“Shikata ga nai.” It’s a well-known phrase in Japanese, usually translated as “Nothing can be done.” It’s used to encourage stoic perseverance and honor, especially in the face of tragedy or injustice, which is why it’s especially tied to the Japanese-American community’s experience in the U.S. government’s mass incarceration camps during World War II.
“Shikata ga nai” is a reminder that, while we can’t control the world around us, we can control our reactions. It’s similar in some ways to the Serenity Prayer, which has lasting popularity in support and recovery groups: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Both “shikata ga nai” and the Serenity Prayer have been on my mind quite a bit since distance learning began.
We’re going on 10 months since society as we knew it shut down, and there have been a lot of opportunities to practice discernment. Plenty of chances to sigh and shrug, and to practice self-care by acknowledging that our energy is finite, and that yelling into the storm won’t do anything but make us hoarse.
I’ve been doing a pretty good job, I think, of directing my efforts towards places where I can effect change, and giving myself a break in other areas. I can control the world of my “classroom” — the card table loaded with index cards, Post-its, and candy wrappers parked in the corner of the room I share with our cats’ litter box. I can’t control much beyond that.
Last week, as I was teaching my sixth period English class, my phone began buzzing frantically as my friends and family shared breaking news about the attack on the U.S. Capitol by an armed crowd. And, though I tried to keep my mind focused on the business at hand, to focus on the things that I could control, I couldn’t help stepping out of my own head for a second and feeling dizzy with the shift in perspective — there’s just so much that I can’t control.
I felt like I was a fifth grader again, back at Camp Hi-Hill, seeing the mountain stars and realizing how tiny I was in comparison.
Because suddenly it wasn’t just a combination of weights and concerns that have become status quo since last March: the everyday stresses of my job, the needs of my family, the constant hum of concern about my loved ones staying healthy, the worry about my students’ mental and emotional well-being, the sadness as cherished traditions and beloved local landmarks fall away.
It was the fact that, while so many of us are trying to keep calm, to carry on, to say “shikata ga nai” and make the best of the cards we’ve been dealt — thousands of people let hatred and bloodlust and conspiracies and misinformation guide their actions. It was the fact that it was the privileged and powerful who encouraged the maskless, violent chaos, and then it was the vulnerable and the voiceless who were left to clean up the mess, and who will likely be feeling the repercussions for a long time to come.
On days like last Wednesday, the weight tipping the “things we cannot change” side of the scale seems too much to bear. To go back to teaching about symbolism, or designing a yearbook, or drawing a picture with my 5-year-old, seems utterly ludicrous.
But I think again about “shikata ga nai,” which is a sentiment sometimes criticized for being too passive or defeatist. And I think about how, during the incarceration years, the Japanese-American community coaxed beautiful gardens out of the barren desert and carved intricate artwork out of castaway camp furniture. And, while my little card table and my litter box classroom aren’t likely to inspire generations to come, I remember that persevering through the impossible is an act of courage, and that, at least, is something I can control.