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A few weeks ago I was talking with my friend and co-worker about Star Trek. We had each just discovered that the other was a fan, so naturally we couldn’t help but gush about it. There are quite a few reasons why I’m a big fan of the Star Trek franchise as a whole, but while we were comparing notes, my friend mentioned something I hadn’t even considered before, and which has since stuck with me and has even become for me yet another rallying point in the show’s favour. He noted how the general trend of contemporary sci-fi/fantasy film & TV is to become grittier, darker, more cynical, and more bleak. Even the bold primary colour blue-red-yellow of Superman, possibly the most optimistic vision of a superhero ever created, has been tinted and faded into gunmetal greys and sepia tones of Zack Snyder’s vision, to suit the pessimism of our age.
What my co-worker pointed out, which is no secret of course, is that the overall trend is for these shows to become either more post-apocalyptic or more dystopian; what he appreciated about Star Trek, and I immediately agreed with him on this, was that it is so refreshingly neither of those things. In fact, it is just the opposite. Unlike every other major sci-fi franchise that comes to mind, Star Trek alone seems to be the only one that is unapologetically utopian in its outlook. I had always admired the show for its commitment to high ideals, but I never considered it in such blunt terms as “utopian”. This is a term we in our jaded age tend to look upon with scorn, or with pity at best. Yet that is pretty much what Star Trek is.
While sci-fi is often an excellent vehicle for telling cautionary tales about human folly and arrogance, too seldom do we see a picture of humanity at its very best. Star Trek seems like an outlier in its optimism. It takes as a given that humanity has overcome virtually all of the ills currently facing us today. And if that wasn’t ambitious enough, it goes beyond that and asks what we would do if we as a species didn’t have to worry about things like inequality or poverty or war or environmental degradation. The particular answer that Star Trek offers is that we could put our energy and resources into some great, lofty aspiration, such as exploring space and meeting different species and learning about the vast cosmos we live in. Because why not?
The crew of the Enterprise is not one of space warriors (Star Wars), or outlaws (Firefly), or refugees (Battlestar Galactica). Rather, they are explorers, diplomats, and scientists. They are people going out into space because they think that that’s a pretty amazing way to live their lives. The Starship Enterprise’s mission, which in my 90s childhood was recited by Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, was simple: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” I think there’s something beautiful in that statement. Even that notorious split infinitive feels right.
Of course the concept is farfetched. Currently space travel is an option available only to astronauts and perhaps intellectually-inclined billionaire playboys and literally nobody else. Even then, our version of space travel is currently restricted to the moon, and maybe eventually Mars. But the fact that anything beyond that is inconceivable is a result of our current perspective in time. The fact that it is this way now does not mean it will be this way always. Maybe none of us will be alive to see interstellar space travel, but that doesn’t mean it will never happen. Future generations may not be subject to as earthbound a fate as we have been, just as we are in many ways better off as a species than our forebears were. Star Trek casts its view forward into the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th centuries, when we earthlings don’t have the problems we do now.
Of course even if we could reach that point as a species there’s no guarantee space exploration will look anything like that. And I don’t think everything in Star Trek is something we have to strive for, anyway. As much as I adore this franchise, it has had some pretty corny moments. And just because humans have found stability and peace and a place at the table among other intelligent life forms, there is still conflict within and between galactic governments. For example, the United Federation of Planets, of which Earth is a member, was once at war with the Klingon Empire, (the two superpowers being rough stand-ins for the NATO and the Soviet Union). After that, the Federation had become embroiled in conflicts with other species, such as the Romulans, the Cardassians, and perhaps most terrifying of all, the Borg. And all is not necessarily well on the home front. There is as much political intrigue within the Federation itself as there is on its borders. After all, the series would probably not resonate with 20th and 21st century viewers if there was no conflict whatsoever in the 23rd and 24th centuries.
And after all it does seem extremely unlikely. The age of Starfleet and the Federation was only possible because all the right conditions were in place at just the right time: humans had discovered faster than light travel called Warp Drive, at the very same time that another more advanced species, the Vulcans, were in the neighbourhood, and happened to take notice of our quantum leap and thereby decide we were worthy of their attention. And all of this only came about after we finally triggered an apocalypse and finally got World War III out of our systems and came to our senses (so in a way the earth of Star Trek is like a post-apocalyptic utopia). The likelihood of all of those conditions being met is extremely unlikely. So maybe it’s cruel to imagine such a bright future when it is all so very depressingly out of reach. At the end of the day, we may not ever get to that point at all.
But, if I may boldly say, that doesn’t necessarily matter. What matters is that we imagine a possible future for ourselves at all. A good one, to boot. What matters is that we envision a better present; that we exercise our imaginative powers toward this end. Furthermore we must do this on a regular basis, and if we don’t do this on a regular basis we won’t be able to break out of this destructive cycle we have found ourselves in, and we will succumb to despair. Despair is essentially a crisis of the imagination. It is, as Lesley Hazleton puts it, “the inability to imagine oneself into the future…a failure of the imagination–of the human ability to conceive of a different reality, and to act accordingly.”* For this reason I believe that art, specifically narrative art, can be a powerful antidote to despair.
