Tag Archives: resilience

Manzanar

ManzanarI elbowed my way through afternoon L.A. traffic to begin a four-hour mountain drive that ended in a surprising thunderstorm and finally some peace and quiet. Early the next morning I drove the few remaining miles to my destination: Manzanar.

I forget exactly when I learned about Manzanar, but it should have been sooner.

Asian-Americans endured prejudicial treatment prior to Pearl Harbor in 1941 but that terrible attack brought specific ethnic hostility to those of Japanese ancestry. In early 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the military to remove “any or all persons” from the West Coast and ultimately over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in ten American concentration camps simply because of their ethnicity. Ten thousand of those Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants were incarcerated in California at Manzanar.

My interest in visiting Manzanar intensified a few years ago when I learned that two of the ten wartime camps were located in Arkansas—I grew up in Arkansas and taught history in Arkansas and had never been told that Arkansas incarcerated 17,000 people of Japanese descent from California, half at Camp Jerome and half at Camp Rohwer. I knew then that I needed to visit Manzanar to feel the pain of a camp and ponder this terrible connection between my two “home” states—and my native country.

Manzanar is easy to visit on one hand: It is free, uncrowded, and only takes an hour or two to see everything there is to see. But it is difficult to visit as well. For what it represents, and what it proclaims.

Out of the 110,000+ imprisoned out of fear of espionage or sabotage, exactly zero were convicted of espionage or sabotage. That unwarranted fear destroyed many lives and families and even flirted with destroying a culture. In Hawaii where 158,000 Japanese-Americans faced less prejudice and enjoyed more freedom than those on the mainland, they were still discouraged from speaking the Japanese language and practicing the Buddhist religion. Hawaii’s military governor explained why: “We must remember that this is America and we must do things the American Way.”

And what, pray tell, did this chapter of American history communicate about the American Way?

The barbed wire at Manzanar stands as a reminder of how fear and power work together. But Manzanar also reminds us of the potential resilience of oppressed people and that even when fear and power lace up on the same team that victims can band together and rise above their circumstances. Possibly my favorite poster in the visitor’s center hung outside the theater and featured a quote from Hank Umemoto: “We were screwed, but then we made the most out of it and we turned Manzanar into a community.”

May there be no more Manzanars. But in the meanwhile, may all such peoples find that kind of courage and hope.

The Invincible Soul

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” – Maya Angelou (Letter to My Daughter, 2009)

With apologies to my wife, I have a crush on Maya Angelou, so when Apple resurrected her inimitable voice reading excerpts from her poem, Human Family, during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics to remind us that “we are more alike, my friends, then we are unalike,” I was happy.  (If you’d like to listen to her read the full poem without the iPhone sales pitch, click HERE.)

I can’t remember my introduction to Angelou, although it was probably her reading of On the Pulse of Morning for the Clinton inauguration in 1993.  What I can remember is that something led me to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of seven autobiographies that is worth it just for the title (although she snagged it from a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem).  But the book itself, my goodness, it sucker punched my heart.  It tells of Angelou’s first seventeen years of life set in Arkansas, St. Louis, and California.  Her story is interesting, sure, but as a white man now with ties to all three areas, it was (and continues to be) heart-wrenching.

If you didn’t know, Angelou’s childhood included being a victim of rape, racism, and sexism, and if that wasn’t enough, abandonment, guilt, and homelessness, all culminating in giving birth to a son at age sixteen.  And then there was the rest of her life, where she experienced fame and prestige as actor and activist, author and poet, composer and director, professor and speaker—among other things.  As the epigraph proclaims, her life is a testament to the idea that it is not required that difficult circumstances diminish your soul.

Or, more poetically stated, though caged, you can always sing.

In 2014, I was thrilled to see that Angelou was scheduled to speak at a Pepperdine event, and with my wife’s blessing, purchased three (expensive) tickets so that I could introduce Maya Angelou to my daughters, too.  Sadly, the event was canceled due to her poor health not long before she passed on from this life.

I thought about crying.

But I chose to sing.

Not Yet

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
– Winston Churchill

The State Bar of California released its July 2015 bar exam results over the weekend, which impacted the lives of a large number of people that I know and love. California is famously the last state to release results and the one with the lowest passing statistics (and this year’s was the lowest July pass rate in three decades). This combination produces enhanced euphoria for some and a particularly hard punch in the gut to others. It is a weekend of tremendous highs and tremendous lows, and with friends in both places, I never know exactly how to feel. It is easy to celebrate the good news, but it is those who are hurting who maintain center stage in my mind.

I try to do all the right things: Give time, then reach out, then wait patiently, and then, when engaged, try to be helpful. As a former pastor, grief counseling is familiar territory.

Truth be told, the answer in the end is simple and involves climbing back on to the bicycle or horse or whatever metaphor you prefer to have fallen from and go at it again. “If at once you don’t succeed…” is technical truth, but it takes time to hear it without punching someone.

There is more. Success after failure is even sweeter. I recall an old article that identified resilience as a key characteristic of the most spectacular figures in history who overcame great challenges and failures on their unforgettable journeys. Of course failure can destroy a person, too. But it doesn’t have to.

Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University tells of a high school in Chicago that gives the grade Not Yet as opposed to Fail. I know this makes some people scream, “Kids need to learn how to fail!” Exactly, and then they need to learn how to get back up again. That is the genius of Dr. Dweck’s groundbreaking research on the importance of mindset when facing failure, which she describes as having a “growth” mindset instead of a “fixed” mindset.

How do you respond to failure? Those with a fixed mindset typically take it personally (e.g., “I’m a failure.”) or blame some external factor (e.g., “It’s your fault that I failed.”). Those with a growth mindset respond with “Not Yet” and determine how to improve to reach the goal.