Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Guest post: The Courage to Be, by Jacob Ritari

It's my pleasure to share with you today a guest post from author, Jacob Ritari. You may remember that he shared some of his short stories with us last autumn, and has been an occasional guest here before. His debut novel, Taroko Gorge, was published last year and he's been studying Japanese here in Japan for the last several months. Here are some of his thoughts on last month's earthquake and the aftermath.

The Courage to Be

I’m in an odd position. Reporting here from the front lines in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, I can only think of that Onion news report: “War Between India and Pakistan Entering Tense Sixtieth Year.” “How are people on the ground coping with this crisis?” the anchor asks his correspondent, who replies: “Well Bruce, mainly by growing old and dying of natural causes.”

Of course, the devastation further north is much worse. That isn’t to say I was entirely unaffected. Two weeks after the quake, during what would have been our normal spring break, the language school I attended announced they were canceling all classes this year. We were all told to go home immediately. In support of their decision, they cited other programs doing the same. The U.S. Government is shipping its employees home. Foreign companies are pulling their workers out of Tokyo, clogging the hotels in Kyoto and Osaka.

It is often human behavior following a disaster that accounts for the disaster’s real impact. The U.S. economy tanked after 9/11, less due to the loss of the Trade Center itself, than wary consumers to whom, for reasons that still baffle me, terrorist activity delayed the purchase of a new car or sofa. The government’s response, or immediate lack thereof, and rampant looting turned Hurricane Katrina into a compound tragedy. Four hundred and ninety-two people died in the Coconut Grove nightclub fire because they stampeded and blocked the inward-swinging doors which, once opened, could have let everybody out.

With nothing to do all day, I have no choice but to go home sooner or later. Still, I’m glad I didn’t decide to go home immediately. I ate dinner in the park today, and some high school boys and girls were playing tag, digging in the sandpit and messing around on the swings. I found it so charming because you can just imagine what was said: “Hey guys, let’s go down to the old playground and tear it up all oldschool, like in the third grade!” I don’t know, it was something I would have been sorry to miss.

courage kanjiI’m getting sidetracked though. What I meant to say was, all this has got me thinking about courage.

Every age has its characteristic virtues, and its characteristic vices. The men and women of today can hardly be tasked with a failure of sympathy. The outpouring of support and fellow-feeling from around the world has been heartening, to say the least. But what about courage?

In an age when tribes relied on the ability of men to kill each other, there were few stronger insults than calling someone a coward. In an age of anesthetic, insurance and indemnity lawsuits, it’s not a word you hear a lot. Courage has become, I think, an extraordinary virtue; apparent only when someone is diagnosed with cancer or tasked with pulling a child out of a river. It’s not something we understand as informing every decision made in a day, starting from getting out of bed.

Now, I’m not saying all foreigners who made the decision to return home voluntarily, or Japanese people stocking up on a few extra loaves of bread or bottles of water, just in case, are cowards. Some people received or interpreted information differently from me. Some people have families and small children to think about. If I had lived closer to the disaster area, I don’t know what I might have done. Rather, it seems to me the word “courage” hasn’t entered this discourse, which suggests to me that we are in this day and age losing its meaning.

The news coverage following any disaster tends to annoy me, something I first became aware of after 9/11. Perhaps my annoyance with sensationalistic news reports is a way to displace my feelings about the disasters themselves. But I’m not the only one to observe that international coverage of this earthquake, tsunami and reactor trouble seems especially high-pitched. Major news outlets, and the U.S. nuclear commission, have been caught out in inaccuracies. My favorite has to be when the AP reported a sinister “tide of a thousand bodies,” which sounds like the title of a Slayer song, and neatly added that exact figure to their “official death toll.” What really annoys me though—and having thought about this a great deal, it finally came to me—aren’t inaccuracies, or a tendency to exaggerate the scale of things which are obviously bad enough anyway. It’s the tone. Whenever Japanese people are described as doing anything, they “scramble,” “desperately,” as a “last-ditch effort.” The nation is “slammed,” it “may never recover.” This sort of language creates the impression of Japan as a nation of victims. Lip service is sometimes paid to a supposed Japanese racial trait to patiently, in a wholly passive way, bear hardship. It’s true there are words and phrases describing such an ethos: Gaman. Shikata ga nai.

