– Tim Nyhus, former PJC Intern
Meeting Ms. Sasamori and Mr. Yamashita and hearing them speak about their lives was profoundly emotional for me. I was already fairly knowledgeable of the politics that orchestrated the terror hibakusha endured, the quantitative aspects of the destruction they witnessed, and the historical significance of the entire ordeal – I’m sure this factored in my response. Even so, I don’t know what I’d anticipated finding at the event, I only know I came away from it with so very much more to consider.
Each of these elders’ stories about the day an A-bomb wiped away the world they’d known are harsh in nature, but the language they use is not. For all the horror, there is nothing sensationalized in their telling of it. As I listened, their words seemed conveyed a tenderness that contrasted and amplified the tragedy.
In the surreality of the moment, I wasn’t entirely aware of this. I felt deep awe; I felt reverence for these people in front of me; I felt sadness for all the life and love indiscriminately destroyed by the bombs; I consciously embraced the flow of emotion. Then, along with most others in the room, I moved out of those feelings and into my intellect almost as soon as the story tellers had finished.
The event was to close with a Q & A segment, and the audience began asking questions of Ms. Sasamori, Mr. Yamashita, and the accompanying guests. Much of this was in the vein of, “What can I personally do about xyz?”, “What’s the best way to get involved in disarmament activism?”, and “Why aren’t schools teaching us this history?”, which the other guests took the lead in responding to.
One member of the audience raised their hand, was given the floor, and introduced themselves as the grandchild of Japanese Americans who’d been forcibly relocated and interned in camps during World War II. Clearly trying to refrain from rebuke, they expressed dismay over seeing how, after receiving these incomparable personal narratives, we as an audience turned toward analyses and self-referential processing.
For half a moment, that dismay seemed to connect everyone, to place the same question in all our minds. Shouldn’t we have had more to give in acknowledgement of the immense loss that these eye-witnesses conveyed, and in gratitude for the immense gift of their presence before us?
Our guests responded with grace, emphasizing the need for allowing our feelings to generate action, absolving us from any guilt over our hasty retreat from discomfort. The evening came to close with some positive, hopeful talk about the formation of a new disarmament movement.
I’ve thought of that night often in the weeks since, and my appreciation for that moment of communal reckoning has only grown. I can’t know how others experienced it, or whether people recognized what it briefly unveiled, but I feel it was a special opportunity for any who did. It’s so easy to dodge and dismiss the emotional torrents that rise inside of us, rather than staying present. Honoring emotion is challenging even for those aware of how to do it and why it matters. Courage for meeting such challenges and stamina for tolerating our own discomfort are always hard earned, and those are qualities that have to be maintained – if we don’t use ’em, we lose ’em.
When we do stay present with an emotional response as we bear witness to another’s experience, we can receive more than just information. Research has proposed that one of our evolutionary advantages as a species is the capacity for individuals to connect with others on deep and subtle levels. A true connection is made by “leaning in”, drawing threads of what has been seen, heard, and felt out from the mind into the heart. Integrating and unifying our differing ways of knowing can give new vision, illuminate the path, and invigorate our movement. Honoring this process elevates all our relations, and engaging in that higher space of creation fosters the healing we seek.
I won’t necessarily argue the value of intellect and rational thought as tools for navigating the world outside. Most of our social landscape is the result of repeated reorganization and re-codification under the very power they generate, so we can see they build the world in some respect, too. But the socially constructed world we have today is not so static and unchangeable as it seems. If you start the work of excavating the walls built up around the oldest, purest, most vulnerable aspect of your self, you may eventually see how everything – every thing, big or small – can change.