“I will love the light for it shows me the way,
yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.” ~ Og Mandino
A year ago this week a pall of grief descended upon Japan. Its dark fingers stretched from Sendai to Tohoku, Minamisoma to Fukushima and the grief is still palpable. It’s almost beyond our human capacity to imagine what the people of Japan went through and are still facing in the shadowed aftermath of the cataclysmic earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear meltdown that gripped their country last March. Some communities were erased from the landscape. People now eat alone when once many shared their meals and the stories of their days. Scarred hearts will bleed again as the world remembers this agonizing anniversary.
Last week in the New York Times, Min Jin Lee reflected on the resilience and accepting quality of the Japanese people. She shared two Japanese sayings for when things go bad: shikata ga nai (or its less formal sho ga nai), that means “it can’t be helped”; and gambaru (or gambatte), a verb translated as “to persevere against adversity.”
The survivors of Japan have been told sho ga nai, the events of last March couldn’t be changed and gambatte, carry on. The 9.0 earthquake of March 11, 2011 could not have been avoided, nor could the ensuing power of the decimating tsunami be contained. Carrying on after such devastation is another matter. Nature humbles us to grapple with its wake. How we choose to wrestle with the consequence of our survival is up to us. There were stories of strangers leaving food outside shacks for the residents inside. Homeless people were taken in by their community. Mothers searched for children that would never be found. Awaking to the light of another day was seen as a divine gift or a sisyphean curse.
One of the survivors was Katsumi Suzuki, 72. ‘‘I am in a wheelchair. During the tsunami, I went to the second floor. Water came up to the second floor, up to my neck. All of my body was soaked.’’ How does one move beyond such events? Fear, hunger, depression, loneliness and inconsolable grief were often the only companions of so many of these brave and damaged people. Yet through it all, gambatte. Carry on. Carry on.
Our way in the west isn’t really so different. We cloister ourselves in concrete cities and metal boxes on wheels. We work out in gyms and yoga temples. Even when we step out under the sky we pull the shroud of alienation from nature and humanity close to us by clinging to our life rafts of cell phones and texting and ear buds planted firmly so as not to allow the scent of the sea or the giggle of the wind to reach our oh so frightened inner world. We carry on, sleep walking through a life where we are so disconnected from nature that few of us notice the rise and fall of the tide, the sliver of moon creasing the night or the tiny nest in the tree outside our window filled with eggs of hope and promise.
Death brings with it an oddly similar response. We hide our dying in those same concrete buildings, away from our tender tendencies to have things just so and proper. Few of us have seen a dead body and even fewer have witnessed the birthing of death with the final exhale of life. Our grief is buried deeper than our loved ones and our feeble stumbles towards it leave many of us trembling with fear and bargaining with God to take away the suffering by any means possible. We carry on, but with our heads stuck in the sand, ignoring at all possible costs the tsunami of grief that will eventually find us all.
Carrying on can take another form. Stepping fully into the present moment with its heart ripping pain and ravenous fear can be the first tentative sparks to light our way from suffering in this life. Pain and suffering are not the same thing. All of us feel pain, whether physical, mental or spiritual. All of us also have the choice as to whether we view the pain as suffering or merely as pain. The suffering is like trying not to be cold. We fight and fight not to feel what is present with us. Pain is setting down the fight and just being cold. Sitting with the darkness of our pain in mindful awareness, offering care and kindness towards ourselves and the process can open up a galaxy of stars and wonder when we are ready to feel our emotions and our connection to all that surrounds us.
I remember last year coming from a group meditation for Japan and walking home along the city streets lined with cherry trees in full bloom. I reveled in the beauty of the pink crepe paper flowers fluttering in the wind above me and the carpet of blushed spent petals on the cold grey sidewalk. Life and death, beauty and pain saw me home.
Kohei Itami, 77, said of her life today in Japan:
‘‘I can’t rush for things to be better. I try not to think far into the future. I take good care each day.’’
And that’s all any of us can do as well.