

I think living amidst people who were unashamed of real beauty and decorum in Japan helped to re-racinate me and cast the difference between the traditional and modernist mindsets into sharp relief.

When I finally understood what atheism really was, I stopped being an atheist.