Envisioning a world like Star Trek can have the at least temporary effect of making our current world a little more like Star Trek. A little more tinged with wonder and curiosity. A little more of Captain Kirk’s boldness, a little more of Deanna Troi’s empathy, of Picard’s diplomatic poise and Janeway’s commitment to a life of principle, a touch more Spock-like logic, and a generous serving of Data’s curiosity. If this is escapism, then it is a highly useful kind of escapism. Star Trek is not really about the future, after all. It’s about us, here and now, and what we could be if we put our collective minds to it. It can have the effect of seeing the best in ourselves. It can even have the effect of making us for a time a little more optimistic.
I’m temperamentally wary of optimism. Too much of it can quickly devolve into Pollyanna-ish delusion. But honestly I’m not sure we have to worry too much about that right now. We need hope. We need to imagine good worlds not yet born that we can bring into being, however much time that may take, and however painful that may be. We need the optimism of Star Trek to counterbalance the grim view of dystopian fictions, the post-apocalyptic wastelands, the worlds of extreme decadence and decay, filled with heartless villains and slightly less heartless anti-heroes. I do love those kinds of stories as well, and I’m glad they exist, they should not have a monopoly on the imagination.
The future will not resemble anything we imagine, but we will shape it whether we are conscious of it or not. We are shaping it right now. Not just with trends in technology and politics and culture, but moment to moment on a personal level. Like it or not, we are always creating our future. So we might as well take responsibility for our creative agency. And if we don’t make the effort to imagine something, anything at all, then there will be no future to project ourselves into. And if all we can imagine is one dystopia after another, then that’s all we’ll ever get.
*Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, Hazleton, 2016
I’m continually fascinated by the power, and the pointlessness, of language. How we can do so much with it, and yet it will always fall short.
For a long time I hesitated to talk about religion and spirituality on my blog. It was not because it didn’t interest me; quite the contrary, it’s one of my favourite subjects to read and think about. And it’s not because people passionately, sometimes angrily, disagree over it either and I was worried I might be ridiculed for my own opinions (well, ok that didn’t help things.) But it’s mainly because when it comes to the heart of what all religions are trying to grasp, words will always be unsuitable to the task.
Call it what you like: God, the Tao, Logos, Buddha-mind, Atman, Freud’s “Oceanic Consciousness”–all of these are labels of the immanent, the transcendent, the numinous. None of them do justice to that which they are referring to. So it feels like a pointless exercise in speculating about the precise nature of this…whatever it may be.
In Greek Orthodox Christianity there is a philosophical tradition called “apophatic theology.” This is the practice of striving to understand God not by defining what God is, but by what it is not. Because as soon as you put a label to something, you set limits to it, and the attempt to set limits to something that is by definition infinite seems, well, a little bit silly to me. The tradition of apophatic theology didn’t seem to catch on as much in the medieval Latin Church in the west, except perhaps on the more mystical fringes of Christian thought, and the western world was all the poorer for it.
It’s similar to what the Buddha said about Nirvana. He taught his disciples how to attain such a state, but he never explicitly said what it was like. Rather, he would spend a lot of time telling them what it ain’t. He did this because it was something that not only went beyond words, but beyond all conceptual thought, so to describe it would miss the point entirely. So it’s difficult to talk about the ineffable since it is by definition beyond definition. As soon as you claim what God may be (or if God is), it’s all too easy to make an idol out of the Almighty.
But the faultiness of language is the faultiness of all symbols, including sounds and images. This is demonstrated most famously by Rene Magritte’s painting, The Treachery of Images. And it extends well beyond religion and spirituality, to include pretty much everything the human mind is capable of perceiving and identifying. A thing is not identical to our idea of a thing.
This seems self-evident, too obvious to even state. And yet how often do we forget it? How often do we become upset when the day we had planned out so perfectly did not in fact come true, thereby violating the pretty picture in our minds? How often does one fall in love with the idea of a person, rather than the person themselves, flesh and blood, warts and all? If it is even possible to “see things as they are,” it takes immense practice. And we often get caught in traps of our own making, traps of language and symbols. A beautiful idea can become a vast hall of mirrors which, if you’re not careful, you can wander in forever and never find the way out.
Yet we need words. It’s a major form of communication. It’s one of the tools we have used to become the most successful species on the planet. And words can be incredibly powerful symbols. Revolutionary, at times. But, like any other set of tools, we need to learn how to put them down at the end of the day.
The irony is that sometimes you don’t know how foolish it is to talk about such big, abstract things like God, or love, or death, until well after you’ve exhausted all words. Or if you’re confronted with those things head-on.
For example: I don’t believe in death. Of course, on an intellectual level I know it’s going to happen. The thread of my life is unspooling with every passing moment, every breath I take. Yet to me my own death is still an abstraction, and may remain so until I’m on the very brink of it. You can describe it to me all you like; it will be no substitute for the real deal. Yet you plod on and on anyway. We talk and we talk and we talk–because we must!–until we realize we’re going in circles. But sometimes it is only through all that plodding that we will realize our words are redundant.
