Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Shock and Wa

I've heard people on the news as well as read comments online that people are stunned by how the Japanese are handling the triple tragedy (earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown). People are patient in long lines awaiting their rations of food, water, and gasoline. There is no looting. No one seems to get angry at one another or fighting over critical supplies. A remarkable story I heard was that when the earthquake happened, people who were shopping in a supermarket had actually walked out of the supermarket with their groceries to wait out the earthquake, then once it was calm, they went back in the store to pay for their items! I can understand why many Americans would be stunned by this behaviour. We saw nothing but ugliness when disaster came ashore in New Orleans and there were reports of looting, robbery, and even rape at the Convention Center that served as a shelter from the storm for those who could not afford to leave town.

For those who know the Japanese or anything about Japanese culture, the way the Japanese are responding to this tragedy is no surprise at all. This is part of their deeply ingrained culture. Its hard for people to "understand" if they never grew up in it or they aren't knowledgeable about other cultures. In our culture, we are heavily indoctrinated with the mythology (pathology?) of the rugged individualist who pulls himself up by his bootstraps, where greed is the ruling ethos of our economic system, and where the Almighty Dollar is the god that most Americans worship. When such selfishness and individualism is promoted, indoctrinated, and worshiped, of course people growing up in America are going to be affected by it and not realize that there are other ways of being.

In the past dozen years, one of the things I've become interested in is trying to find out which part of me had inherited my dad's white, Midwestern American culture and which part of me had inherited my mom's Asian culture. Its an interesting mixture and often causes conflicted feelings or actions. In college, during a class presentation, one group spoke about the Japanese concept of "Wa", which I had never heard of before. In describing it, though, I had a deep feeling of understanding because it touched on that part of me that always felt out of sync with American culture. I'm not sure if Thailand has a concept of "Wa", but many of the Asian countries have shared cultural similarities, much like Europe has shared cultural similarities. Basically, "Wa" means "harmony." In Japanese culture, preserving harmony between people is the prime value. When I was preparing for my testimony on "fear" a few weeks back, I read some articles online about that emotion. I found one that intrigued me, which stated that some fears are cultural specific. The writer gave the example of a fear that exists in Japan that would not even register for Americans. Its the fear of causing another person to "lose face." This is part of "Wa." When Japanese people have conversations, they are mindful about the other person because the worst thing you can do to someone is to cause them any kind of embarrassment or discomfort. This is reflective of the conformist culture of Japan. Belonging to the race that is Japanese means you are part of a collective whole. You don't do things that would harm other people.

My dad's older brother lived in Japan for awhile in the 1970s and even dated a Japanese woman. I used to love hearing him talk about life in Japan and what they were like. He said that in Japan, you could leave your purse or wallet outside and someone would return it to you. Really? That would be awesome! That's exactly how I picture Zion!! He also said that crime was low in Japan. It was a pretty safe country. Its definitely one country I hope to see someday. I used to dream about living there when I was a young boy (in 2nd grade).

Other aspects of "Wa" include not wanting to draw attention to oneself or being loud. Quiet calmness is the ideal. And if you've ever been around Japanese girls or young ladies, you might notice one of the cutest gestures that they are known for: covering their mouths when they laugh or giggle, or in some cases, smile. Its part of the polite thoughtfulness that the other person doesn't want to see the inside of your mouth. "Wa" is about a sense of place, of inherent knowing when you belong to a group. Its most definitely an admirable characteristic, but the downside is that it can be manipulated and abused if a charismatic leader with ill intentions desires to take advantage for selfish reasons. In Japanese corporate culture, the gap between the CEO's pay and the workers is not as large as it is in America. Anyone who has ever traveled in Europe is quite familiar with large groups of Japanese tourists in charter buses. Some Japanese companies pay for their employees tourist vacations. Yes, we can most definitely learn a lot from the Japanese and their system of cultural / societal harmony. It almost seems spiritually advanced (even though many Japanese are non-religious or even atheists today). Thinking about the other person and how your actions affect them is what true spirituality is all about.

To my shocker, though, I have read some New Age spiritualists view of the triple tragedy in Japan. There are those who believe that EVERYTHING happens for a reason. So, in this view, it can lead to a rather heartless, "blame the victim" attitude regarding the disaster. I think it is dangerous and insensitive for any spiritualist to make an unproven claim that those who died or are suffering in the aftermath had pre-chosen to experience that event. I've read quite a lot of spiritual books and have not come across any that claim to know if natural disasters are actually scheduled to happen at specific periods of time. Since our planet is a moving canvas, God's ongoing work of art in which evolution is the process by which we're all subjected to, our souls incarnate into life situations with all our plans, hopes and dreams for living according to the contract we wrote in the pre-existence, one of the conditions we already know is that we are on a living, breathing planet. Natural disasters can strike at any time, any place and its not because God is angry at us or its our time to die. Sometimes, it just may be an "oops!"

I know its easier for some people to believe that "everything happens for a reason", but this means that we have no free will. We're just zombies following a preset path. Did 250,000 people choose to die in the Christmas 2004 tsunami? Did 6 million Jewish people choose to die in the Holocaust? If that was true, that means that Hitler's soul chose to come to earth to set up a system of mass genocide. I simply don't believe that is true. Hitler fell far from his life path when he became a tyrannical dictator who was responsible for millions of deaths. No soul incarnates with an intent to end other souls' life experiences. The beauty of reincarnation is that if by chance we don't get to fulfill our goals in this lifetime, especially if it was cut short by a natural disaster or someone killed us, then we'll have the opportunity in another life to pick up where we left off.

The view that "everything happens for a reason" perpetuated in New Age spiritual circles is callous. It leads to people making stupid comments to grieving families who are struggling to understand "why?" For example, one lady at church once recounted some of the comments people have made to her after her husband was taken by a rogue wave while they were strolling on the beach in Mexico, enjoying each others company in a beautiful location. Someone actually had the gall to tell her, "God needed him more than you did." WRONG! To me, its the easy answer to dismiss every death as, "it was their time to go." No one knows that. What's wrong with just grieving and going through the process of asking why and trying to make sense of it? Accidents happen and it sucks, but that's life on our imperfect world.

For me, I don't believe the idea that the Japanese people who are suffering this tragedy had made a pre-mortal existence agreement to suffer through this with dignity so that they can show the world how to behave through a crisis. They suffer with dignity because of their deeply embedded "Wa" characteristic and the rest of the world is not going to all of a sudden turn Japanese because we admire their ability to endure tragedy with dignity. Its difficult to change one's character and our country is selfish, selfish, selfish, not to mention greedy. I really don't want to be around when tragedy hits closer to home. I still remember a photo I saw in the paper after Hurricane Katrina. A guy was sitting on his front porch with a rifle across his lap. His hand-written sign said: "Looters will be shot!" He was badly in need of some "Wa."


Alison said...

Beautifully stated.

Alison said...

PS - Sansego, that's trish in the previous comment. Have to comment somehow, some way, in blogger.