Happy Children / Modern Life

Today, after a long day of work, I went to the beach with my dear friend to see the sunset.

We sat side-by-side in the sand, watching as the sky took on brilliant shades of orange and pink and purple. For the longest time we were quiet. We both just wanted to enjoy the natural spectacle, and to enjoy the feeling of our being together.

As the sun was dropping below the horizon and its light was beginning to dim, my friend Takahashi finally said, “People don’t appreciate things enough…”

I looked at him. Studying his dark brown eyes, his graying hair, the lines of his face, I thought to myself, He’s getting older. And I guess, so am I.

It’s a wonderful thing, this feeling of growing old with someone else.

The beach we were at was smooth and sandy, so the waves were not large. The blue-green seawater crawled toward us and then crawled away in a steady, calming rhythm. I closed my eyes, tasted the salty air, and tried to appreciate this moment with the core of my being.

“Question,” Takahashi said. “Whenever you see children, they’re almost always incredibly happy, for no apparent reason at all… and adults aren’t. Do you think that’s a bad thing?”

I smiled. “I love your questions. Let me think about it.”

It’s true, really, I love his questions. To have somebody with whom you can talk about these kinds of things… this is also a wonderful feeling, and it’s rare. I can count the number of these companions I have on one hand.

“I don’t know if I could say it’s bad, necessarily,” I replied after a while. “But I definitely think adults need to reevaluate happiness. You’re right, most children are so happy, and most adults aren’t. It’s kind of silly when you think about it – we spend our whole lives pursuing happiness. But we already had it when we were kids, and we just gave it away.”

He nodded slowly. “Why do you think we gave it away?”

I was slow with my answer, working it around in my head. He waited patiently, listening, focusing on me and my words.

“I think the act of giving our happiness away was unintentional, and for most adults, it was passive. In other words, we didn’t actively give it up. It was taken from us, and we just let it go. And I think what took our happiness from us has to do with how modern society works. It’s hard to explain, but… I don’t know, in today’s world we have so much technology and all of these gadgets and inventions that are supposed to make life better, to make work easier, to make us happier, and we spend our lives chasing after them… but at the end of the chase, when we look back at who we were before, we realize that we’ve lost everything that made us happy in the first place.”

Takahashi smiled at me when I was done.

“I like that explanation,” he said. “You’re probably right.”

For a minute we were quiet, watching the waves, watching the sun’s slow disappearance.

Then he spoke again. “So, Haku, what makes you happy? What are the things that you don’t want to let go of? Actively speaking.”

I threw my head back and laughed. “I knew you were going to ask that…”

White Butterflies

A silent moon that gives no answers
Falls to shatter at my feet,
A forest fire rages around me –
We’ve lost all semblance of control!
The waves crash steadily on a rising shore –
But tonight I don’t know what I’m dying for.

Across the planet youths hold hands
Joining voices in a single cry,
We paint our faces, change our clothes –
What other reaction can we give!
Together we promise the sun will rise –
Knowing the path to eternity is nothing but lies.

Our screams ring through the air
Electrifying gravity and time,
But every plea is met with hate –
How stupid can we be!
Thinking we can put a face to tragedy –
As if humans ever understood humanity.

A generation of children with no future
Grasps the crumbling world in their hands
But there is nothing they can do –
They can’t even save themselves!
We are butterflies cursed with an eternal migration –
And death may be our only salvation.

Zuihitsu #32

A world – ravaged by fire and flood,
Filled with man-made toxins,
Destroyed by storms and acid rain.

A world – without natural wonders,
Without a single green forest to walk in,
Without a single white waterfall to breathe under.

A world – without the millions of creatures
That used to call it home,
Creatures of every color and size and shape.

A world – torn apart by poverty and failure,
Where only the rich can afford what little there is left,
Where violence is used to ensure survival.

A world – destroyed at the hands of man,
Ruined by our greed and arrogance,
By the tragic flaws of humanity.

This is not a world in which I want to live,
And it is not a world our innocent children deserve.
So why do parents, adults, fail to do anything about it?

To the older generations I say:
You do not own this world.
You are borrowing it – from us.

We Are All Human

Everyone is deserving of respect. And I mean literally everyone.

