Senbazuru: Wishes for the End of Vengeance
I woke up on a Friday, March 11th, 2011, feeling fresh, peaceful, surprisingly well rested. My roommate was still in his room having not left for work. He was standing watching his television.
“There were giant earthquakes in Japan,” he whispered; his face was still, cold and pale as limestone. He has a unique tie to Japan, having spent time there and having made friends.
I feel the chilled stillness take my heart and I choke, feeling unable to grasp any peaceful humor from a situation in which 10,000 people have washed up on the shores or crumbled with the earth of their country at this point. Nuclear emergency, swelling tsunamis, a fury of the shaking earth threatening a country with which my country has a strange and compelling relationship.
I hadn’t thought to write something about this terrible event, this mass death by our common mother, but then I began really deeply thinking about something I saw posted on the internet.
I’ve seen more of these groups and tweets than I can count. It had never, ever occurred to me that anyone anywhere in this world would think positively of this horrible tragedy, that people would actually cheer the deaths of innocent people.
Then I felt stupid. Of course there are people who are going to look positively on this. I have noticed that I am surrounded by a culture obsessed with vengeance, with grudges, with winning. I am surrounded by bullies.
None of these people stopped and thought about how The United States of America did grasp and grip retribution for the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. 2,402 men were killed and 1,282 were injured. For that tragedy the blind fist of righteousness struck a blow with its most immediate and irresistible weapon: The Atomic Bomb.
So let’s think about this: for 2,400 murders our country committed 200,000. No, wait, more. They left a lingering sickness behind that was never felt at Pearl Harbor. They left radiation. They left cancer. They left the seed of slow-perennial death.
Sadako Sasaki was a young girl. Within her was planted the seed; from foreigners angry with men she’d never known. She is famous for her wish, a wish for life through the beautiful imagery of paper cranes, 1,000 of them. She scrounged whatever paper she could to actualize hope. She hoped to find transcendence by contributing to the beauty of the world. But in the end such a wish could not be answered because vengeance would not be swayed by delicate little cranes. She died of leukemia.
I tell this story, I talk about the bombings, I talk about the malice and decayed reason of these completely disgusting people who use social media to perpetuate a vindictive legacy because it contributes to my larger point: People think of neither life nor death as immediate.
That’s it. That’s the issue. We are naturally programmed with self deception so we don’t go around thinking about death all the time. This is necessary so that we can do things with our regular lives, but our evolution with language and technology has clashed with that. Having so much non-personal contact with the world means we don’t really think about the physical life and death for the mediation; we will use any kind of technology to achieve this disassociation. The issue here is an intense amount of immediate information without tangible context. We know the timeline and events, but it’s all so scrambled, we’re so otaku at the drop of a hat that we don’t perceive time, emotional time, human time. Our Cliff Notes on life have made historical emotions memetic.
That’s what this nonsense about Pearl Harbor is: It’s a vengeance meme. None of these lords-of-the-hot-take were even alive when that massacre took place; yet because it’s part of their own historical timeline they carry the meme like they carry Wondercats or Star Trek or The Beatles when they weren’t even there. It’s a sick side effect of the unity of technology.
The vengeance meme is strong in a culture alienated from personal contact. Technology can bring us so much beauty. It can make us more connected. It can allow us to see and talk to a friend in Japan, to laugh with them and talk about their day. But the mediator makes it easy for those who hold the meme of vengeance to keep their distance and avoid any consequences for callousness. They get to wiggle in the satisfaction of their own perceived winning.
A great water separates me from the land unlucky, from the bodies of adults and children. The abstract solid entity of Japan wasn’t hit by Karma, obviously, but it also wasn’t simply hit by an earthquake. Japan wasn’t devastated. People were. Human beings living their lives parallel to mine were walking about, talking with friends, eating, sleeping, maybe even writing a post for their blog when they paused, feeling a rumbling beneath them. The rumbling swelled and it must have felt like the earth was trying to chew them up, swallow them, and consume them. They must have felt so small, overwhelmed with their total and complete inability to save themselves or anyone else.
So think of that.
Imagine being faced with your own death while also realizing that everyone you know might die in that moment with you. Imagine looking across a room at a stranger or gripping someone you love and realizing that they can not save you, that you cannot save them, and that you cannot save yourself. You realize that in a moment you will no longer see each other; you will face that which can never be known by a living person. Or maybe you’re alone. You’re alone and you are about to face that which you’ve never been able to imagine. You are about to face the complete and utter cessation of everything you are and go into the darkness with no light and no guide.
You are dead.
They are dead. Dead. Human beings. Dead. We will never get to meet them. We will never get to look at them through our computer screens on Skype. We will never get a text message from them. Maybe we’ll be Facebook friends with someone who lost their entire family that day, someone who lost a limb, ended up in a wheelchair. And maybe that’s when it will hit us. Or not.
This is what I long for in our culture: immediate empathy. Radical Empathy. That is the tangible context. I felt sedated and heavy on March 11th, 2011. I felt like the metaphorical weight of the earth was inhaling me into its core. I felt pulled toward the fault lines and the layers of rock and darkness. As I rode the streetcar home I thought about how the earth beneath me was the same earth beneath them. I felt so connected and so sad.
There’s a wonderful movie called Mindwalk that isn’t especially well known. In it, three people walk along a castle on the French islet of Mont Saint-Michel. One is a scientist whose laser research was consumed by the military industrial complex to kill people. Watch her face that. Watch how she talks about Oppenheimer. Understand that nature does not consciously act against humanity. Humanity strikes out consciously with bias and intention, as well as the disregard for ethics. The earth does not strike out or disregard. It will not grant us retribution because the earth does not feel spite. This catastrophe was not about justice or fate. There is no intentionality out there that we can blame. We can only blame ourselves for how we reacted, if we were callous or hateful. Though we can atone.
In my life I know I’ve made more than 2,000 paper cranes. Wishes come and go but their efforts remain perennial.
Sadako did not make a fist and grit her teeth before her death. She did not ask for retribution from the aura of her thousandth delicate crane. She asked for genmaicha, tea on rice. Before closing her eyes and facing that which no living person can imagine, she tasted the grassy green tea, reposed, and said, “It’s good.”