I take some comfort from the fact that Zen Buddhism, famous for its emphasis on attempting to go beyond words and have “direct experience” of being, has a larger corpus of written texts than any other Buddhist sects. However, it’s not merely hypocrisy on their part. Rather, it’s all part of the elaborate game of enlightenment; the only way to get beyond language and thought is to push it to its absolute limits, till it reaches critical mass, until all conceptual thought become a reductio ad absurdum of itself.
So perhaps it’s useless to talk about God, love, infinity, death, and what, if anything, lies beyond it.
But this presents a bit of a conundrum for a writer, especially one like myself, who has a weakness for abstractions, for building mental palaces and forgetting how to get out of them. How do you justify plying a trade that is by its nature never going to get at the real deal? Even the language of metaphor, which appeals to our senses and our viscera, made up of imagery, specific and grounded; even this is just images referring to something else, never the thing itself. Playing with language is a risky undertaking, if you ask me. To seek the mot juste, knowing that even that is still a tool barely more sophisticated than a rock or a stick. In fact, a rock or a stick can be infinitely more eloquent than a perfect, witty phrase. Or a well-timed hug, for that matter. Actions do speak louder, after all. How can you take yourself seriously when you wield a tool as primitive as language? It’s a very humbling thought.
And here I am, babbling on uselessly. And I’ve probably already said too much.
I am not a “believer.”
When it comes to the ultimate questions of existence, I am an agnostic*, and happily so. I haven’t been to Church in years, and I don’t think I’ll be going back any time soon. The last time I went, as an adult, trying to salvage what little faith I had left. I felt like a fraud, an impostor. I was welcomed by that community with open arms, which only reinforced my feelings of impostorship.
But Easter still means something to me.
And I don’t think any of it actually happened. It is a myth.
A story doesn’t have to be factual in order to be true. And I don’t mean to diminish the story by calling it myth. Rather, I mean to elevate the importance of myth, a very human but integral way of understanding our lives. A myth doesn’t need to be “believed”, it needs to be re-enacted, even played with, like a phrase of music we may endlessly and adventurously riff off of.
We learn through a process Aristotle called “mimesis”, imitating what we see and rehearsing it in our own lives, over and over again. Which is one of the reasons why we have various storytelling arts, like theatre, film, and oral storytelling. A myth is like any other story, except it’s a more foundational narrative. And some myths are best when they are “re-enacted” as a community. That’s what ritual is.
Myth is true not if it happened once in a distant past, but if it’s happening all the time, if it lives, and if it enlarges our view of life. That’s the test of whether it still “works”. If it doesn’t do that, then a new myth must be found. For many, the Easter story has outlived its usefulness, mangled by dogma, authoritarianism, oppression, and violence.
We live metaphorically. We live narratively. And to me, the Easter story of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a marvelous story. Full of drama, grief, pathos, and joy. A story worth going back to again and again. Even when I don’t “believe” a word of it. It’s the myth of transformation that is found in countless cultures, myths, and faith traditions. So it’s not the only one available, but it’s how it has been articulated in this particular point in time, in this culture which has formed me. So to me, to say “Jesus is risen”, I split the difference between believers and non-believers. To me it is completely metaphorical, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously. In fact, it is a vital metaphor that I return to all the time.
Whether I like it or not, it’s a part of me. To borrow Richard Dawkins’s term, I am a cultural Christian. I have grown up with Christianity, specifically the Catholic version of it, and its myth is deeply embedded in my psyche. But unlike many others I am unable to reject it wholesale, even though I take none of it literally (even God is a metaphor for me). I love the stories. I still think they have something to teach me.
I know this view isn’t shared by the majority of Christians, or practitioners of religion in general. We like things to be tidy. We like this-or-thatness. Even when the reality isn’t this or that. I wish we could all revel in complexity, in paradox. I wish belief wasn’t as important to religion as it has become, both for religionists and the critics of religion. I wish the Nicene Creed didn’t begin with “We believe”, that predicate from which almost all of religion’s problems flow, and separates all humanity into the false binary of winners and losers.
I wish it wasn’t like that. Then, perhaps I would be more willing to go to church. Because then the price of admission is no longer whether or not you can swallow the veracity of an old story, but rather, whether the story still means something to you, and has something to say to you.
Because Easter does have something to say to me. Maybe not for you, and that’s perfectly fine. You likely have your own myth that supports and exalts your life. I certainly hope you do.
But to me the story of Jesus, the man from Nazareth, is still a story worth telling, and hearing.
*I say agnostic not because I can’t make up my mind, but because while I think there is likely no God resembling the particular personality of Yahweh/Allah presiding over the universe, any more than Zeus or Krishna or Aton, I think a committed stance of not-knowing is the most intellectually honest stance I can take when it comes to questions no human mind can answer once and for all. And more fun, in my opinion.
Sept. 19, 2016
Another irksome day scrambling to dry bedsheets and quilt covers for check-ins. All three of us volunteer staff were stressed and frustrated. Back sore from sleeping on bottom bunk (which is really nothing more than a thin mattress on the tatami floor). No headache today though, thank goodness. Feet already sore before I even got out the door to do exploring in late afternoon. Walking shoes not broken in yet.
Successfully used subway to access Fushimi Inari. At first the path had many people on it, but as it approached the top it thinned out considerably. Many, many, many torii, and many shrines interspersed almost like checkpoints along the path. Across from the shrines were shops serving food, drinks, souvenirs, candles, good luck charms. Vending machines too.