Courage Anais Nin quoteBut while it flatters a certain sensibility to imagine the Japanese bearing up under hardship (due to some mysterious Oriental faculty), I have yet to read one story depicting the nation as acting swiftly, practically, level-headedly and, yes, with courage.

It takes courage for the people where I live to go about their lives as if nothing were wrong. It takes courage not to complain about blackouts or a bread shortage at the local convenience store. It takes courage to believe that while the worst might, as always, happen, we have to go on living as if it won’t. Finally, it takes courage to affirm, perhaps only on the deepest subconscious level, that should the worst happen, we would prefer to suffer it along with our friends and neighbors, than be saved alone.

The theologian Paul Tillich coined the term “the courage to be” to describe an existential courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but acting in spite of it; and we live in a world where, even if we have religious faith, there is no ultimate guarantee of safety. The guarantee instead is death. No social or scientific advancement will ever, until the end of recorded time, keep something like this, on this scale, from happening again. In our response to tragedy we confront that truth.

I submit that our basic, primordial responses in times like this is fear. Fear of course that the same thing might happen to us. Fear at the realization that suffering and death are inevitable. Fear, finally, that if times of crises are a test we might fail it; that even we, the unaffected, might fail it by saying or doing the wrong things, failing to respond in just the proper way. That by not showing the proper degree and quality of sympathy we might lose our qualification as human beings. This is the sort of human, all too human cowardice I have in mind, more than the actions of people who left the country, and I am as familiar with it as anyone. We are so quick to deliver our own view of tragedy, so strident in advancing in, and the views of others grate on us so easily (because we see of course the stridency and nervousness in them), because at times when humanity is tested, we are afraid of seeming anything less than human. The urgent need of the news media to create a narrative for this tragedy is motivated, not by ignorance or racism of any kind, but simple human fear.

Now, I’m hardly Glenn Beck’s biggest fan on the planet, but a lot of people jumped down his throat for what he said about the quake, that recalled Pat Roberson’s bizarre attempt to explain the quake in Haiti. There was this sense that of course some right-wing nutjob would say this was God’s will, so it had to be Beck; in contrasting his response with our own, we justified ourselves. But if you take the trouble to look, what he actually said was: God doesn’t cause earthquakes, but perhaps He meant this as an opportunity for us to reflect on our actions, and perhaps (the audacity!) stop doing anything we’re doing that’s bad. For Glenn Beck, that might be supporting socialized medicine. For the rest of us it’s probably other things. Accepting furthermore that the God language can be understood as figurative by nonbelievers, isn’t that actually a statement we can all get behind?

Courage posterMany people, having donated their ten or fifty or hundred dollars to the Red Cross, wonder how else they can help Japan. I submit that we can help Japan by helping ourselves, bettering ourselves. After all, how do we want this incident to look in the ninth-grade history books of tomorrow?

1. “The news media was shrill and some people were panicky, which isn’t that big a deal; it’s not like that killed anyone.”


2. “The world stood up and affirmed that the pillar of the human spirit is buried so deep in the earth that no catastrophe of science or nature can shift it one inch.”

After 9/ll John McCain who, no matter one’s political leanings, knows a thing or two about the subject, wrote a book about courage. He had a few choice words for people afraid of commercial air travel that cracked me up then, and I remember them now: “Get on the plane! Get on the plane! The odds of a terrorist killing you are lower than a tidal wave sweeping you out to sea!”

Sure, that sounds a bit ironic now. But the man was onto something.

For more on Jacob and his writing, visit Jacob Ritari's website. You can also follow him on Twitter.

If you missed them, please check out his short stories:
The Sound of the Train
Maintaining Radio Silence
Fukkatsu no Jumon
City of Dreams

Read more about Jacob's debut novel, Taroko Gorge, including an excerpt, at the Unbridled Books website.

Buy Taroko Gorge at: Amazon.com | BookDepository.com | BookDepository.co.uk |
via IndieBound

The small print: Links in this post to Amazon, or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively. Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission. For more information please visit my About Page.

Anaïs Nin quote
Cat & Mouse poster: Source unknown

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