Lessons From Stories: Kafka On The Shore

Kafka On The Shore is a novel by Haruki Murakami. The narrative follows two central characters, Kafka and Nakata, as they interact with other humans, cats, spirits, and even figures like Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker. Murakami uses aspects of magical realism in order to explore concepts such as fate and past trauma. It’s in this exploration of life that we can find valuable lessons.

Lessons:

Embrace The Storm

Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step.

[…]

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

Fate is at the core of Murakami’s novel. Kafka’s fate is to confront his mother, who abandoned him at a young age. All his actions lead him towards this fate. He tries to run away from it, to hide from it, but he is constantly driven towards his fate. He eventually relents to the inevitable and faces his fate/storm in order to grow.

Such storms are always present in our life. We can view them as fate or perhaps challenges and obstacles life has set in front of us. Trials for us to complete and mature or to ignore and hide from and remain the same person. These storms can involve our career choices, relationships, habits, or ideologies. The very thing that causes us discomfort is what we need.

Of course, real life is not like a story. Our life isn’t a plot that will cause us to confront the uncomfortable aspects. Here is where the story of Kafka can influence us. If Kafka never confronted his mother, then he would always be a prisoner to his past feelings. But because he was able to come to terms with his abandonment issues, he was freed.

The story urges us to face our storm or fate, so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and move forward in life freely.

Take Responsibility

It’s all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It’s just like Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibilities. Flip this around and you could say that where there’s no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise.

This is significant in two ways. First, the more practical approach. Taking responsibility for our lives and our actions. We have to imagine that we have some control over our circumstances, whether good or bad. Our actions matter. Our choices matter and so, through our imagination, we can then develop ownership of our actions and thus create order.

Second, the potentials that imagination opens up also require our responsibility. If we imagine ourselves running a marathon, then it becomes a responsibility to work towards that imagination. This is true with creating art, traveling, setting goals, and so on. We have to imagine it first and then bring it to life.

Be Open

“If I had to say anything it’d be this: Whatever it is you’re seeking won’t come in the form you’re expecting.”

Nothing ever comes exactly the way we expect. There has to be a sense of letting go when we seek whatever it is that we want. To give up control and accept whatever it is that life thinks is best suited for us.

Otherwise, with a close mind, we can overlook the blessings presented to us.

Have Empathy Towards Others

“Miss Saeki’s life basically stopped at age twenty, when her lover died. No, maybe not age twenty, maybe much earlier…I don’t know the details, but you need to be aware of this. The hands of the clock buried inside her soul ground to a halt then. Time outside, of course, flows on as always, but she isn’t affected by it. For her, what we consider normal time is essentially meaningless.”

[…]

“Kafka, in everybody’s life there’s a point of no return. And in a very few cases, a point where you can’t go forward anymore. And when we reach that point, all we can do is quietly accept the fact. That’s how we survive.”

The character of Miss Saeki is portrayed as a shell of a human being. Her essence, her spirit, is stuck in a time when she was happily in love. However, a traumatic incident caused her to be severed from the present and to live in the past.

Miss Saeki is a fictional character, but her portrayal is very much real. From an outsider’s point of view, Miss Saeki appears perfectly normal. Just as we may think of the people we encounter in our daily life. We cannot know what is going on inside the person’s head. We don’t know what past events still haunt them. This is why empathy and kindness need to be at the forefront of our actions.

These two qualities can be viewed as a luxury, for we may not receive them from others. However, we all have the capability of showing these qualities and it becomes an obligation to do so, regardless of whether others show it to us.

As long as there’s such a thing as time, everybody’s damaged in the end, changed into something else. It always happens, sooner or later.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

“Man doesn’t choose fate. Fate chooses man. That’s the basic worldview of Greek drama. And the sense of tragedy—according to Aristotle—comes, ironically enough, not from the protagonist’s weak points but from his good qualities. Do you know what I’m getting at? People are drawn deeper into tragedy not by their defects but by their virtues.”

Too much unselfishness can breed greed, as others can take advantage of the unselfish nature. Too much love can breed resentment, as the person can be viewed as overbearing. We can have a boundless work ethic in order to improve our life or our family’s life but can end up with a broken home because of overworking.

In themselves, no virtue is good or bad, but when the human element is added to the mix, then there needs to be some kind of boundary. Otherwise, what we imagine being a good thing can cause negativity.