Many little shrines clustered together, replete with candle holders, an altar for an offering (some of which had little tetra packs of juice, milk or coffee–even a can of Asahi beer on one of them), and a slab of stone as the centrepiece with kanji written on it. Many of them covered over with green moss. Kittens and cats roaming the grounds freely.
The shrines were also accompanied by kitsune, or foxes, which guarded the shrine, and acted as messengers for the god Inari.
The repetitive nature of the pathway I was following had a hypnotic effect which put me for brief moments, in what I think is the best mindset for walking such paths. A mindset in which you become more receptive to the numinous. The immanent spirit of this place which is the sum total of the forest, the shrines, the cats, the wind as it sighs through pine and bamboo, the electric silence, punctuated by droplets falling from torii after rain. The genius loci, Inari.
Or at least I wanted to have that mindset, though the touristic part of my brain, and the over-analytical side to counter that, both together made such a feeling of reverence shallow. I wanted too many things at once, and my desires all cancelled each other out, and became burdensome, more than anything. Of course, I was projecting my own ideas on the place. I don’t even know how Japanese people feel at their own shrines, with what attitudes they approach them. Possibly nothing like mine. Inari is the Kami of rice, tea, sake, agriculture, industry, and success in worldly affairs. Hardly what a Westerner would imagine a divine being caring about. But here, the sacred and the humdrum may not be so separate as some “spiritual types” would like it to be. In the past, people have prayed to gods (including Jesus) and saints for safe passage, success in a new venture, incl. business, war, etc. This is nothing new, and not so unfamiliar as one may first suppose. You just have to take off your secular specs. Religion has always to some extent relied on commerce. Yet all the same, to me this place was enchanting, even otherworldly.
The larger shrines looked almost like cemeteries. Kept trying to get a good photo of the big spiders that made their homes above our heads, off to the sides, between the torii. And then there was the sound of the crows, that to me sounded like mad old men laughing. The cricket. A distant horn blowing from a distant temple, mingled with the sirens from the city down below.
Caught wrong train north. Ended up at Kyoto Station, a half hour away from guesthouse. So I walked from there, stopped by a “family restaurant”, for an unglamorous but affordable dinner. Nervously ate my vegetarian meal, wondering if I was spoiling the mood by being there. Wondering if I was even eating the food correctly. Didn’t know what to do with the egg they gave me. Was it hard-boiled, or raw? Didn’t want to experiment and end up making a mess of things, so I the wrapped the egg in some napkins and slipped it stealthily into my bag. Only when I was about to leave did I see a man beside me crack his egg over his bowl of rice and stir it all together. So that’s what you do with it.
Though I was tense the whole time, proud of myself for going in, not listening to the urge to run straight home, just because it’s intimidating and spontaneous. Inexplicably I had a lot of energy by the time I got back to the guesthouse. Will have to go back to Fushimi Inari before I leave Japan.
Friday, Sept. 23, 2016
Sitting by the rock garden
To my left, a young man reading Kurt Vonnegut
Then, past the garden with the waterfall, beyond my sore feet,
past the cicadas and crickets, and the thick heat
The deep and pure tone of the bonsho
Calling me, taking my body and sounding me like a bell
Followed by a sutra wafting through the air
Tempting me with Old Shakyamuni’s mutterings
The temple roof’s tiles a steely blue in the sunset. The roof of the entrance hall an elegant black slope of Japanese cypress. The temple stands out in relief against the vibrant green forest billowing up behind it.
The red-pink frog in Emperor Kameyama’s pleasure garden, sitting absolutely zazen-still on the moss bed overlooking the pond.
Pseudo-Zen thoughts: What would the tree say if it could talk? It would say itself. It can only say itself. With every sway of branch and peel of bark and burst of flower. Just like you can only say yourself. You can’t not say it. It’s too late. Whether you want to or not. You’re saying it just by being alive, you are already an utterance, a phrase, a sentence on a page in a very, very, very large book. Even when you think you are hiding from the world, and perfectly silent, you are still saying yourself. So make a choice. What will your life-sentence be about?
Walking up the path to Mount Daimonji, walking right into a spider-web
Leaping, thrashing about, spitting, brushing myself off, praying to any local deity that nobody saw how much of an ass I just made of myself
Hoping I don’t see a killer hornet this far along the forest path.
Walking back, seeing a so-called “Samurai Musician” busker in a park. Drawing his shakuhachi flute like a katana, with ritualistic precision and ceremony. He plays to a moody and elegiac track on his speakers. He wears a wide-brimmed hat, like some wandering monk. He has a little dog with him, who also wears a wide-brimmed hat. Us tourists eat it up.
Saw a small Buddhist shrine by the subway station, and beside it a huge bundle of garbage and grocery bags on a bicycle. Its owner, woman, possibly homeless, nearby. So struck by this image. The shrine and the woman with her few worldly belongings. The symbol and reminder of compassion built next a person ignored by society. Honestly, felt the urge to take a picture, and resisted, disgusted with myself for having such an impulse. If I was a photographer documenting poverty for the purpose of raising awareness and combating it amid a callous and affluent society, I might feel more justified (although even then I would feel a strong ethical dilemma). But as things stand I’m just a tourist, a visitor in a country not my own. I don’t even know that woman’s situation; I’m projecting again. Regardless, whatever the striking juxtaposition, that’s still a person trying to get by. I don’t know if there’s a right way to be a tourist, but I’m certain there is a wrong way. That’s a line I hope to not cross.