Don’t get me wrong — respect comes in different forms, and certainly I don’t think Hitler deserves the same level of respect as Nelson Mandela. But it’s hard, if not impossible, to quantify respect and the privileges that come with it, and that’s not what I’m trying to get at. All I’m saying is this — I believe that, at the end of the day, many of our societal problems arise from a simple failure to respect other people’s basic humanity.

When we start believing that other people don’t deserve any respect at all, we change how we treat them. We give them labels, labels like “illegal alien” — which suggests that they aren’t even human, that their very existence is a crime. We refuse to listen to them and find ways to silence their stories. We create laws and policies that take away their basic rights, making it possible to spy on them, lock them up, torture them, sometimes even kill them. Look back over human history and you’ll see we’ve done this many times over. African slavery, the Armenian Genocide, Japanese-American internment, the Patriot Act, the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, the White Terror — just to name a few. While all of these were (and are) highly multifaceted, they couldn’t have happened unless one group of people decided that another group wasn’t worthy of their respect. You cannot make war, commit genocide, or oppress a population without leveraging the value of respect, without saying: she’s on the good side, so you should respect her and let her live, but she’s on the bad side, so you can go ahead and do whatever you want with her.

I believe a basic level of respect should apply to everyone — a respect that cannot be lost or taken away. If we decide to treat everyone with respect, we make a commitment to value their individual lives, to protect their basic human rights, to listen to what they have to say. And if we do that, it becomes very, very hard to hate, oppress, and murder our fellow human beings, no matter how we try to justify it.

A Short Story

It’s not always easy to respect everyone, but it’s something to work towards. In 11th grade I had a history teacher who was arguably racist, depending on your definition of the term. They said some very hateful things about non-WASP people, ridiculed many Asian countries, trampled over Native American terminology and cultures, and sugarcoated Japanese-American internment. As the days went by I became more and more critical of the little things they said, and I stopped taking notes and paying attention to their lectures. It was the first time in my life that I came close to actually hating another person – and when I started to feel that hatred, I knew it was time to put the brakes on and take a look at myself. And here’s what I realized: it’s dangerous to not have a solid, irrevocable foundation of respect in all of our relationships, because lack of basic respect breeds miscommunication, cruelty, hatred, and ultimately violence.

I could have talked to this teacher. I could have explained, I took issue with what you just said and here’s why. I could have had a respectful, open-minded dialogue, if I just went up to them and said, I want to know why you think Japanese-American internment was equatable to summer camp. Instead I sat in my chair and stewed until I felt hatred, until I felt capable of cruelty.

This story was about a simple two-person relationship. Replicate it on a grander scale, and I hope you can see how lack of basic respect can lead to systems of oppression, war, and genocide.

Do Children Deserve Respect?

At what age does someone become deserving of respect? I get that question sometimes. But if you ask me, it’s kind of a silly question. It’s not like you turn 18 and all of a sudden your life and voice matters. So my answer is this: if I say everyone is deserving of respect, I really do mean everyone, and that extends to children of all ages.

Once again, I’m talking about a very foundational level of respect, a respect for another person’s basic humanity. That six year-old throwing a tantrum in the grocery store is a fellow human being – so they’re deserving of respect, no matter how much you might dislike them right now, no matter how annoying they are. Respecting them means valuing their life, their rights, their voice, and everyone is deserving of at least that.

What about school? I always have a lot to say about our education system and how adults treat children there. Time and time again I’ve seen teachers, administrators, and staff disrespecting students, and that’s not okay. The same is often true in reverse, but in my experience, the failure of a student to show a teacher basic respect was often because they felt the teacher didn’t respect them in return. Especially in high school, a time when many students are beginning to hold jobs and external responsibilities, it’s not okay for adults to refuse to listen to them, to assume they were just lazy, to assume they just ditched class for no reason, to assume they’re self-righteous arrogant little pricks who need to be locked up and shown the meaning of discipline. When you don’t show a student of any age basic respect, you’re teaching them that humanity doesn’t automatically come with being human – instead it becomes something that you can freely give or take away. And that’s, in a word, dangerous.

The Bottom Line

Train yourself to treat everyone with respect. Value individual human lives. Listen to what people have to say, and be open-minded. Stand up for them when you see their rights being infringed upon.

This is how we fight against war, oppression, genocide, human rights violations, and simple day-to-day acts of cruelty.

Every human being matters.