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In a world so obsessed with success how is it possible to embrace defeat?
The book Embracing Defeat, by John W. Dower, describes how Japan did exactly that after World War II, and in so doing, accomplished the greatest turnaround of all time. For those of us who have found embracing defeat so difficult the story offers quite a lesson.
I encountered this turnaround firsthand in 1960. At the time I had a little lawn mowing business serving my Queen Anne Hill neighborhood. Most of the serious landscaping and gardening on the hill in those days was done by Japanese-American immigrants. I marveled as a kid at their meticulous and beautiful work. There was one couple in particular who I got know. They were kind to me and always willing to offer me advice on the finer points of properly pruning a bush.
The couple had immigrated to the United States five years after the war and by all outward appearance they were happy, contented and settled. One afternoon after I finished my work they invited me over for a cold drink. It was September 2, VJ Day, the anniversary date of Japan’s surrender. For them it was a day of sober reflection.
I was taken by how deeply personal the surrender had been for them. I learned it wasn’t just that their government had surrendered; it was that they, too, had surrendered. They shared how on that day they first heard the Emperor (Hirohito) speak, a deity in their minds whose words were considered divine. So to hear him, in a high squeaky voice, admit defeat, quit the war, and surrender unconditionally, was nothing short of unbelievable. Life as they knew it was over.
Here is one person’s account:
“The villagers had gathered around the single local radio over which the single state-run station was received. Reception was poor. Static crackled around the emperor’s words, and the words themselves were difficult to grasp. The emperor’s voice was high pitched and his enunciation stilted. He did not speak in colloquial Japanese, but in a highly formal language studded with ornamental classical phrases. Aihara was just exchanging puzzled glances with others in the crowd when a man who had recently arrived from bombed-out Tokyo spoke up — almost, she recalled, as if to himself. ‘This means,’ he whispered, ‘that Japan has lost.’” ~ (excerpted from Chapter One: Embracing Defeat)
It’s impossible to overstate the enormity of this moment. My friends lingered in their reflections, sharing how losing the war changed everything: their family, their nation, their very identity as a people.
I remember how much that fact contrasted with their appearance.
- I would never have guessed this couple had lost everything in the war.
- I would never have guessed Americans had been the hated enemy.
- I would never have guessed they ever could have gotten beyond their resentments.
All I could see was they appeared happy, joyous and free, so much so they had every intention of becoming American citizens. How could this ever have happened?
The key, I was to learn, was wrapped up in one word: ACCEPTANCE.
Little did I know that 25 years later I’d experience my own Hiroshima moment. I had spent most of my early years obsessed with winning. I would lie, cheat and steal to cross the line a winner. The very notion of acknowledging a defeat was abhorrent to me. I didn’t care how I won, only that I won. Life was all about winning.
Or so I thought.
Then one day I learned differently. Liars don’t win and winners aren’t liars. The finish line I thought I crossed as a winner was nothing more than a mirage.
My day of reckoning came on June 14, 1985. I was called to account and I too had to make the choice of whether to continue my alcoholic kamikaze mission into oblivion or surrender unconditionally. Like the Japanese family, I too embraced defeat, accepted the hopelessness of my condition and surrendered unconditionally. And with that I cleansed my soul of the toxic pride that was killing me and discovered the virtue, value and victory in surrendering.
Embracing defeat, as it turns out, is life’s directest route to greater things.
Just a thought…
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