What's going on here?

I've made a commitment: to do one good deed per day. Large or small, it doesn't matter. Self-sacrificing or not, extraordinary or mundane, it doesn't matter. Just one thing every day, that's all.

The more I do good, the better I feel about myself. Truly, to benefit others is to benefit yourself. I hope this journal may inspire others who also yearn to do good. So join me on this journey, if you will, and think about the difference you can make in your own life.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Reactions: MLK Day essay

I got a number of eloquent responses to the Martin Luther King Day essay that I posted on the 19th. I'd like to share this one with you, as it puts events into a certain context.

Steve writes:
I can well remember the week after MLK was shot. That was only a few weeks before second grade finished, and even at that age (with a teacher as emotionally warm as yesterday's oatmeal), I could tell the grown-ups were really anxious. When Bobby Kennedy was killed the following June, there was open concern about revolution, or at least a complete breakdown in society. (He had waffled before entering the race, which made war protesters even angrier.) And even the skeptics had to take notice when the Chicago Democratic Convention blew up in everyone's faces in late August. (My aunt was one of the protesters.)

Why the history lesson? Well, I just wanted to echo what you wrote back to you, from a completely different angle. Things are usually not quite as bad as they seem. Sadly, they're almost never as good as they seem, either. America has seen some serious fractioning during Watergate, before, during & after Roe v. Wade, the Iranian hostages under Carter, in the Contra Scandal aftermath, both of W's elections, and 9/11. Mix in all the other momentous events since 1968 (wars and rumors of wars?), and you'll have to agree that the last 40 or 45 years have been stressful for everyone. No one seems to know just how close we are right now to the edge of a financial freefall, or whether G7 countries can shake this all off without class warfare.

My Christian faith and Midwest temperment have stood me well in getting through sticky times, and I refuse to get too pessimistic (or optimistic, even as Obama is inaugurated) about how things are going to turn out. Obama has the unenviable duty of maintaining people's hopes while dampening their expectations- it's a major question whether Americans can stay united behind him until the current mess can no longer be blamed on Bush or the neocons. But until then, when Americans start to ask hard questions about how effective Obama has been, say about late summer or early fall this year (inevitably), it's going to become more important than ever to keep a long-term perspective on short-term decisions.

Not to brag, but I made a point of trying to find out just what was the minimum I needed to survive when I was much younger. In college, I decided to see how long I could go on just water- with all sorts of body fat stored up, I went 8 days without any problem. Not long afterwards, I chose to live in a house that my brother was fixing up for his family- no hot water, no electricity, no reliable locks on the doors. I had practically no money and no companionship (having just ended a serious relationship), but even then I don't think I came close to "hitting bottom." I was borderline homeless (by choice, yes) and starved for attention and intellectual stimuli, if not for food. But the safety net that my family and close friends offered taught me a crucial lesson: what you surround yourself with is never as important as whom you surround yourself with.

That was the real test that I tried to make when I came to Japan. By now you understand just how infuriatingly distant many of the locals can seem, just when you need at least moral support. I showed up in Narita with less than $200, 4 changes of clothes, a few books, and the ability to carry on a superficial conversation in Japanese. When I decided to buy train tickets from Yamanashi to Sapporo, it took 5 minutes, but I convinced the JR ticket seller that I wanted only slow trains, no expresses- he couldn't understand why I would want to spend an extra 28 hours on a train. Jobs were plentiful then- it took me 4 days to find a full time job and move into my own apartment (with the boss' guarantee of 3 months' rent). The place was only one room (8 tatami, 25K/mo) & had a concrete floor. Until I got my first paycheck, I had to sleep on dirty clothes. I wasn't sure how long I could handle this, but I was willing to give it my best shot.

Within a year I had paid off my school loans, lost at least 50 lbs., started dating my future wife, & was doing what I had trained for in college. Things are almost never as bad as they seem.


Thank you, Steve!

Image: "Martin Luther King Jr." by Dave McKeague

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