15 April 2021

Every lie you tell and are told

You don't always feel the same when you're running. You can run the same run one week apart and struggle one week and not the next. You can run 6:45 min/miles for ten miles without any problem, but that doesn't mean you can run 6:45 min/miles whenever you want. You can run them when your body allows for it. You don't know when that will be. On Sunday, I set out behind my new running partner as he kept pace for me. We'd done it the week before and I'd kept up, but this week, in the first mile he started to slip away and then in the second I had to pull it in. It wasn't happening today and we said all the things you say about why you can't do it, you have had too much volume this week, it was a good session last week, you have to trust your body. But failure is failure. You can only run as far as your body will let you run. When it stops, when it can't go on, you can't push it anymore. You can't force it to do what it cannot do.

When I tell the story of my faith or lack of faith, I always start with sitting across the table from a Japanese man in a church in Fukuoka, Japan. I was ostensibly teaching him English in exchange for him listening to a Bible lesson that he was obligated to then attend, and which he seemed to enjoy. Of course, he enjoyed it because it was more time to speak English, but as a missionary, I mistook this as a sign of an open heart — he was listening to me because God was working on him. He was the sort of person that made a good anecdote for a prayer letter — you could say that Koga-san had asked good questions this week and tell the American patrons that their money, their support for you, had borne some vague fruit. This was also what they had paid for in sending you, a story of their dollars at work for the kingdom of God, a work they could contribute to without making any real sacrifices themselves. The body of Christ is made up of many different parts. Koga-san, of course, didn't need Jesus any more than anyone else in those classes did and once while he recounted to me his preparations for the invasion of the Americans at the end of the war, when he was too young to enlist and they were training with wooden guns, a small fracture appeared in my faith and I thought about what I had to say to this man as a 21-year-old kid. I knew nothing about Japan and had been in his country for less than a month. I sensed this inadequacy, but understood it as doubt and dismissed it. 

Throughout my time in Fukuoka, I found myself in strange situations that might be described as dates in other contexts, but I was oblivious to, as everything I experienced blurred together into a series of events that never made much sense. You might think someone was taking you shopping at a mall that had an American food shop, and five hours later you would be sitting naked on a rock in a hot spring watching the sun set. I was inexplicably on an island one day with Kagimoto-san and her friends and we were looking at flowers. It didn't make any sense, but then again nothing made sense — trying to make sense of any of it was itself a mistake. There were Japanese conversation classes and then church picnics and then birthday parties where you answered awkward questions. It was impossible to see the kind of desperation that had built up from the pressures to marry and marry a Christian, a Western Christian even, something that would save you from the whatever pressures might come if you married someone who wasn't, what their families would say and how your faith might be scrutinised by in-laws that judged you and whom you embarrassed by attending church.

I didn't realise this, or more clearly, I realised it, but I didn't accept that I was caught in this same system. That I could somehow, by just looking at the flowers and having coffee, but knowing what was happening, that I would never find myself tricked, because that was how I saw it: you got tricked or not. There were real relationships and false ones. Somehow, I thought I was above everything, that I had escaped the culture or both cultures. I was a Christian, but I got it, I understood the problems, I could articulate them and provide thoughtful answers. I was American too, of course, but I understood my Americanness, I transcended it. I wasn't one of those guys, those white men who had failed in the States and were only in Japan because I couldn't succeed at home. And when I did have a relationship, it was different, ours was genuine — we spoke Japanese and it was different: the ideologies, the national religious ones, the racism and sexism, the lies, hadn't touched me. 

Of course, I wasn't above anything and those ideologies made themselves known, their insidious hooks, in everything that then happened. I had wanted to pretend that I was smarter than I thought I was, that my choices, my decisions were entirely my own and I knew what I was doing. That the narratives didn't apply to me like they did to everyone else, the people who hadn't seen through them, the people who weren't as good as me in whatever way I thought I was. In the next years, this all fell apart and the doubt seeded when I first thought I was wrong, listening to Koga-san, grew around me: what if we were just the stereotype. Our friends and family had told us all these things they'd heard about relationships between Asian women and white men. What if all of that was true. What if just telling it made it true. What if there was no freedom really, what if you can't do anything, what if we really are all just living the master narrative everyone else has already lived, and you were a fool for thinking you weren't living it. 

At thirty-eight now, almost thirty-nine, none of this matters anymore. I get angry about it, meaninglessly — I'm still married, I have children, there's no one to be angry with. Every feeling about the past is a cul-de-sac. You go around and come back out the way you came in. Or maybe that is the wrong metaphor. Maybe things do get better — it has been better, I think. Just because I can't measure it doesn't mean it hasn't changed. When you fail at a run, you can go back, run again and hardly remember the last run. Your legs can feel different, you can run faster, you can have energy when you didn't have energy before. You learn you can't judge your best ability on your worst days. You run fast sometimes and slow others. Not everything is the same, sometimes it is and sometimes it's not. You have to accept that.