Sunday, March 22, 2015

Getting to Know Victor Again Because of Riyoko

I'm about to read again a book I read over forty years ago because of a Japanese TV show.  If you let it, life will do things like this to you.  
The Japanese TV show is called, "Booked for Japan."  The show documents the life of famous, creative people, artists, interior designers, astronauts, etc., and then asks them to name their favorite book.  This is the book that had the biggest influence on them, their work, their life, their creative output.  
It was because of this show that I decided to start reading If Cats Disappeared from the World, (世界から猫が消えたなら) a novel by Genki Kawamura, in Japanese.  I'm into the second chapter now.  
The person of interest on a recent airing I happened to see was Riyoko Ikeda.  She is a rather famous manga or comic book artist, whose most famous work is The Rose of Versailles.  Based on the French Revolution, this series is credited with being one that helped revolutionize "shoujo" or manga for girls.  From a commercial standpoint it was one of the best-selling manga series throughout the world, was turned into a movie, a television series and a musical review that has been staged numerous times in Japan.  It's one of those works that can be termed a "media franchise."  
While watching the show, I discovered that Ms. Ikeda stopped creating manga in her forties to pursue a career as a classical singer.  This startled me.  I recalled Michael Jordan quitting basketball to try playing professional baseball.  I don't know how successful it was, this change of career, but she did succeed in auditioning for and being accepted at music schools and eventually performed professionally.  
When the conversation turned to what allowed her to make such a change, Ikeda began taking about her favorite book.  It was Man's Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl.  
"Oh..."  I nodded to myself.  "I've read that."  
It was at Damien High School in La Verne, California.  Freshman Ethics.  It was the book we were assigned to read my first term there.  
There have been a lot of books assigned to students throughout the years.  Most don't make much of a dent on most of the students.  Even me, who likes to read a lot, can't tell you about more than two or three of those assigned books.  Man's Search for Meaning is one that I could remember reading though.  Throughout the years I've heard someone mention it's title as being a book that influenced them, such as Ms. Ikeda had done on Booked for Japan.  My reaction would be about the same.  "Oh.  Yeah.  I've read that."  
Victor Frankl was a concentration camp survivor during the Holocaust.  He had been a trained psychologist before the war.  The book is more than an account of his experiences in the camp.  It was his observations as a psychologist on how the people in the camp, and to a degree those that oversaw them, reacted to their circumstances.  
Two scenes from the book have stuck with me over the years.  One takes place after the war.  Frankl describes walking with an acquaintance, another survivor, though the streets of the city they've returned to.  They come upon a bed of flowers, one that is planted across the way they are heading.  
Frankl stops to find away around the flower bed, but the acquaintance walks ahead, trampling the flowers beneath his feet, without hesitation.  When Frankl catches up with his friend, he asks him why he walked through the flowers crushing them as he had.  The friend replies that he didn't feel any necessity to turn aside.  No one raised a hand to assist them when they were arrested and hauled off to the camps to die in such numbers.  In such a world, why should he concern himself with a few flowers?  
Another scene I recall was about the person assigned the task of handing out soup to the camps inmates.  Frankl described how one person given this task would keep their head down, staring into the pot.  They would not look up from their job.  They would not acknowledge or look into the faces of whomever was standing before him.  His motion was mechanical.  Take the bowl.  Dip the ladle into the soup.  Fill the bowl.  Hand it back.  Repeat for the person that follows.  
We debated this person in Ethics class.  I remember thinking at time, and still do to a degree, that the person was working hard to be fair.  To ensure that everyone got the same serving of soup, they would not look up to see if the person before them was someone they hated or someone that was a friend.  To me, this seemed a good effort on his part.  
There were other people in the class who thought differently.  This person was abdicating their responsibility to help others in greater need.  He was being a tool of those in power, performing the task as they needed him to do.  What if someone was sick?  What if someone had a stash of food that he knew about and didn't need the meager serving being doled out?  At what point does following the rules you were told to follow become an abdication of responsibility?  These were the questions we addressed in that class.  
As Ms. Ikeda discussed the book, quoting passages from it, I wondered how much of it has stayed with me?  One of the quotes Ms. Ikeda read was...
"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
This echos a thought that I've encountered numerous times in my life that I actually advocate against.  The idea that "being happy" is something one chooses to do.  I have affirmed in the past that, if a person's is living in miserable circumstances, then it's understandable that he or she should be miserable.  It seemed to me that "being happy" in this fashion was similar to taking drugs, a false euphoria masking an objective observation of one's circumstances, which would be the first step in addressing the miserable aspects of one's life to change them for the better.  
Prompted by Ms. Ikeda's reading, I went online to refresh my understanding of the book.  That's when I discovered another quote from it: 
"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."
This has what I think is a startling implication.  Assume that one's circumstance, the conditions of one's life, can't be changed.  This may be, in many instances, a logical fallacy.  Most often the conditions of one's life CAN be changed, we either don't recognize how or feel we are unable to do so.  But taken as the premise for my argument, if one's circumstances can not be changed, then the only other option one has is, in order to remain sane and whole, is to adapt.  To changes oneself and one's outlook.  
But...  If we change our outlook.  If we change our perspective on the life we are leading, taking a proverbial step to one side or using fresh eyes, are we not changing the parameters of what "can" and "can't" be changed?  If the person I was "over there" can't change the way things are, is it not possible that the person "over here," might fight a way to do so?  
And even if the overall pattern of experience remains intact, the external conditions that dominate one's life continue to dictate what actions are allowable, the move to a different perspective may allow other nuances to come into effect, simply by making them known to the person "over here" you've become.  
Ok, Ok...  Stopping now.  Deep thinking stuff.  Take a deep breath.  Let it out.  Good. 
I made the decision to read Man's Search for Meaning again.  I want to go back to the source material and see how much of what I've been thinking is stemming from that Freshman Ethics class experience.  Who knows, it might demonstrate that High School was more important that we give it credit for being.  


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