As they’re parting at the train station, the young man suddenly asks, “Humans . . . why are we living?” His uncle is at first startled and unsettled. He looks at his nephew and says, “You ask hard questions!” But he recovers quickly and takes the question seriously. After pondering for a moment, he replies, “There are times when we feel, ‘I’m glad I was born.’ Isn’t that why we’re living?” He encourages the teenager to keep going because these moments will come for him too someday.
I showed this scene from a “Torasan” movie to the teenage students in my workshop, none of whom know this classic character in Japanese film. I believe that all of them have this question themselves, though mostly they want to run from it by immersing themselves in the solitary pursuit of achievements or pleasures that they think will make them feel better about themselves. Indulging in these things will keep them busy enough or numb enough to avoid facing the most difficult questions of life. But if they face these questions, they struggle to affirm their own life in spite of the fact that it will inevitably end, that it may seem to have no purpose, and that they carry burdens of guilt for not being perfect or acceptable in their own or others’ eyes.
While Torasan tells his nephew that we have these moments from time to time, I tell students that we can have these moments every day. The awareness that it’s good to be alive is what we attain from mindfulness, the practice of being as fully present as possible in our life as it unfolds. Mindfulness is the practice of awakening to the reality of our existence, the precious nature of our human life. I call it heartfulness when it expands to a sense of gratitude, if for nothing else, just for being here, for having been born.
Like Torasan, I encourage youth to say “Yes!” to life, despite all the pain, ambiguity, uncertainty, and mystery. I ask them to strive toward self preservation and self affirmation and reject the negation of life. I tell them that in my experience, there are moments of clarity when I feel glad to be alive, so please trust that they will happen for them too.
I believe that they can find courage to go on by accepting the basic reality of their human existence, from which gratitude for their birth can spring. Gratitude enables them to find the strength to affirm their own life while knowing that they will die. Their sense of meaningless can be overcome by giving their lives meaning and they will find the will and patience to go on when life seems to have no purpose. I trust that they can accept themselves as they are, forgive themselves for being imperfect, and strive to be better. I remind them that they are beautiful and wonderful.
We learn that it is good to start and end each day with a sense of gratitude for being here. Like the young man we continue asking the unanswerable questions. Like the older man, we answer them the best we can. As the two of them bond in this process, we too will understand that self affirmation is not only the courage to be, as oneself, but the courage to be as part of a whole, connecting to others with compassion.