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6 Feb 2021

On Soul and the importance of shōkakkō – Last Thursday, HJ and I went to see Pixar’s latest film, Soul. Yes, we went to an actual cinema—the first time I’ve been to one since this whole pandemic thing started. Everyone wore masks, of course, and other precautions were taken, such as making sure people were separated (even HJ and I had to sit with an empty seat between us), not allowing any food or drinks, etc. There were probably only about a dozen people there total, and we all ended up being much farther away from each other than the prescribed two meters, so social distancing was not a problem. Hopefully that will assuage any worries you might have about pandemic protocol.

“I have thought that if only I could achieve this one thing my life would be better, or that I would somehow be happier.”

You may have noticed that the title of this entry does not contain the word “review,” which is how I usually start reviews of films or books. That’s because this isn’t so much a review as it is a rambling, meandering, tangent-infested reaction to the film and its message. I did briefly think about writing a review, but to honest that prospect didn’t interest me nearly as much as writing about the ideas expressed in the film. That being said, even though discussion of the film itself will be fairly minimal, some of the things I will be mentioning probably qualify as spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film yet maybe come back and read this after you’ve done so. But if you are the kind of person who is OK with spoilers, read on.

The central premise of the film is pretty straightforward, but the plot is a bit weird when you stop to think about it. Since what I want to write about doesn’t really have anything to do with the plot, I’m going to skip that rather than waste time trying to explain all of the little oddities; there will be enough tangents in today’s entry as it is. Suffice it to say that Joe, the protagonist of the film, is a grade school music teacher who dreams of becoming a jazz musician. He is offered a full-time job at his school, which means financial security, but it also means that his dream will slip that much farther from his grasp. He knows that he was meant to be a jazz musician; that’s what he was born to do, what he was put on earth for. It is, in other words, his destiny, and until he fulfills that destiny he will not be happy.

I can’t say that I know what it’s like to be that driven. I’ve never felt that there was one thing I was put on earth to do, and that if I didn’t do that thing I was never going to be happy. But I have had goals and dreams, and I have thought that if only I could achieve this one thing my life would be better, or that I would somehow be happier.

Joe eventually does realize his dream of becoming a bona fide jazz musician, playing piano in a band with a famous saxophonist. After their first gig, he is standing outside the club with the saxophonist and asks, “What happens now?” She replies, “We come back tomorrow and do it all over again.” He looks troubled for a moment, and after explaining how he has been wanting this for so long, he says, “I guess I just thought I would feel different.”

That line hit me hard. I thought back to when I was working toward my doctorate. I completed my coursework in 2008, but I then immediately began teaching full time, and it wasn’t until three years later that I was at long last able to buckle down and finish my dissertation. It was this big thing that had been hanging over me for three years, this massive wall built straight across the road to my future. I had often imagined what lay on the other side: green grass, clean air, bright sunshine. The side of the wall where I found myself stuck (or what felt like being stuck) wasn’t all that appealing, and I was eager for a change of scenery. In that last summer before I submitted the dissertation, when I made the final push, I got up every morning at four or five o’ clock and wrote until evening, stopping only for meals. I did this every day for two months. It was grueling, and I screwed up my neck so much that I did months of physical therapy afterward to fix it, and even with that I never fully recovered—there are still days when it hurts. But I pushed through because I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I knew that the degree would open doors to a brighter tomorrow.

I remember what it felt like to finish. There was a rush of relief and pride that swept in like a wave—and then swept out again just as quickly. I had finally broken through that wall... only to discover that the far side didn’t look all that much different from where I had just been. I thought I would feel different, but I didn’t. Nothing had changed. My short-lived elation was quickly replaced by disappointment, especially as I applied for various teaching positions in the US and got nowhere. The problem was my lack of publications in English. I was eventually able to build up my academic portfolio, and I probably would have continued to submit applications to Stateside institutions, but three years after I had finished my dissertation I was given the opportunity to return to teach at SNU. I will tell you right now that those were a dark three years.

There is a very memorable line from Batman Begins, where Rachel tells Bruce: “It’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.” That line has stuck with me ever since I first saw that film. In context, it is a warning against hypocrisy. That is, you may think that you are a certain sort of person, but if your actions do not match your image of yourself, none of it means anything. Taken out of context, though, it can mean something very different, something that I think can be dangerous. Someone who believes that they are defined only by what they do will focus on achieving at the expense of other, perhaps more important things. In a way, this is what I was doing with my dissertation, at least in part.

This isn’t to say that having goals is a bad thing, of course. I think that having goals is a very good thing—without them, I’m pretty sure that I personally would never get anything done. I am a terrible procrastinator, so it helps to have very solid milestones that I want to reach. I also don’t want to suggest that it is a bad thing to have dreams. That would be silly. Dreams are great, and they can give you a sense of direction without which you might feel rudderless or lost. It is a nice thing to have some idea of who you want to be, and there is certainly also something to visualizing yourself achieving the things you want to achieve.

So if goals and dreams are OK—not just OK, but good—what exactly am I trying to say? Let me make another quick detour before I come around to the main point. Even if you’ve never studied psychology, you may have heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You can obviously read the lengthy article at that link for more information, but the basic idea is that human beings have a hierarchy of needs that they attempt to fulfill, starting with the most basic needs of food, shelter, etc. This hierarchy climbs through other types of needs until we reach the very peak of the pyramid: self-actualization. Self-actualization is generally understood to be the full realization of one’s potential as a human being—to borrow a marketing pitch from the US Army, it is to “be all you can be.”

