Tales of Ugetsu

I’m buried in snow and everything’s closed.  It’s the coldest outside that it’s ever been throughout my entire lifetime.  Bundled up and tired of studying, I decided to watch a movie – Ugetsu Monogatari, an older classic.  You can watch it yourself if you want.  I’ll embed the movie.

Two peasants dream of escaping their lives of poverty as farmers.  One hopes to become a general of the samurai, riding on his horse in prestige from village to village.  The other longs for riches selling his pottery, which he does on the side.

After a little success selling clay pots, both of them feel their dreams are right around the corner.  Miyagi can finally afford samurai armor and Genjuro buys his wife a beautiful kimono.  They risk their lives doing reckless and dangerous things, all in pursuit of their vain ambitions.   In the end, Genjuro loses his wife and Miyagi leaves his wife in destitution as a prostitute.  Both of them do achieve their dreams, but at a great cost to everything else they value – a Pyrrhic victory that was nowhere near the cost they had to pay.

Ambition can warp a man’s mind.   Greed used to be considered a vice, but nowadays it’s the spirit of the age.  You’re “dreaming big”.

You can spend your whole life dreaming of all the things you want.  It might be status, being recognized by your peers, money and possessions, romantic fantasies, or whatever.  Everybody wants the same things.  We want to be loved, to belong, for our lives to have purpose and meaning, to be healthy, and to be happy.  To fulfill those desires, we all so often go about it the wrong way.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve found myself thinking about ambition a lot.  It so often leaves people miserable.  There’s so much suffering and discontent.  When I’m in physics classes, I’m always hearing over and over, “Nobel prize.  Nobel prize.  Nobel prize.”  I see the other students around me light up, dreaming of being the next Einstein, walking up on that stage, accepting that little medal.  “Do your best research while you’re young so that if it takes time to confirm your theories, you can get the prize when you’re old!”

I was reading about a man who was working on string theory in the early years, and he was working on the mathematics in his attic, looking over the paper he was about to submit.  He dreamed he was going to be the next rockstar physicist, and he’d be on the late night talk show circuit, and people would all fawn over him.  “How did you come up with this brilliant theory?”  Well, he published his paper and nobody cared, and that led him to drinking and severe depression.  You know, all of that is unnecessary.

Is that what we’re after?  No.  We have a world filled with lonely, disconnected people.  They feel that they have little to offer and that their lives have never meant anything.  They hope these outward symbols will validate their existence.  I oftentimes feel it’s a symptom of our culture’s over-emphasis on individualism.  What we want is acceptance and the feeling that we belong and have contributed something valuable.  Considering how rare it is for someone to make a contribution like that, for everyone else to feel worthless, or even worse, envious, seems ridiculous.

Getting up on a stage and accepting a medal from a bunch of people you don’t know, while a crowd of strangers applaud isn’t going to make you feel fulfilled.  It’s no different than Miyagi riding on that horse while his regiment of samurai soldiers followed behind.  He was the village idiot and he wanted to show his wife he was capable of more.  That’s how so many people are.  They feel worthless and not accepted.  They don’t belong or feel that they matter, so they find themselves caught up in these dreams, but the dreams aren’t the answer.

I know a man who is a fantastic guitar player and all he dreams about is making it to the big time.  At times, he’s put his wife and children through hell, pursuing his ambitions.  He’ll quit a job just to go play a concert, or burn bridges behind him at the slightest opportunity to get into the music business.  He complains and is miserable in every job he works.  All you hear from him is, “One day…”  His wife and kids suffer as there’s no security in their lives.

I could tell you countless stories of the same situation, totally different people.  I’ve met old men who spend all their retirement money on online multi-level marketing schemes, running up huge credit card debts while living in poverty, even though they have a good retirement paychecks, all in the pursuit of wealth.  “I want a leave something behind for my grandkids.”  Is it really about the grandkids?  I know others in all sorts of weird investment schemes, dreaming of making their millions so they can buy that dream home.

I even had ambitions of all sorts in myself when I was younger.  There’s been this strong desire to accomplish something with my life.  It had always been there.  That feeling that I’m destined for “more”.  But years back I started self-examining myself.  I wondered what that feeling was and where it was coming from.

I came to some conclusions.  Assume the goal or desire you’re working on now never amounts to anything.  If you can’t say you were happy to have done it all, then don’t do it.  If you’re not happy now, you’re not going to be happy later either, no matter what you achieve.  My physics pursuits are the first time I’ve ever done that.  After I finished a business project, I said, “Ok.  If money was no option, and I had all the time in the world, what would I spend my time doing?”  I concluded I would study different things and physics would be a primary focus.  Then I thought, hmm, physics research would be the thing I would want to be most involved in.  So, off I’ve went.

“The meaning of life is just to be alive.  It is so plain and so obvious and so simple, and yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”

– Alan Watts

I found myself listening to philosophers like Alan Watts because I knew I was missing something really important.  Part of life is accepting that you’re not going to have it all.  This universe is notorious for resisting a person’s desires.  I don’t want to be the man who makes his wife and family miserable because some exotic dream never came true.  Always complaining.  Always miserable.  Never content where I am.  Always mad at something or somebody.  I don’t want to be a person who places more value on empty status symbols than the people I love and care about.  I don’t want to be a person who never has time for the people important in my life, always too busy pursing some dream.

I hope to become a person who is happy and enjoys life in imperfect circumstances.  I want to be a person who is always improving and getting better.  I want to be willing to share my time with others, even though there are lots of things I want to do.  I’m not going to live with hatred or contempt for others around me.  I’m going to love and feel connected, even if they’re very different from me.  I’m not going to isolate myself from this world.

People are going to say stupid things I dislike and disagree with and I’m not going to let it get to me.  One of my heroes is the ancient Greek king Pericles.  I was reading about him the other day in a book dedicated to ancient Greek and Romans who inspired the founding fathers of America.

“Pericles was the kind of man who was equally comfortable discussing the finer points of poetry and charging into battle.  A man of immovable dignity, Pericles once ignored the taunts of a heckler for an entire day while conducting business in the agora.  The heckler even followed Pericles home at the end of the day, still spouting insults.  By then it was dark, so Pericles dispatched a servant with a torch to lead the man home.”

Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How The Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers

Remember, Pericles was king and this is the ancient world.  Most every other ruler would have had the man’s head chopped off, but not Pericles.  He was ruler of Greece in its golden age.  His primary focus was to promote the arts and literature in Athens in hopes to make it the cultural center of the world.  He also set up their system of populist democracy.

As crazy as the world is, I’m going to sit right in the center of it and be the best influence I can be.  I’m going to teach people science, how to reason, and talk about important social issues that need to be addressed.  And when mobs of ignorant people heckle me, I’ll be like Pericles.  That’s my new years resolution.  I’ve tried to make many of these changes in my life before, but I’ll keep at it.

2 thoughts on “Tales of Ugetsu”

  1. Hi Jason–

    Your New Year’s resolution to “be like Pericles” has got to be the best one I have ever heard of.
    Fantastic! Thanks for the inspiration.
    Maybe you should have a t-shirt printed…I’m kinda kidding–but a “Be like Pericles” t-shirt could stimulate a lot of good conversations 🙂
    The story of Pericles rising above negative comment and heckling touched a nerve with me. It’s a good story.

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