I awoke at 7AM and walked through the coastal New England doorway with half of my earthly belongings strapped to my back. Twenty-two hours later, after a variety of trains, planes, and automobiles, I slid my Shoji (Japanese paper door) shut and tucked myself into bed for a much needed rest. Instead of sleeping however, my body had convinced itself that I was just waking up, and I was left lying awake thinking about why I'd returned to Japan.
"What an adventure!" "It's so magical living in rural Japan!" "This is an unforgettable opportunity!" "You could take your photography to the next level!" "You must complete your employment contract."
My thoughts bounced from topic to topic, trying to superficially reason through my decision to return, despite my uneasiness. I'd returned with no navigational assistance, which meant as shocking as it was, that Japan was no longer a magical adventure, but a normality. And yet, there I was, laying awake in a tatami mat room surrounded by picture-perfect wooden Japanese houses and living survivors of WWII. If I had to answer what compelled me to return here, I would say it's to learn how I live.
Part I: The Mystery of Presence
Living in rural Japan is the hardest thing I have ever done. Living abroad can be difficult by itself, but alone in a mountain village of 500 (90% elders), I often struggle with a sense of isolation. At first I felt guilty for struggling with it, but I've learned that it's a common occurrence for even the residents of the village. Yet, because I'm a foreigner, the difficulty is accentuated. Due to vast amounts of free time, language disconnects, and being labeled as an outsider, I often fail to connect with people in my village, and am forced to turn to my connections from home for meaningful conversation. It becomes even more difficult because most of my friend's social needs are met in their daily lives, so the relationships can become unbalanced with me needing them in a way that they don't need me. I wouldn't call it loneliness, or even a longing for familiarity, but I have asked myself, "what is this need that I am trying to fulfill, and is it actually a need?" Sometimes I simply need to speak English, but recently, I started to think about the importance of presence.
The wordless presence of someone you love can be the greatest thing in the world. At other times, you can find yourself surrounded by people and constant conversation, yet feel incredibly lonely.
Living where I do, I often lack the simple presence of other humans. Yet, it's not the presence of other humans that I need, but what's behind it, the meaning. Meaning is imperative to existence and takes more than one to share. Yet, it's difficult to find meaningful connection without first having each other's presence. Therefore, presence is an opportunity or foundation for the development of meaning. It's a human footstep to finding meaning.
I'm sure that meaning can be found in many ways, but at this time in my life, I almost entirely find it in being of service and importance to other people. Mary Baker Eddy writes that "happiness is spiritual, born of Truth and Love. It is unselfish; therefore it cannot exist alone, but requires all mankind to share it."
The most interesting interaction I've had while living here was barely even a conversation. A friend was working on her homework and simply left the line open while I lay in bed. All I heard was a keyboard typing, occasional breathing, and her drop something. We weren't talking, but simply taking the time to be present in each other's lives. It was so nice, and as lame as it sounds, it made me realize that I thrive off of active and natural inclusion.
For me, it’s not about cutting out chunks of time, reminiscing of the past, or even talking about problems. It’s about feeling actively connected. And there's no better way to do that than to just hang out with no pressure to make it anything more than it is. To spend time doing things together, even if it's over the phone. The claim I face on the other side of the world is disconnection, and the best way to face it is to realize that there is no disconnect.
Ultimately, what I have learned is that it's okay to have human needs and to try to meet them. What's wrong is to try and meet those needs in ways that are not effective. But rather, the avenue for meeting the need is always supplied by God. Whether it's calling a friend, sending an email, or simply saying hello to a Japanese resident, the method for meeting the need is already supplied, and I just need to be receptive to what's in my heart. God is the ever-presence of love.
Part II: The Power of Solitude
The silence screeches through the night. Except for the occasional grunt of a monkey walking through the tight cluster of wooden houses, one could mistake the village for a post-apocalyptic Antarctica. Out of the silence arises my greatest problem, myself. What do I do for the next six hours in my room? I don’t watch TV, play videogames, or have any social opportunities.
Perhaps the theme of my time here has been: how do I live? Emphasis on the I. And the greatest tool for answering the question is the double-edged sword of solitude. It contributes to the aforementioned social needs, but at the same time, I would not have learned what those needs are without being alone and listening to myself.
While in the states, a friend asked me how it is that we get to know ourselves. As simple as it sounds, my answer was: to be alone and listen without distraction. It's because, when there is nobody around, it’s impossible to be erroneously influenced. It's impossible to avoid getting to know yourself. You don't have to venture into the wilderness of Japan to be alone, but it has been a helpful environment for me.
Being in solitude can be really uncomfortable at times. It's because with nothing to distract ourselves, we are unable to avoid difficult questions that we have been putting off. Questions like: Who am I? What makes me happy? What is my relationship with God? What can I see as my career? I've often distracted myself from focusing on questions like these, and they take time and internal conflict to ponder, but the more I let myself feel, the more comfortable I have become with being alone.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman
I came back to the solitude of rural Japan and a job that's unfulfilling because as difficult as it is, it's an environment where I listen to myself and therefore learn how to live. Perhaps one of my favorite lines from Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy is when she refers to Jesus’ listeners as being unable to “accept his meek interpretation of life.” Being here has led me to learn that what I need and what society tells me I need do not usually correlate. What society tells us we need is often an over-exaggeration or dramatic interpretation of life's essentials.
Henry Drummond states that "talent develops itself in solitude—the talent of prayer, of faith, of meditation, of seeing the unseen," and I could not agree more. It is solitude that enables me to see for myself, to learn what is indispensable to coming alive. Becoming aware of what constitutes my happiness has enabled me to be free from the fear imposed by others. I don't have to listen to the erroneous thoughts of society because I have taken the time to think for myself. Instead of wrestling with hundreds of competing values, I have been able to rip the masks off of values that don't belong to me, and to focus on what's actually important to me. Solitude has enabled me to discern between the voice of my own heart, and the erroneous influence of frivolous passion/societal fear.
Lastly, solitude is indispensable to genuine leadership. Just as presence is a foundation for interpersonal meaning, solitude is a foundation for independent thinking, and how could you lead if you aren't thinking for yourself?
I gazed upon the setting sun for twelve hours. The colorless ground merged with the sky to light a bonfire like I’d never seen. We were flying over the arctic circle, so the airplane pilot and I chased the eternal sunset for longer than I thought possible. This endless pursuit made me aware of what I am doing in Japan, growing. It will never end, and will always take my whole heart for every step. But I can say with certainty that anything less would be an insult to myself. For if there is one thing I have learned of God, it is that he is the author of my heart.
Thanks for reading, if you have any questions or recommendations, please reach out! A point which I also returned to Japan to learn more about was what it means to be a member of society: mindfulness to the needs of others with whom I am not close. The Japanese are masterful at this art of social grace, and I am studying it thoroughly but couldn’t find a place to fit it into the piece. Happy holidays and looking forward to posting more content in the new year!