The Ebb and Flow of Life

“Picture a bird perched on a thin branch,” she says. “The branch sways in the wind, and each time this happens the bird’s field of vision shifts. You know what I mean?”

[…]

“It bobs its head up and down, making up for the sway of the branch. Take a good look at birds the next time it’s windy. I spend a lot of time looking out that window. Don’t you think that kind of life would be tiring? Always shifting your head every time the branch you’re on sways?

“I do.”

“Birds are used to it. It comes naturally to them. They don’t have to think about it, they just do it. So it’s not as tiring as we imagine. But I’m a human being, not a bird, so sometimes it does get tiring.”

“You’re on a branch somewhere?”

“In a manner of speaking,” she says. “And sometimes the wind blows pretty hard.”

We can see the natural rhythm of life as the individual trying to remain stable as events outside of their control create disorder. The actions of other people, chance events, unlucky instances, absurd misfortunes are to us what the wind is to a bird. Knocking us about, disrupting our flow, causing us to readjust. So, there is a constant ebb and flow, push and pull, as we adjust to the new rhythm of life and just as we master the new, another challenge arises.

The cycle is endless, and it is by accepting this cycle that can gain some peace of mind. So that when we are knocked off balance, we don’t view it as some grave misfortune but as the natural rhythm of life. And perhaps we can even be prepared for the next gust of wind.

True Inner Strength

“The strength I’m looking for isn’t the kind where you win or lose. I’m not after a wall that’ll repel power coming from outside. What I want is the kind of strength to be able to absorb that outside power, to stand up to it. The strength to quietly endure things—unfairness, misfortune, sadness, mistakes, misunderstandings.”

Too often we wish that nothing bad happens to us. But that just isn’t realistic. Hoping gets us nowhere. What we need is to cultivate certain characteristics so that when misfortune strikes, we can manage them in a calm and orderly manner. One practice is to meditate on the worst possible scenario, as the Stoics advised. So when bad things happen, we aren’t surprised by them.

Another way to cultivate inner strength is by purposely exposing ourselves to suffering. Whether it be physical training, which can help with mental endurance, or by constantly trying new things and failing, and trying again. Both of these tactics can bring us insight into how to endure. How to be patient. How to deal with that inner voice which wants comfort and ease. How to dust ourselves off and keep going.

This type of thinking puts the control in our hands. Gives us an understanding of how to behave when faced with difficult challenges.

Overcome Yourself

“You have to overcome the fear and anger inside you,” the boy named Crow says. “Let a bright light shine in and melt the coldness in your heart. That’s what being tough is all about.”

We all have our defects. No individual is perfect. Part of living is about finding the pieces of yourself which are broken or maybe even missing and mending them and creating them anew.

“Even though she loved you, she had to abandon you. You need to understand how she felt then, and learn to accept it. Understand the overpowering fear and anger she experienced, and feel it as your own—so you won’t inherit it and repeat it. The main thing is this: You have to forgive her. That’s not going to be easy, I know, but you have to do it. That’s the only way you can be saved. There’s no other way!”

“Mother, you say, I forgive you. And with those words, audibly, the frozen part of your heart crumbles.”

The core of the novel is Kafka coming to terms with the abandonment by his mother. He gets angry; he lashes out; he runs away from home but wherever he goes; he carries with him this burden that his mother left him. Until he can come to terms with that, he’ll never truly evolve and grow. Once more, this requires Kafka to overcome himself. To forgive someone requires us to subdue our own feelings and our ego. Kafka is able to do so and move on with his life. But many people get stuck in the past. They harbor a singular event or person and let the past dictate their present. To be free in the present, we have to face the past and deal with it and in turn, deal with our own issues. This is what Kafka’s journey is all about.

Great Lines

“Mr. Nakata, this world is a terribly violent place. And nobody can escape the violence. Please keep that in mind. You can’t be too cautious. The same holds true for cats and human beings.”

“There’s only one kind of happiness, but misfortune comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s like Tolstoy said. Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness is a story.”

“But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T. S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they’re doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don’t want to.”

He lived in a world circumscribed by a very limited vocabulary.

“Having an object that symbolizes freedom might make a person happier than actually getting the freedom it represents.”

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

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