Now, I’m not going to say that Maslow’s hierarchy is wrong, but I do think this idea of self-actualization is often misinterpreted, or at least understood in too simplistic a manner. We often slip into the idea that this ideal version of ourselves is some very specific thing that we must become if we are to be self-actualized, just as Joe’s ideal version of himself was a successful jazz musician. I am not going to pretend that I am immune to this—the ideal version of myself that I have harbored for most of my life is me as a successful writer. I would say that this is still a dream of mine, but I no longer feel that there is a single, specific version of me that has to come into being in order for me to be happy.

There is a scene in Soul set in a barbershop, where Joe is getting a haircut. He finds out that the barber, Dez, always wanted to be a vet, but when his daughter got sick he opted for the cheaper option of barber school over veterinary school. Joe hears this and says, “And now you’re a barber and you’re not happy!” But Dez stops him in his tracks and tells him that he is happy as a barber and he loves his life. Joe assumes that Dez is unhappy because he was unable to self-actualize, but this is exactly the kind of shallow understanding of self-actualization I’m talking about.

If you read that page on Maslow’s Hierarchy that I linked to above, you saw that Maslow later came up with a list of characteristics of self-actualizers, as well as a list of behaviors leading to self-actualization. You can go back and read the page if you’re curious about the lists in full, but I’d like to focus on two specific items that I think are key. The tenth characteristic of self-actualizers is being “capable of deep appreciation of basic life-experience,” while the very first listed behavior leading to self-actualization is “experiencing life like a child, with full absorption and concentration.” These might not be the first characteristics or behaviors that come to mind when thinking about self-actualization, but I believe they are just as important as (if not more important than) those related to achievement.

Back in Soul, there is another important character who goes on a journey with Joe. I’m not going to get into who this character is; all I will say is that when she starts seeing the world through Joe’s eyes, she begins to appreciate the simple joys of life. To borrow Maslow’s words, she develops a “deep appreciation of basic life-experience,” and she most definitely “experienc[es] life like a child, with full absorption and concentration.” Joe, of course, completely misses the point and tells her that these little things she enjoys are “just living life.” And, yeah, they are part of what it means to live life; his mistake is in thinking that is all they are, or that “living life” is somehow too trivial to count for much.

This is where that word in the title of this entry that you may or may not be familiar with comes in: shōkakkō. It is a word coined by the Japanese writer Murakami Haruki, and it literally means “small (or trivial) [but] certain happiness.” A more natural sounding expression in English might be “finding joy in the little things.” One example Murakami gives of this type of joy is the feeling he gets when seeing a drawer of neatly folded underwear. (Note that Murakami coined this term in 1986, long before Marie Kondo started talking about sparking joy through organizing clutter; I’ve always wondered if she was inspired by Murakami.) That is, of course, just one example; shōkakkō can be anything that is seemingly trivial but which gives you joy.

In the age of social media, particularly Instagram, shōkakkō seems to have unfortunately been co-opted by curated consumerism. That is, you might see a perfectly lit and composed photograph of a pretty young girl sitting in a cafe, sunlight streaming over her shoulder as she contemplates with a smile the colorfully decorated pastry sitting on delicate china before her. #shōkakkō! And such an experience would certainly qualify as shōkakkō. Imagine yourself in that scene, sitting in that cafe on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Such a thing may no longer be trivial in the time of corona, but it would certainly be an instance of finding joy in little things. The problem with the Instagram photo is that it has been carefully staged to look like the ideal experience as opposed to simply being that experience. I am reminded of when Magritte captioned his painting of a pipe (La Trahison des images) with the seemingly contradictory “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”

(And as a tangent to this tangent, I want to briefly say that I am not putting down photography as unworthy. The act of taking a photograph itself can indeed be shōkakkō, and I often experience this myself. I also like taking photographs during my travels because they can act as triggers later, long after the experience itself is over, bringing it at least in part into the present. At this very moment my desktop background is a collection of photographs I took in Europe the summer before last, and the current photograph is the morning sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. It brings me back to that moment when I stood there in awe, looking up at the forest of pillars in Gaudi’s masterpiece. That being said, I am always aware that a photograph of a moment is not the moment itself.)

Shōkakkō is not about staging these little moments of joy to show to others, it is about simply experiencing these moments and basking in the joy that they bring. Soul, perhaps not surprisingly, never mentions shōkakkō, but the things that Joe’s friend learns to appreciate about life are perfect examples of finding joy in the little things. They are not just living life. As trivial as they may seem, they are ultimately what makes life worth living. Like I said above, having goals and dreams is important, because they can give you direction in life, but the older I get the more I realize that what truly makes me happy is not the things I achieve, it is the things I experience.

That goal you have, the one that lingers off in the distance like a shining prize on a pedestal, or like the summit of Olympus? Chase it, if it motivates you to move forward. But if you think it is going to make you any happier than you are now, you’re going to end up being disappointed, because either you’re never going to catch it or you will catch it some day—and then be incredibly disappointed when you realize that nothing has changed, that your life is still the same as it ever was. And this is the truth that Joe comes to appreciate by the end of the film: If you can’t find happiness and fulfillment where you are right now, as who you are right now, no goal or dream you could ever achieve is going to give them to you.

I wish I could say that I’ve got it all figured out, and that I never feel depressed, or anxious, or disappointed. But I feel all of those things, and not infrequently. That, too, is life. And it is what makes it that much more important that we find our shōkakkō, and that much more special when we do. These things will be different for everyone; one man’s shōkakkō is another man’s mere distraction. Perhaps now more than ever, given what the world has been through over the past year, we need to find those little things that give us joy, those things that make life worth living in spite of all the pain and fear. I hope that, wherever you are, you can find your shōkakkō.

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