Sept. 24, 2016
The days are passing me by. Finally cracked and bought Tales of the Heike from bookstore [Tales of the Heike is considered by Westerners to be a little bit like Japan’s Iliad]. Even though I told myself I wouldn’t buy books while I’m in Japan. It’s a slippery slope from here.
Saw two hawks dive-bombing for fish in Kamogawa. Some people driving down the street in go-carts, dressed as Mario and Luigi, and an amazing guitarist busking on Shijo-dori, playing an amazing instrumental version of Simon and Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa. Went up to him after and praised his jaw-dropping guitar-work, and bought a CD of his. This place is magical.
Back in September I took a trip to Japan. It was, for all intents and purposes, my first time abroad, and alone. I saved up for this trip for months. I stayed for six weeks, volunteering at a small guesthouse in Kyoto, and since returning I’ve been wanting to share my thoughts on my trip. However, I’ve been struggling to find a way to put it all into words in a coherent way. To be able to somehow synthesize it all, to organize my experiences into tidy themes. The problem is real life is messier, and if there are common themes to my experiences, they may need more time to emerge.
So, I opted to publish my daily journal (well, more or less daily), which I kept during my trip. I cut out any of my more private thoughts I’d rather not share with the wide world. Of the parts I kept, some of it I polished a bit to be more readable, and some of it I kept intact as I had written it.
Some parts I decided to expand upon for this blog, especially if it was something I found particularly interesting or in need of explanation. Other thoughts I’ve left as is, and may not be connected to the preceding or following thoughts in any coherent way; they are merely the recording of sense impressions (e.g. “Chinese women in kimonos on their cellphones”, “The thick, heady smell of incense”, “Mumbling konbini clerks”), right as they occurred to me in that moment of writing. Perhaps to add atmosphere, to display a stream of consciousness, without judgment or comment. They don’t conform to any narrative, they don’t mean anything. They mean themselves.
I jump back and forth in time. The tense changes from present to past, for no apparent reason (my slovenliness). I decided it would be easiest to present this all in a messy, sprawling form, partly because it’s convenient for me to do so right now, and also because I’ve come to really enjoy the diary as a literary form. I hope you enjoy this one.
Sept. 12, 2016
Got on flight to Osaka.
Sitting next to a woman named Shea (Shae?) mother of teenage girl in a Wado-ryu Karate team going to Japan for a tournament. She’s from Saskatchewan. VERY chatty. This concerned me, as I was hoping for a peaceful and quiet flight. But she proved to be good company. Fun, friendly, laid back.
Very proud of her daughter, who’s the only brown belt on a team of black belts. Her daughter doubts herself all the time because of this, so Shea reminds her that she wouldn’t have made it on the team if her Sensei didn’t see that potential in her. Shea says that she, her husband, and kids, all have their own family “fight club”. Sparring in the kitchen, keeping each other sharp, alarming the neighbours with combative noises and kiai.
Shea is arguably the loudest passenger on the plane. Not a judgment, just an observation–considering we are surrounded mostly by Japanese people, most of them elderly, who are exceptionally quiet. It could also be they’re tired and don’t feel like talking much. I can relate to that. So, so tired.
We’re moving westward, with the sun, so it feels like we’re in a perpetual afternoon. I can’t see out the window, just endless white. It feels like we are nowhere.
Made it through customs!
Sept. 13, 2016
Got in to Kyoto the other night, after wandering about like a fool. Last night was hard. As I was falling asleep, I realized how alone I felt. Not knowing the staff so well, or what was expected of me yet, I felt useless. Plus not knowing the language, I felt doubly useless. And helpless. Yet even as I was freaking out trying to find the guesthouse, I was loving every second. Dodging out of the way of cars zipping down the narrow back streets. As I walked north from Kyoto station, the bright city lights stopped up ahead, met with a wall of darkness. As I got closer the “wall” became the purple evening sky and a shadowy mass below. As I approached I could see the outer walls of some great old building. My first temple sighting. Couldn’t go inside; it was a thrill just to know it was there.
Sept. 14, 2016
Conquered the supermarket “Happy” by the guesthouse. Was terrified to bring groceries up to the counter. Survived!
Drank with staff and a guest from Belgium, and two guests from northern Japan named Kanta and Tetsu. Tetsu wore a Chicago Bulls jersey, with Michael Jordan’s #23. Walked down to the Kamogawa river. (Kamogawa means “Duck River”, so I’m being a little redundant.) Yuki, the only Japanese staff member, coaxed me into climbing down into the water, and she herself slipped and fell in completely, drenching herself from head to toe. The water was not cold at this point, or deep. I managed to not fall in spectacularly, but still banged my toe against a slimy underwater stone. Discovered afterward I was bleeding profusely. Kanta and Tetsu wandered off somewhere, then we were joined by two other young Japanese guys, and we offered them a drink. Dancing to smartphone speakers. One of them was an outstanding illustrator and showed me photos of his sketches on his phone. The other was a great dancer, popping and locking like a goddamn professional…though he was apparently very insecure about his height, which he was very vocal about. His height, and the dimensions of his…other, um, anatomical features, shall we say. Ahem. Probably just the booze talking.
