Novelist Haruki Murakami has good advice on what you can do when life looks dark

We can each do something to repair the world every day.
We can each do something to repair the world every day.
Image: Reuters/Eric Gaillard
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What’s a person to do when bad news abounds? Taking to the streets or signing up for a campaign isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re not the activist type but still want to find a way to help humanity, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has a satisfying answer.

Speaking at a New Yorker magazine event in New York on Oct. 6, Murakami explained that, in 2011, he was struggling with the question of what to do about others’ suffering, from the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US to people hit by natural disasters in Japan. He concluded that the best he could do was continue to write stories that move people. 

“I was wondering what could I do for the people who have suffered. But I thought, ‘What I can do is to write good fiction.’ After all, when I write a good story, good fiction, we can understand each other if you are a reader and I’m a writer,” Murakami said. “There is a special secret passage between us, and we can send a message to each other. So I think (writing good stories) is a way I can contribute to society or people in the world.”

In other words, you find a way to help people that’s in keeping with the kind of person you already are. That might involve making art, writing novels, pursuing knowledge, or teaching. You pour yourself into those endeavors, knowing that one way to heal the world is to be in it and offer your gifts.

Messaging mysteriously

The novelist’s approach provides a good model for the rest of us, whether we write or not. Responding creatively to tragedy emphasizes what’s beautiful about humanity and is its own kind of activism.

It may not be obvious, but subtlety is something of a lost art. Or, as the writer Meghan O’Giebhlyn explains in “On Subtlety,” her recent essay about messaging that doesn’t hit us over the head, “What’s so great about having things spelled out clearly?”

O’Giebhlyn argues that we are now “caught up in the throes of peak TV” and the slogans of the Trump era, making it ever less possible for us to appreciate things that are elusive and mysterious. We demand transparency, or at least the appearance of it, and so everyone must be “clear,” even at the expense of nuance and poeticism. We must say where we stand and in the crudest, simplest terms, lest our positions and ideas be misunderstood.

Unless, of course, we resist this cultural tendency and determine that we’ll respond to the onslaught of obviousness and sloganeering more mysteriously, less brutally, less violently, and more beautifully. Responding subtly in a time of crude messaging is not underhanded or an evasion of the hard truths. It’s the way of the universe, notes O’Giebhlyn. 

“Nature hides her secrets because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse,” the physicist Albert Einstein said. What he meant is that elusiveness is a truth. Nature speaks a coded language. And you can too.

You can choose, as Murakami has, to express your hope for humanity or your despair about the state of world affairs through your gifts, which may not be evidently political. You don’t have to march or petition if that’s not your inclination, and you can still count your creative contribution as engagement.

If nature isn’t evading reality by being subtle, then surely we too can choose to be in the universe and contribute in ways that may not be obvious to those inclined to a more crude or even violent approach.   

Culture wars

Art, too, is a form of protest or resistance. It’s a peaceful way to respond to a world full of strife and hate without shirking difficult truths, instead subverting them. It’s engagement on another level that may not clearly resemble classical activism, but makes the world a little better.  

Indeed, there are places where there is so much to protest and so little political progress that subtler forms of resistance, like culture, are the only effective answers for pacifists. “With the continued failure of the political process, many of us now believe that culture is where we should channel our resources, energy and hopes,” Zina Jardaneh, chair of the board of the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, in the West Bank, recently told Nana Asfour of The New York Times (paywall). 

Asfour reports that, despite travel restrictions imposed by Israel that make it difficult for Palestinians to participate in events that celebrate art and creativity, cultural life is thriving. There are 625 cultural centers in the Palestinian territories, 545 of them in the West Bank and 80 in the Gaza Strip, and 32 museums—27 in the West Bank and five in the Gaza Strip. That’s a lot of culture for about 2,200 square miles of territory where existence is a struggle.

All these cultural centers are simultaneously a form of resistance and celebration. “It’s true that there is little precedent to suggest that national arts movements alone are capable of bringing about political change,” Asfour writes. “But such cultural undertakings should be viewed as an essential component of the road to peace, one that provides vital possibilities for engagement, participation and cooperation among the generations of Palestinians who, individually and collectively, are painting distinct pictures of their myriad realities.”

Blood and tears

We cannot solve the world’s problems singlehandedly. But we can each engage in creative ways.

For example, artist Marc Quinn on Oct. 23 announced that he is creating a sculpture called Odyssey, consisting of two giant cubes of frozen human blood. One will be made with donations from 2,500 resettled refugee volunteers. The other will consist of the blood of 2,500 non-refugee volunteers, including American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, model Kate Moss, and pop legend Paul McCartney. As Wintour put it in a video about the project, “My blood and refugee blood is the same.”

Wintour says it’s difficult not to be deeply disheartened by what we see in the world. She notes the separation of children and parents at the US border with Mexico and the refugee crisis more generally as examples. “Culture is a language that’s universal,” she argues. Art is a way to respond to the disheartening, to speak across divides.

Quinn’s project is meant to increase awareness of the global refugee crisis and raise $30 million to support the International Rescue Committee and other refugee-focused charities. It will be unveiled on the steps of the New York Public Library in fall 2019.

The artist is responding to a problem of enormous scale in the way that he can, by doing what he does best. And while a sculpture can’t technically save any lives, the attention and money it could garner may well do just that.

We’re here to fix things

You may not have a project as ambitious as Quinn’s, or impressive celebrities promoting your efforts. But we each participate in the world’s creation every day. When we choose to do so by using our gifts to make this a more peaceful place, our efforts are equally important.

In the Jewish tradition, the concept of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world” is very simple. Any activity that leads to a more harmonious state is valid and valuable. The Chabad organization website, which illuminates Jewish mysticism, explains, “All human activities are opportunities to fulfill this mission, and every human being can be involved in tikkun olam, child or adult, student or entrepreneur, industrialist or artist, caregiver or salesperson, political activist or environmentalist, or just another one of us struggling to keep afloat.”

Each act of repair fine-tunes the instrument that is the universe, and you don’t have to be religious or artistic or political to participate. You just have to be a human. As Chabad puts it, “With each [fix], we are creating meaning out of confusion, harmony from noise, revealing the unique part each creation plays in a universal symphony.”