Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Writer's Block, Japan, and Hopes for Our Children

The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.  
--William Goldman
Novelist Ernest Hemingway once said that the most frightening thing he had ever encountered was "a blank sheet of paper." Though I am no Hemingway, it provides me with some comfort to realize that even he had moments of doubt and uncertainty in the writing process. For me, there is always the concern that I have nothing worthwhile to say. Only when I acknowledge that I write for myself, to understand what I am thinking, to expand my thoughts, to feed my appetite for learning, can I put pen to paper. If others take something from my writing, discern a glint of understanding, if they are moved, angered or inspired, I will have achieved what I set out to do.

Writing is excruciatingly difficult at times, and there is nothing worse than staring at a blank computer screen uninspired. I am in good company. Tom Stoppard said that the hardest part to writing is “getting to the top of page one.” Stephen King has said that the "scariest moment is always just before you start [writing]. After that, things can only get better." Perhaps I am distracted lately, but even with everything there is going on in the world, from the battles in Wisconsin over public employee unions, to democratic uprisings in the Middle East, to the Supreme Court’s recent First Amendment decision upholding the right of mean-spirited people to protest at military funerals, I am at present uninterested in addressing what are admittedly important issues.

* * * *

For now, my thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the tragic earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan. The death toll now exceeds 10,000 and we can only pray that these days of tragedy will soon transform into months of recovery and healing. The destruction caused to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 170 miles north of Tokyo, and the announcement by Japanese officials that they are preparing to distribute iodine, which helps protect the thyroid gland from radiation exposure, reinforces my decades-long concern with the safety of such plants. I have always worried that the brilliant and exquisite technology of nuclear power is ultimately overmatched by the natural forces of the earth. In addition, there remains the still unresolved issue of safely disposing of radioactive waste. A nuclear power accident can turn into a disaster of huge proportions in the blink of an eye. It is simply not worth the risks.

The situation in Japan is worsened still by the psychological stress the Japanese people are experiencing. Having once confronted directly the destructive forces of radiation sickness on a mass scale, the only country ever attacked with atomic weapons, Japan is a nation uniquely sensitive to the dangers of radiation. It is moments like these when national boundaries look less significant and our common humanity becomes paramount. In spite of everything that has occurred, the world cannot help but be impressed with the manner in which the Japanese people are dealing with it all, with their calm, cooperative spirit, their resilience in the face of monumental disaster. It is a reminder, as The Washington Post editorialized on Sunday, “of the fortitude and neighborliness for which Japanese society has long been known.”

* * * *

The Japanese earthquake hit just a few weeks after the slightly less destructive quake in New Zealand, where my daughter Jennifer is currently studying abroad. The New Zealand earthquake was in Christchurch, while Jen is studying at Victoria University in Wellington. But when news of the quake first came over the wires, my thoughts immediately turned to Jen’s well-being. The night of the Christchurch quake resulted in a phone call from Jen’s mom, another from my parents, and two more from my sister, each asking if I had heard from Jenny and was she okay. She was fine, of course, as Wellington is 200 miles from Christchurch, but when none of us could get through to her that night, I momentarily lacked perspective until her health and safety were confirmed. When Wellington was struck by an earthquake a week later, though nothing on the scale of the Christchurch quake, anxieties were once more heightened.

There is a difficult line to draw between allowing your children to experience life in all its dimensions, letting them take risks, and continuing to hover over them with a protective glare. As parents, we want only the best for our children. I do not mean the best material possessions; rather, the best experiences, good friendships, all the things that I believe contribute to a life of happiness. Health, safety, economic wellbeing, making lifelong friends who will stand by and support them when they’re down; someday as well, finding the right spouse or life partner, or being secure enough to not settle for the wrong one, all of these things are important. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” A sense of self-awareness and inner peace, to be content with who they are and secure in what they believe, is what I desire most for my children. But as a father, how do I bestow such wisdom when I have yet to figure it out myself?

Much of life is a search for meaning, a quest for answers to life’s most pressing questions. Tragedy and loss merely reinforce such thoughts. To understand one’s true self, confident enough to journey forth in the security of that knowledge, is no easy task. For all of humanity’s searching, I know of few people who possess a deep well of life wisdom. In this, I am reminded of the movie City Slickers, in which Mitch (played by Billy Crystal) and his two best friends venture west for a month-long cattle drive, hoping to renew their spirits and to find meaning and fulfillment in their lives. In one scene, Mitch finds himself alone with their guide, Curly, played by Jack Palance, a John Wayne-tough, true-to-life cowboy who has spent his entire life on the range, riding horses and conquering the American west. If anyone has mastered life, it is Curly.

"Do you know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing,” Curly says in a deep, gravelly voice as he holds up his index finger. “You stick to that and everything else don't mean shit."

“Yeah, but what's that one thing?" asks Mitch, eagerly anticipating the wisdom of a sage.

Curly looks out over the barren land, then turns back to Mitch, "That's what you've got to figure out."

Contentment in life, happiness, wisdom; these are the things we must find for ourselves. We can hope that our children find happiness; we can teach them to value an ethical life, honesty and hard work; and we can provide them the tools and education to prepare for the long journey ahead. But in the end, we must understand that moments of true happiness are linked to nature, to finding time, to the transcendent power of the human spirit. Emotional well being does not arise from the next e-mail in a relentless life of work and toil.

Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Children today are overwhelmed with technology and information, much of it worthless and, worse, destructive to the human spirit. Eleven years into the 21st century, the cult of celebrity has remained America’s secret altar, with an emphasis on sex appeal, thin bodies, and fashionable styles. It is particularly difficult for young women, though how it affects the attitudes and sensitivities of young men is equally concerning. Add to that, the competition for grades and high SAT scores, increased economic anxieties and the uncertainties of the global marketplace, the prevalence of drugs, sex and narcissism that compete for the minds and affections of our children, and you have a full plate of worries. I thank God every day that my daughters have developed into responsible and independent young women who are genuinely nice people and who belie the pressures of youth. I have tried to instill in them the notion that they should pursue what interests them and be patient to life’s callings. But in the words of Angela Schwindt, a home-schooling mom in Oregon, “While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.”

In truth, there are no real answers. I cannot explain why the people of Japan were victims of a tragic flaw of nature, or why people every day experience loss, pain, and unfair fates. I will attempt to make sense of the world, to strive for happiness even in the face of despairing times, because I must continue to hope and dream, for myself, but mostly for my children.

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