This last weekend, we watched Akiro Kurosawa’s masterpiece: Ikuru — “To Live”
This is a study of a dying salaryman, a man who has worked all his life for a mindless bureaucracy, Its protagonist, on deducing he has terminal cancer (he is told it’s an ulcer, but knows better) must face his own mortality with the realization that he has had no influence or meaning in the world. While the movie is powerful out of a personal context, it cannot be fully appreciated unless you have either worked in a soul-killing environment, know someone who has, or have seen people die at the office and found yourself contemplating their lives. In Ikuru, the protagonist is dying of stomach cancer, an interesting metaphor since it links into the Japanese concept of “hara,” where the stomach is the seat of the soul in ways more analogous to the Western concept of “having heart.” Our salaryman has had his hara eaten away over the years, until he is a shell. He first looks to see what “pleasure” he can find, and finds it meaningless. He next seeks company of a woman who seems truly alive to him, in an effort to determine what makes her different. Finally, he returns to his bureaucracy, determined to make a difference by whatever means he can. And there, he finds his hara again.
My husband worked for one of those bureaucracies, and came home complaining about the nature of the work where people were only interested in retaining their jobs and covering their behinds, and the system was designed not to promote excellence or even adequacy, but merely a perpetuation of itself. Needless to say, it was a position in government. While he was there, he resolved problems that had been outstanding for years, and got letters of commendation from members of the public his bureau was supposed to serve, but hadn’t. But he refused to do things the way he was “supposed to,” following the old ways that had been established by a long lack of caring. And ultimately, it doomed his future there. He was laid off before his first year was out, because he didn’t fit in. And it was only then he realized it was a blessing, as he might have been caught in a system that hammers down any individual who strives to rise above the herd, and become just like them as his final fate. Or maybe not. Even Kurosawa’s salaryman ultimately bucks the system and finds redemption, before his death.
I firmly believe that fate intervenes with those who are destined for greater things. My husband’s ideals burn as a bright flame, and he sees his place as one that makes a difference in the world. The shape that will take is still unknown, but he already has made a difference in small ways, in the lives of those he touched from inside a lumbering dysfunctional bureaucracy. One of the things that has bound the two of us and inspired us both is a desire to make a positive difference in the world, one that will carry on long after we as individuals are forgotten.
Recently, a coworker died. Few people in the office even knew that he had terminal cancer. He came to the office as much as he could, and delivered amazing and brilliant pieces of code, by all accounts. Apparently, some knew he had had cancer for four years, but acted as if there was nothing in the background influencing his actions. I found myself wondering what was his motivation. Was this simply a need to carry on with a semblance of normal life, or was there something more? Did he see this work as something that made a difference? Was it something he loved, that gave him a reason to get up in the morning?
Most people work as the means to an end. They put in their hours, and go home to their “real life.” I’m marginally one of those. I really enjoy writing, as well as problem solving. It’s why I can go to a job in the tech industry, even though it’s not my passion. But I write in other fields and environments, and I am also motivated by a thousand other interests and beliefs. The people who are going through the motions to make a living, and have outside lives, those are people I respect, because they do have lives. They simply do not live them at work. I could wish, however, they might find a little of their passion in what they do.
My father, on the other hand, lived his life flat out to the wire. He loved designing sets. He loved travel. He loved food, and socializing. He loved designing things, inventing things. As he got older, he managed to find a balance between them all. At the time of his death, at age 91, he had a girlfriend half his age, was working on the sets for a major TV show, was traveling all over in his “down time” months, designing engines for a racecar driver, and living life to the max. One night, he simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up. It was as he would have wanted it, flat out until he crossed the final finish line.
I’ve seen people drop dead, still waiting to do something with their lives. That’s sad. Because NOW is all we have. There is no dress rehearsal. We make every moment count, or we don’t. That’s why I can’t stand on things I did fifteen or twenty years ago. That’s why I need to move on things in the present, and not wait for some opportunity that might never come. We make our presence felt constantly—or we can simply step back and vanish. People do it all the time. But if there is a price for heaven and a price for hell, a price for influence and a price for standing aside and letting the world pass, I will pay for heaven and influence. It’s a far better bargain overall.