My boss, who’s from New Zealand, drunkenly singing “Yesterday” on ukulele. Then singing a lovely song in Japanese. A love song? Don’t know. Trying to find something to fit the mood of the couple making out nearby. They had the moon, bright in the sky, so why not some ukulele?
All of us singing “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone”, loudly, while stumbling back to the guesthouse.
Sept. 15, 2016
At Kiyomizu-dera. Kiyomizu means “Clear Water”, and it gets its name from the waterfall within its complex, although sadly I didn’t see it. Apparently in the Edo period, people used to jump off of that platform (in the photo below). If you survived the jump, your wish would come true.
Walking up the hill, “tourist brain” taking over. Expecting to “feel something”. Whatever I feel is what I’m supposed to feel, no sense in forcing or manufacturing emotion. Shrine dedicated to Kannon, bodhisattva of compassion, fountain with schoolchildren dipping into it with wooden ladles, washing their hands and mouths with water to purify themselves. The large spiders looming over the path, blending in with the surrounding verdure, almost invisible until you’re right under them. The crane by the pagoda (no, not the bird, the machine, the temple was undergoing renovations).
The extremely loud cicadas in the trees. The ground-level view of the mountain, with the pines soaring up — very vertical. Collecting donations and prayers for the 2011 earthquake victims.Sore, sore feet. The shops. The thick, heady smell of incense
Apparently, of the people who jumped (237 recorded), the survival rate was surprisingly high. 85%.
Feeling ambivalent about the exploitation and commercialization of a religious and cultural heritage site. Not letting myself fully enjoy it because of this. Uneasy.
Schoolboys asking me my name and where I’m from; I took this as an opportunity to practice my extremely basic Japanese. Except they were trying to practice their basic English. Which was already lightyears better than my Japanese. So much for that. Ah, but the origami they gave me after! Lovely. And then another group of schoolboys came up to me, repeated this routine, and gave me even MORE origami. The Chinese women in kimonos, texting on their phones.
Sept. 17, 2016
Remembering to bow is a difficult habit to get into. Not that anybody here expects me to know when and how to do it. But still. I’d like to make a bloody effort.
Sitting in tiny restaurant on street in Gion district, after seeing Kennin-ji. Founded by Eisai, who is credited for bringing not only Zen Buddhism from China to Japan, but also introducing green tea to Japan. Good move, Eisai. I bet he could never have predicted just how influential Zen would become to the Japanese ethos, how it would infuse into almost all aspects of its culture, like a robust and delicious brew of tea. And how it’s been slowly steeping in Western culture for the past century…
I’ve been making a point of including other tourists in some of my photos. It’s tempting to leave them out to try to preserve the semblance of tranquility in the temples, or cultural “authenticity”. But it would be dishonest, or at best inaccurate. They (we) are as much a part of these places as are the beautiful paintings, the Twin Dragons on the ceiling of the Dharma Hall, the moss, the rocks, the trees. No getting around it.
Kennin-ji also where the arguably more famous Zen master Dogen trained, before he went on to reform Zen Buddhism and found the Soto school. Dogen was an intellectual heavyweight in the Zen tradition, and highly regarded for his original thinking in the way he turned language on its head to change peoples’ thought patterns, and revitalized Buddhist teachings, hopefully to make enlightenment just a little less unattainable.
Oh, and have you seen this painting before?
Yep, this painting is in Kennin-ji as well. No big deal.
Was at Yasaka Shrine yesterday, and then Chion-In.
Struck by how massive this Sanmon is.
The main hall is even bigger, but sadly under construction and so covered up with a protective shell that looks like a military hangar bay.
Struggle with homesickness today. Raining all day. Damp. Smell of mold in the air. On laundry duty today. Stuck trying to dry bedsheets for hours, except the single working dryer is crappy and greedily eats up yen. With the rain outside the sheets hanging on the rooftop won’t be able to dry. A lot of people checking in at guesthouse today.
In better spirits by 3pm. Had food, less grumpy. Watching World War Z with Luisa, a volunteer from Germany. The smell of damp sheets and towels hangs in the air. Going up and down the stairs a bajillion times. Lower back acting up. Mumbling konbini clerks. The side streets at night. Remembering periodically how I’ve barely seen anything so far.
I recently read Susan Cain’s bestseller ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’. While I was reading it I had an experience I don’t think I’ve ever had before while reading a book. I felt like it was written for me.
Objectively speaking, this is complete nonsense. But the fact that there millions of people out there who have probably felt the same thing as I did will give you an idea of how resonant and, I believe, just how necessary Susan Cain’s message is. It’s been out for 4 years now, and I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to reading it. I tend to avoid making hyperbolical claims, preferring a more tentative and qualified mode of communication, but this time around I’m resisting that urge by saying that everybody should read it–whether you identify as an introvert, and extrovert, or somewhere in between.
