My first experience with “shikata ga nai” was hearing my father-in-law say it. In the five years that I knew him, he was always a very composed, even-tempered man. I never saw him get angry. Not even at my husband, who surely deserved a tongue-lashing at least once in awhile. All of the stories I ever heard about my father-in-law indicated that he was the Japanese version of Mr. Spock.
His son, my husband, also used to say the phrase, but as a Japanese-American who was born and raised here, he had to work harder at the mindset. The phrase is Japanese for “it cannot be helped.” It refers to an attitude one has when circumstances cannot be controlled.
Nobody embodies this spirit more than the Japanese people. Through wars, atomic bombs, earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns and more, they are known for their resilience and poise in even the most unthinkable situations.
I visited Japan for the first time on December 27, 2016, exactly 8 months after my husband unexpectedly passed away and left me a widow with three young children. Reeling from the trauma of my new reality, I was still battling my own feelings about living in a world that I now understood to be brutally unfair. On our first night in Tokyo, I had just fallen asleep on the 15th floor of our hotel in the Shinagawa district when I was rocked awake by a 5.9 earthquake. As a native California girl, I shouldn’t have been flustered by an earthquake, but it was a reminder that I was indeed on an island where this happened all of the time and holy crap, something bad could happen while I was there with my kids.
But Japanese people are used living in a world where bad things could unexpectedly happen at any given moment. They have experienced a range of tragedy. None of it has ever stopped them from living their lives, and when tragedy strikes, each time they rebuild, work hard, and keep living.
The kids and I visited Hiroshima. We went to the Peace Memorial Museum and also visited the atomic dome. I remember one particular story from the museum. It was about siblings who were affected and how the brother was sick for weeks, eventually vomiting his internal organs before finally dying a slow, painful death. As a mother and a human being, I couldn’t imagine having to watch my child experience such agony and not be able to do anything about it. We saw the school uniform of a 14 year old girl who died within 24 hours of exposure. It was dirty and torn. She had sewn the uniform herself only a few months before that fateful day. My son later said “I can’t stop thinking about the school uniform. I can’t get it out of my mind.” You can’t visit Hiroshima without your own emotions being stirred by the suffering.
By the way, within three days of the atomic bomb, reconstruction efforts were underway in Hiroshima.
My experiences in Japan reminded me that I was not unique in my own suffering, and in fact, my suffering was miniscule in light of what has happened to people since the beginning of time. The Japanese resilience inspired me to work a little harder to let go of my own suffering and move forward. Shikata ga nai clicked for me. My husband died. I can’t change that. I needed to let it go. The sadness, the pain, the feelings of injustice. All of it.
It cannot be helped. Shikata ga nai.
There is criticism about shikata ga nai. Critics argue it is a complacent attitude, breeding citizenry who are passive and simply roll over to authority. Shikata ga nai, in my mind, is very close to a lot of Buddhist teachings that discourage attachment. Similar to Buddhism, shikata ga nai encourages one to abandon their attachment to anger, jealousy, hatred, or any other negative emotion and instead accept the reality of an uncontrollable situation. When I first started attending Buddhist services with my husband at a tiny temple in rural Sebastopol, California, this was one of my criticisms of the religion. I saw everyone as too passive. What about politics? How could they not get more involved in fighting injustice? You can’t just let it go. Surely there are more important things in the world than chanting and meditating!
My husband had different perspective. He had a nasty relationship with a crazy woman, an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, and a vicious child custody dispute that left him with an alienated son and a broken heart. He had to learn before I even came into the picture how to continue living with heartache and life not going as planned. That was something I couldn’t understand at the time. He used to subscribe to the affirmation “I am responsible.” Whenever I would start ranting about his ex-girlfriend and the ridiculousness of the situation, he would say “I am responsible,” meaning it is what it is and now it is up to me to do something about it. When I would question him about how he could be so stupid to start a relationship with a deranged woman, he would get mad and point out there was nothing he could change, so he had to just take solace in the lessons learned and move forward.
It felt too complacent. At the time, I was in the same boat as those who think shikata ga nai is an excuse for doing nothing. I thought it meant letting others get away with bad behavior.
That’s because I hadn’t experienced significant internal conflict. I hadn’t tasted personal tragedy. It wasn’t my turn yet to be riddled with horrible thoughts and memories that caused me pain. Yet.
It was never about letting others get away with anything. It was about letting yourself live a happy life free of the burdens of the negative emotions we so often hold inside of us.
When my husband passed away, I finally understood his “I am responsible.” All of those times I laughed at him and said I didn’t need to say it with the arrogance of a young punk who hadn’t been bitch-slapped by life yet. The joke was on me.
If you’ve gotten this far without suffering, well, the best advice I can give is good for you, but brace yourself. One doesn’t escape this life without suffering. Your turn will come.
Shikata ga nai is an attitude, a perspective, and like a muscle that should be exercised, shikata ga nai must be practiced. It will be your floatation device when you navigate the tumultuous waters of suffering.
I realized I could let myself wallow in the horrible sadness of losing my husband, or I could acknowledge that this was my new reality and I could keep living. I could choose to be happy. Happy didn’t mean that everything would always be wonderful. Happy was an attitude, a tool for living as best as we can in an unpredictable, unfair, mean, but also beautiful world.
I would argue that shikata ga nai isn’t complacency. It is an act of unloading dead weight from your mind and freeing yourself to make conscious, productive choices.
You try to control what you can. You accept the uncontrollable. And you choose to be happy in good times and bad.