Several times in my life, I have been in circumstances in which I was not sure what I would do, that is, how I would act or react to things that were happening. Sometimes, I knew they were coming beforehand, but many times they were matters of sheer happenstance.
Once, for example, I was walking home from work in Philadelphia. The walk covered several city blocks, and, wanting to redeem the time I was reading while walking. At one point, I sensed someone in front of me, facing me. I looked up to find a man passing a knife from one of his hands to the other, staring at me and saying, “I’ve never been shot; I’ve never been stabbed.” I said nothing but walked around the man and resumed reading my book. If you had asked me how I would have handled such a situation before it happened, it’s doubtful I would have told you that I would do what I did when it happened. My behavior was not what I would have expected.
An intriguing question is what, if anything, my behavior revealed about, let’s call it, my character? Later, reviewing my behavior with the knife-wielder, I realized that it probably wasn’t especially wise to turn my back to him. So, how much do I truly know about myself? I don’t mean whether or not I like mashed potatoes, which I don’t, but what do I know about my character, the kind of person I am or think I am?
It’s easy to get hung up on the meta-question, one along the lines of free-will versus predestination. That way, so it seems to me, lies a bit of madness. My experience has been that even if everything is pre-determined, it feels like I am in charge when it is occurring. Henley’s poem, “Invictus,” succinctly captures my feeling in the heat of the moment. “I am,” he writes, “the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” That is, I could always have acted differently.
Cassius, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, echoes the same sentiment while speaking to Brutus. The text is from Julius Caesar (Folger Shakespeare Library) (p. 21).
Notice that Cassius says “at some time.”
Now, let’s look at the question of our freedom of action briefly from the other side. My example takes us from the sublime Shakespeare to my favorite cartoon character growing up, Popeye. As a boy, I enjoyed Popeye immensely. I even went so far for a time as to wear a blue navy-style shirt and a white sailor cap, my father had been in the navy, to dress like my cartoon hero. I don’t see much of Popeye nowadays. Perhaps, he’s no longer in fashion, a bit too violent and chauvinistic for today’s children or their parents. Even so, you have to admire Popeye’s creator, E. C. Segar. How can you not admire a writer whose character’s source of strength is canned spinach? By the way, I admit that, while I dressed like my hero, I didn’t eat like him. I did try it a couple of times, but instead of feeling more robust, I felt a bit queasy in the stomach.
The point I want to make about Popeye is captured in the words of his theme song: “I yam what I yam and dat’s all what I yam. I’m Popeye the sailor man!” Apparently, Popeye has entirely accepted who he is, doesn’t strive to be someone else, and offers no apologies for his behavior. He is simply Popeye, comfortable in his own skin. One might say that Popeye is whatever “the stars” have made him, and he’s okay with that.
Let’s take a brief look at a character named Kichijiro in Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence. Kichijiro, a Japanese Christian, is cast in the role of the betrayer. He is Judas for the novel’s protagonist, a Jesuit missionary named Sebastian Rodrigues. He is a self-understood coward, or at least his actions are taken to be those of a coward. For instance, in the past, he apostatized in the presence of his family to save his life. His family members did not apostatize and were subsequently executed, burned at the stake, which Kichijiro witnesses. Later, Kichijiro betrays the priest Rodrigues to the Japanese authorities.
Here is one description of Kichijiro: “It is true, of course, that there are Japanese that have endured torture for five days on end without wavering in their fidelity; but there are also cowardly weaklings like Kichijiro.” [Silence, page 19, Picador Modern Classics.]
Here’s another one: “Beside the ship’s baggage was Kichijiro. I could hear his voice. During the storm this pitiful coward made almost no attempt to help the sailors and now, wretchedly pale, he lay between the baggage.” [Ibid, p. 23].
Well, those are pretty blunt assessments of one man by another man, the one tested, the other, not yet. So, how does Kichijiro understand his actions? There is a conversation between the priest and Kichijiro concerning the death of two Japanese Christians in another situation where Kichijiro publicly renounced his Christianity. The priest chides him on his ability to always take care of himself. At this point, Kichijiro, offended by the priest’s comment, replies, referring to one of the executed men:
“Mokichi was strong—like a strong shoot. But a weak shoot like me will never grow no matter what you do.”Silence, page 82, Picador Modern Classics.
In other words, Kichijiro is what he is, and that’s all that he is.
So what can we learn about ourselves, if anything, from this? It seems to me that when I have done something which the world approves, I tend to think of myself and explain myself, as though I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul. “I did that,” I think. On the other hand, if I have done something the world frowns at and condemns, I am simply what I am; what else could I have done.
Perhaps, though, there is a third way of looking at this. Assume a person gives you a hammer, a box of nails, a load of lumber, and tells you to build a shelter. You work diligently at your task and do the best you can. Assume further that later, the official shelter inspector comes by to evaluate what you have done. You watch him walk around your construction, take notes, and then come to speak with you. He asks only one question: Why didn’t you make a brick house?
A reasonable response, I would argue, is to reply that you were not given bricks; you were given lumber and that you did the best you could with what you had to work with, a kind of Cassijiro response.
Some day, I will stand before a righteous judge, unable to hide behind anything. It is my earnest hope that I will be able to truthfully claim that I did the best with what I was given.
All the best,
Interesting post! It’s certainly very true that we never really know how we’ll react until we’re in the situation, I think the pandemic is proving to be a testing time for many people.
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