The funny thing is that Quiet hasn’t really told me anything I didn’t already know. I knew I was an introvert long before I ever heard the term, and I knew the term long before Cain showed up on the scene. So what’s the big deal? I don’t know exactly, but maybe there’s something about reading about this topic in a book that’s made things click for me. I certainly feel more justified in some of my behaviour, and the kind of life I want to lead.
A Complex Issue
One aspect I appreciate most about Cain’s treatment of her subject is that it doesn’t oversimplify the introversion/extroversion dichotomy, which you see so often in the memes, infographics, articles, listicles, Buzzfeed videos, and blog posts (this one included) that have popped up on the internet in the wake of this book’s release and the “quiet revolution” it’s inspired. Sure, those things are probably good in some ways for tossing a decades-old term into the pop culture whirligig. But they’re just primers, no more. They are often too simplistic, reductive, and sometimes even patronizing, to really get to the heart of the matter. Nevertheless, Cain’s book manages to avoid those pitfalls, which I find refreshing.
It’s also a good reminder that there really is no substitute for a thoroughly researched and well-written book to do the job of penetrating and permeating the reader’s consciousness (hopefully for the better), and allowing for a more nuanced discussion of a subject. As a result, reading Quiet has had a far greater impact on me than all of the former bite-sized morsels of information on introversion I’ve seen floating around on the interwebs combined.
Still Waters Don’t Always Run Deep
I detest the implication that introverts are always deep thinkers, more sensitive, more bookish, more intellectual, etc. etc. than their extroverted counterparts, and that the latter are as a group more shallow, insensitive, impulsive, anti-intellectual, and straight up stupid. An incredibly offensive oversimplification if there ever was one (i.e. bullshit), and thankfully Cain doesn’t commit this fallacy. She pays due respect to the sensitive, thoughtful, intelligent, and caring extroverts among us that have and continue to make this world a far better place than it would be without them. But she understands that we have placed too much weight on the extrovert as a cultural ideal, to our own detriment. Introverts are not better, but if what Cain is writing about is true, they are not heard nearly as much as they should be because of this cultural bias.
Introversion has influenced literally every aspect of my life. The most obvious one is my social life. Throughout my 20s, I’ve often felt embarrassed, even ashamed that I have nothing to tell people I haven’t seen in a while when they ask “What have you been up to?” All I can say is “oh you know, just working, being with family, friends.” Which is true, but doesn’t cover the half of what I’ve really been up to.
I spend a lot of time reading, for example. A LOT of time. It’s not the only thing I do, but it is a major activity in my day-to-day. It’s something that’s easier to justify when you’re in school and therefore expected to be reading; when you’re out of school you’re expected to be Doing Things! So when somebody I haven’t seen in a while asks me what I’ve been up to and I say “oh I’ve been reading”…it doesn’t sound very interesting, even though to me it’s one of my favourite things to do. So I don’t say that. I say other things that might sound more impressive, or at least “useful”, but which I care less about. (Unless you don’t feel like talking at all, another perfectly legitimate introvert-ism.)
Which is absurd, because I know many people who are like me, and yet if I ran into one of them I STILL would keep up this pretense of being busier than I actually am, which in turn might prompt them to keep up the same ridiculous pretense for their own lives, and so you have a whole exchange between two genuine and thoughtful people who are just “faking it”, and nothing of substance actually gets said! What fools! How unsatisfactory!
How About That Local Sports Team?
The problem is that the questions I really like, most people never bring up in small talk. And that’s the part of conversation introverts typically have no stomach for. So already it’s difficult to put your best foot forward and make a good impression at the beginning of a conversation when the social etiquette is not designed with your personality in mind. So you just have to suffer through it as best as you can and hope they don’t lose interest and walk away before the really interesting stuff comes up.
Imagine if people opened with “What are you reading?” “What are you thinking about these days?” “What’s inspiring you?” Ok, even if you did ask me the above questions I might still stutter and stammer and mutter something only half-audible and half-intelligible, but I’d still appreciate the effort you’d be making. I think I’ll be awkward no matter what the initial chit-chat is about. So be it. But if you stick around long enough, or ask me the right questions, I probably won’t be so quiet anymore.
Making Work Work for Introverts
Ah yes. Work. How to navigate the choppy waters of the work world as an introvert? The biggest hurdle for me has been that there really aren’t a lot of entry-level jobs that are good for introverts (that I know of, anyway.) So it can be a major struggle. It can take a long time for me to feel at ease in a new job. I’ve often chalked this up to some lack of moral fibre on my part; I’ve wondered why I was so unambitious, why I tend to hold back in group discussions, why I dislike being in charge and am ok with following the lead of others, why I had little desire to ascend any sort of hierarchical ladder and lead a team of
minions peers, even if it meant a better standard of living (like, if it’s not captain of the USS Enterprise, I’m not interested, ok?).
Why did I not want what others around me want? What was wrong with me? You can see why potential employers might see these qualities as a lack of initiative. Honestly I’m amazed I’ve lasted this long in the workforce. I thought it was because I was lazy and irresponsible. I’d even wondered if I was clinically depressed.
