The Value of Life

Per Medieval Otaku’s suggestion, I started reading Rurouni Kenshin, and I am absolutely enjoying it! I love the fact that it’s set in the Meiji period (or era–whichever word is most suitable >.<), as it gives me a chance to see some of the things that attracted me to the Orient in the first place–the clothing, the ideals, etc.–AND I get to learn the history of the country from the perspective of someone who’s actually Japanese.

I also like the story and character development, of course! What I see as a particularly important element (and I’m sure many people have already noticed this, but I feel like it’s worth mentioning anyway) is Kenshin’s change after reuniting with the man who taught him Hiten Mitsurugi-ryu. Spoilers ahoy! So if you haven’t read the manga or don’t know the story, beware.

So, Kenshin has been living with Kaoru, Sanosuke, and Yahiko for a while, fighting enemies old and new, until a major threat shows up: Makoto Shishio. Shishio is the major bad guy who wants to take over Japan because he got burned all over. He survived to try and take his revenge, but fortunately Kenshin manages to stop him (well, sort of). To do so our hero must return to his master Hiko Seijuro and learn one final move. But he also has to learn something else, too.

Kenshin realizes that there is actual value in living, and that, in a way, his life is not his own, because he has people who depend on him. Seijuro actually has to spell this out for him during training, and it’s Kaoru’s appearance in Kyoto that causes him to do so. Kenshin remembers this when he’s about to give up while fighting Shishio. As he’s about to let go of life, he recalls what Kaoru said, about all of them going back to her dojo alive. Then he rallies. I think it’s really awesome that he does live for others, although I think he has yet to realize that his life, too, has value, unrelated to what he can do for others.

Nowadays, I think people do so much to abuse and hurt themselves (and I don’t mean just physical abuse, but even bad habits, slacking at work, holing themselves up away from other people) because like Kenshin they don’t see that they are special, that they have their own value and dignity. Society doesn’t help that by telling them that they can do whatever they want. That seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t that make them feel better and more empowered?

Actually, it’s the other way around. Saying “Do whatever you want” shows indifference. It says, “I don’t care what you do.” Imagine a parent saying that to his child. Even if he does say, “do whatever you want,” he doesn’t actually mean it. There are always invisible strings attached, warnings against those things your parents know will hurt you but can’t stop you from doing. They can only warn you against them. If they don’t warn you, and actually say do whatever you want, then there’s a problem, because caring about someone, loving him, means wanting his good–even to the point of letting him get upset with you for pointing out where he’s wrong.

Also, saying “You can be anything you want to be” reveals the mistaken belief that everyone has the same endless potential. It seems to me that it might have grown out of  “Do whatever you want.” It’s a similar idea, but not exactly the same. Does it stem from wanting to make someone happy? To make them smile for an instant, for a moment? It may do that, but in the end this phrase will only hurt a person. What happens when a loved one invests himself in pursuing a goal for which he has no skill? What happens when time and again he tries and fails, and makes little or no progress? Should he keep spending time on something that does not make him happy, that he cannot do? No! He should find something that he can do.

He needs limits, because he can’t handle not having them. With no limits at all, he has no path to follow; he does not know what to choose; he is overwhelmed. He needs something to ground him, to point out a direction, but there’s nothing. He thinks that no one cares because no one points him anywhere, and he comes to believe these two mantras, “You can be anything you want to be” and “Do whatever you want,” and fails to see that they perpetuate the cycle of indifference, especially as they focus on the self, and not the other. (Even Kenshin can’t do what he wants all the time–he wanted to let himself die when fighting Shishio, but he didn’t.) They disregard the consequences of actions, saying that they don’t matter, how they affect others doesn’t matter. The desire for real love, for someone to care, gets buried deep down and resurfaces every once in a while. When it does, it’s painful, so he tries to distract himself with one thing or another, with things good and bad. Sometimes, it gets so bad that he just decides to end it.

All because he sees no value in himself.

That’s not to say that he thinks in these terms exactly. It’s to say that all his problems will stem from this, even if he doesn’t recognize it.

Kenshin’s case is a bit different than the one’s I’m talking about, but it is similar because he still didn’t value his life–he almost let himself die when there was no reason to! And why was that? Because he kept himself alone, isolated from other people–not on the outside, but on the inside. He tried to carry his burdens by himself. The same can be said for all those who harm themselves (and I’m not just talking about physical self-abuse, I just mean doing harmful things in general). The biggest problem is that they feel alone. And I’m not blaming them–they’ve been made to feel alone, possibly even by people who are well-meaning. I’m not really trying to blame anyone–except whoever came up with the idea that we should lie to ourselves and tell ourselves that we are all capable of everything. Telling ourselves (and others) that never makes us happy, because deep down we know it’s not true.

What we should do instead is look at ourselves, really look, and see what are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? What do we like? We don’t have to pursue what we are strongest at, necessarily, but what we should consider is, can we be happy doing this? If you can be content to be a cake-maker, but not be top-dog because you know you don’t have the skills, then that’s fine. But if you must be the best, if you must be perfect, but you don’t have the skills, then you’ll simply be miserable pursuing something that you can never attain. So we should positively encourage each other in directions that we’re capable of going, ones in which we’ll be truly happy. And we should always, always make sure that people know they’re never alone.

Ai! *scratches head sheepishly* This post went in a bit of a different direction than I was expecting. Got a bit deeper than I intended and focused less on Rurouni Kenshin. But I kinda like how it turned out.

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One comment

  1. medievalotaku · April 17, 2013

    That’s a great article on what is perhaps Kenshin’s greatest weakness: his desire to carry everyone’s and his own burdens himself. I think of him as a Christ figure, but he, being a mere man, cannot carry all the suffering of the world on his shoulders.

    I’m also happy that my suggestion provided so much enjoyment to you. May you find the Enishi arc as much of a pleasure to read!

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