I want to compliment Angela Winter on her excellent interview with Gregg Krech [“Many Thanks,” December 2004]. It’s one of the few Sun interviews I have read straight through without stopping. It would have been easy to discount the subject of Naikan had Winter not asked the tough questions that she did.
This is an extension of Gregg Krech’s thoughts on gratitude, not a criticism of them.
When Krech lists the people to whom he’s grateful for the pair of shoes he bought, he forgets the person who made them. Most likely, this is someone in a poor nation who received less than 1 percent of the price he paid for the shoes. All of us cause endless difficulties for Third World workers by rewarding their oppressors with our spending. For this, our mental attic is stuffed with secret guilt that skews our relationship with the world. I believe that the practice of Naikan can turn this around.
While folding clothes, I say a prayer for the people who made them and for the well-being of their children and the health of their aging parents. Does this change anything? I know that it changes me. When I give to global charities, I imagine the mother who receives the goat, the father who receives the seed, or the child who finally goes to school. I receive more from Third World laborers than I can ever give back, but the more I give back, the more grateful I become.
I greatly enjoyed Gregg Krech’s explanation of Naikan. It was clear and rich, and he illuminated well the power of reflection and moving beyond woundedness.
I was disappointed, however, that he rejected the concept of self-esteem. It seems that he sees self-esteem as competitive, meaning that to esteem myself, I must believe I am better than others. When I value myself, however, I do not value only the glorious or honorable parts of me, but all of me, the good and the bad. That appreciation then extends naturally to others.
I also don’t see a need to classify my actions as either helping others or creating a burden on them. For one thing, I can’t be sure which is which. When I look back on a dramatic moment in my past, I might see a fool. But if I look back at the same event a few years later, I might see an innocent, or even a wise man playing the fool with glee. And if my action inflicted pain, then yes, I can acknowledge that, but I see no value in diminishing my regard for myself. That regard exists independently and is a source of grace and joy.
In my experience, when I predicate my thinking on an assumption of my own worth, I am more likely to act from truth. Such actions are more often honorable and compassionate, and I get to feel even better about myself. Naming myself as deficient and believing that I owe others does not work for me. I choose to see myself as a gift. I refuse to hate the man I have been. However my actions have impacted anyone, I accept myself with all the joy I can muster. If Naikan is a tool for embracing myself, I will employ it gleefully.
To say that anyone, at any time, does not deserve grace is to say that no one ever does. Grace happens, freely and eternally. I believe Naikan can show us where grace did happen when we were hurting and afraid to look.
There were some useful ideas put forth in Angela Winter’s interview with Gregg Krech, but there were some very shallow ones as well.
Of course the rapist is an individual with more to him than the act of rape, and he likely had substantial damage done to him as a child, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he caused irrevocable damage to his victim. It is this damage that we must address.
A survivor needs to believe that the world can still be a good and beautiful place despite the presence of random violence and undeserved suffering. She doesn’t need to acquire a “balanced picture” by focusing on how her abuser may have once been good to her, or how she may have hurt him. A compassionate response would encourage her to value herself again, not to remember that her uncle gave her an ice-cream cone before he raped her; and not to feel badly because she caused him trouble by telling her mother.
I quote from Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s “On Terror,” which followed the Krech interview: “I assure her that the past is over, although I know it is a lie. The past is alive. It is with us every moment, our lives slim transparencies between past and present.”
In response to the interview “Many Thanks”: I want to thank my mother for alternately neglecting and beating me throughout my childhood. I want to thank her for forgetting to feed me or pick me up from school. I want to thank her for doing drugs and having sex with strange men in the living room. I want to thank the neighbors and family acquaintances who forced me to have sex, tying my wrists and ankles to radiators and bedposts. I want to thank my family for not taking me in when I was sick and homeless. I want to thank my ex-husband for beating me and sleeping with other women while I cooked his dinner and took care of his child.
I want to thank all the people in my life who’ve judged me based on my poverty, clumsiness, and weight problem; who’ve refused polite interaction because my clothes are worn, my body is fat, and my shyness makes me suspect. I want to thank the people who’ve made up nasty stories about me and spread them as rumors. I want to thank all the people who’ve ignored me, berated me, harassed me, hurt me, beaten me, raped me, lied to me, used me, and manipulated me. I want to thank everyone for all the hurts that I hold on to, the smoldering self-hatred, rage, and sorrow that burn in my belly every day.
But most of all I’d like to thank Gregg Krech for reminding me that no matter how much I hurt, there are rich people hurting too, and they deserve to hurt in style.
Gregg Krech responds:
To Daniel J. Schmidt: I am not an advocate of low self-esteem or punitive criticism, but I do believe we have a natural tendency to think more highly of ourselves than our actions merit. Naikan allows us to reflect on the facts of our lives, without manipulating the facts in one direction or the other. Though there are times when it is difficult to determine whether my actions were hurtful or not, in most cases it is quite clear, particularly when I let down my defenses and be honest with myself. It is our willingness to try to understand other people’s experiences — specifically, their experiences in dealing with us — that is the foundation of empathy and compassion. Grace, by definition, is the experience of being blessed even though we have not earned it. Grace and humility go hand in hand.
I suggest we abandon the notions of high self-esteem and low self-esteem, for both are symptoms of the same problem: a preoccupation with the self. When we conclude that we are not separate from one another, that we have no identifiable “self,” then, perhaps, we will no longer see our neighbor’s suffering, or happiness, as distinguishable from our own.
To Name Withheld: I wholeheartedly agree that “a survivor needs to believe that the world can still be a good and beautiful place despite the presence of random violence and undeserved suffering.” But should the survivor ignore all the other facts of the relationship except the incident in which she was harmed? If we take this path, where do we draw the line? Should the husband who discovers his wife’s affair ignore the fact that she put him through law school and bore him three beautiful children? In a war where there are innocent civilians killed in addition to military casualties, which facts shall we ignore and which shall we acknowledge?
Naikan is a process of inquiry and, as such, we must be willing to acknowledge not only the harm that was done to us, but the care we received as well. The resulting picture may be more confusing, but it will be closer to the reality. From this picture we are challenged to understand and make sense of a world that is cloaked in mystery and contradiction.
To Name Withheld: I am sorry for the suffering in your past. No person of conscience or compassion could condone such harmful acts against anyone. Your letter conveys your continued suffering, a suffering that accompanies every word and line of your story each time it is restated and rehearsed. No one can change the past, but I do know a way to change your present. It begins by investigating the “in between”: What happened in between the instances of rape? What happened in between the insults? The problem with our stories is that we are too inclined to capture the drama and the suffering of life, and there is little drama in the thousands of dirty diapers that were changed for us, or an aspirin we received for a headache, or a cold glass of water on a hot day.
Primo Levi was an Italian Jewish chemist who was sent to Auschwitz. The meager rations he was given were not enough to sustain life, but he was befriended by an Italian civilian worker named Lorenzo who was working for the Germans on an industrial project where Levi and others were brought on as slave laborers. Levi’s writings bear a strong resemblance to Naikan reflection:
He brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months; he gave me a vest of his, full of patches; he wrote a postcard on my behalf and brought me the reply. . . . I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror, something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.
I encourage you to rewrite your story and search for the Lorenzos of your past, for if you can find these moments in your past, you may begin to find them in your present as well.
In Danusha Veronica Goska’s essay “Political Paralysis” [November 2004] we incorrectly named the order founded by Mother Teresa. The order’s correct name is the Missionaries of Charity.