The truth is, when I’m on my own, I feel significantly happier. I can work through problems with more ease. Only when I’m alone is my sense of self not being filtered through the expectations of other people. I feel more free. I even like myself more. I’d nearly forgotten how much of that has to do simply with my natural predisposition, rather than some flaw in my design. Nothing is wrong with me for having those preferences, simply because society around me wants me to have different ones.
My main criticism of Cain’s book is that it focuses disproportionately on the world of business and politics, arguably the most extroverted fields of all, and there’s less in it for introverts for who have no interest in entering either of those fields. But whether we like it or not those fields influence virtually every other livelihood in one way or another, so I can see why she paid so much attention to it. Also, because those are difficult fields for introverts, their success stories seems to stand out that much more. Regardless, her insights apply everywhere, to all walks of life.The more we can organize our workplaces to accommodate introverts, who make up roughly one half of the population, the better. And that goes for entry-level “joe” jobs too.
There is a chapter of Quiet where Cain focuses on the neurophysiological factors in introversion. Now I want to be careful here. Science has often been invoked to justify current human behaviour as “the natural order” of things (see: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homo- and trans-phobia), and any time I see that argument I get suspicious. We must always scrutinize our reasons.
However, I think we’d also be foolish to deny that biology does play a part in personality psychology. There is a lot of science to support the claim that introverts (broadly speaking) are wired differently than extroverts: they are less motivated by extrinsic rewards like money and status and prefer work that is more intrinsically satisfying. They have a higher sensitivity to novel stimuli than extroverts. This is why extroverts need more stimulation to feel alive, and introverts need less. This is why introverts get exhausted more easily by social interaction than their extroverted peers. This is one reason why they are more cautious, and yes, more shy.
It’s not all nature, of course. There are cultural and social conditions that factor into it as well. A painful experience can make anybody just as if not more risk-averse than someone who was predisposed to being that way. But that’s the key: introverts are people who are predisposed to it from the beginning.
It’s made me consider my own reaction to the world around me. I’m typically a cautious person. I can be spontaneous, but my default is to be more tentative. Take an extreme but nonetheless true example: it can take weeks, some times months between the moment I see a book I might want to buy, and actually deciding to buy it. I’m slow to act. I’d make a great Ent.
However, while it may be harder for me to adjust to novelty than it is for others, it does make me able to go more in depth into the things I am already interested in. There are upsides to being this way, something our culture that worships innovation for innovation’s sake doesn’t always see.
Quizás, Quizás, Quizás
Anyway, this can be a huge obstacle to living a full and rich life, which I fully acknowledge. But too often we cast these traits in a negative light. Reading Quiet has shown me that there are still virtues in in the word “perhaps”.
“Perhaps” can be infuriatingly non-commital when misused. But with it I’m able to see ambiguities and complexities in life that others might miss. It makes me more able to agree with seemingly contradictory opinions without losing my mind. It even makes me more understanding of people with different points of view from my own. Too tolerant, sometimes, to the point that I can seem to lack conviction. In other words, I might come off as cowardly. But I think it can make me more considerate of other peoples’ feelings, which may look like a weakness to some people. In interpersonal conflicts, I tend to play the diplomat.
And the key piece of information in all of this is that if, as contemporary personality psychology claims, our temperament is more or less fixed, then we should learn to work with it, not against it. We all may have “free traits” as psychologist and acclaimed professor Brian Little claims, so people like me can pretend to be extroverts for a time (and I do, lots, having been an actor for some 13 years), but we eventually need to go back to our “default setting”. It’s frustrating to recognize the limitations to your personality, but it can also be a huge relief. It’s no excuse to stop challenging yourself and growing, but this must be done in a way that plays to your strengths.
Here Come Some Contradictions
Ok, so let’s be honest. The whole introvert/extrovert thing is silly, if you really think about it. There are a lot of reasons why a person is who they is. How I was raised, who I associate with, what ideas I’ve come into contact with and at which times in my life, what I had for breakfast three days ago, what time of day it is. I am conflating introversion with other traits (shyness, cautiousness, introspection) that are not introversion itself, and effectively making the very mistake that Susan Cain manages to avoid. I’m aware that throughout this blog post I am oversimplifying.
Labels Are Constructs
I reject the idea of basing my entire personality on a single label. In fact, whenever I’m labelled anything, it can feel like a straitjacket being put on me and the first thing I want to do is wriggle out of it, set fire to it and bury it in the cold, cold ground. Also, I get a lot of enjoyment out of subverting peoples’ expectations. Human beings are far too gobsmackingly complex; the heart of our mystery cannot be so easily plucked out as that. Anybody who’s gotten to know me knows I can be outgoing, direct, bold, even zany.
I’m wary of labels, because holding on too tightly to them is what causes suffering, and it all quickly devolves into the worst kind of identity politics. But when you come across such a label, which contains within its borders a constellation of traits that overlaps with your own with a high degree of accuracy–even if at the end of the day it’s just a construct–it can be extremely useful. Even liberating.
I don’t believe temperament is destiny. I believe it’s more like character, as old man Aristotle once said. It’s what we do with the raw material we’ve inherited in life that really defines us. But whatever we do, we can do it in a way that honours ourselves.
I highly recommend this book, wherever you may fall on the vast and marvelously varied spectrum of personalities. It has helped me to accept myself a little more, and I hope you’ll get as much out of it as I did.