The Art of Gaman, Grief, Survival and Hope

Something I ask God regularly is this: “How do I enter into the pain of the world without drowning in it?”  It’s one of the main things I want to know.  Right up there with “Why, God, did you invent rats and flys?”

Seriously… I think if we want to care about what Jesus cared about, the poor and suffering pretty much jump to the top of the list.  And cute shoes slide down to the bottom.

And in writing five sentences, I’ve inadvertently shown you (and me) that part of how I deal with the pain of life is to deflect it with humor.

Yet it matters to me to enter into my own and others’ pain (with the goal of finding or offering God’s gift of presence).

We live in the not-yet world of hope in Christ, not in false optimism that all will (inexplicably and falsely) be well.  All will not be well on earth.

And yet there are love and beauty and joy and peonies and laughter and sushi, major and minor pleasures.

One such example of the human desire to find (or make) beauty out of ashes (something we do naturally as image-bearers of God) is the art of “gaman.”  “Gaman” is a Japanese word that means “to bear the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience.”

The Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. (a Smithsonian museum) currently has an exhibit (until January, 2011) called “The Art of Gaman.” It features art made in the Japanese American internment camps during World War II.  Here is part of how the website of the Renwick describes it:

“Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, all ethnic Japanese on the West Coast—more than two-thirds of whom were American citizens by birth—were ordered to leave their homes and move to ten inland internment camps for the duration of the war. While in these bleak camps, the internees used scraps and found materials to make furniture and other objects to beautify their surroundings. Arts and crafts became essential for simple creature comforts and emotional survival. These objects—tools, teapots, furniture, toys and games, musical instruments, pendants and pins, purses and ornamental displays—are physical manifestations of the art of gaman….”

I was moved by the exhibit, especially by jewelry and hair combs made from tiny shells.  I was also touched by the indomitable human spirit, as described in the exhibit’s accompanying materials, exemplified by people who were moved from one camp to another who brought along materials and new methods of crafting or art forms to teach to others.

What’s the metaphorical version of that that we can all appropriate in our day-to-day griefs (my own certainly falling far short of anything suffered in those horrific internment camps)?

The exhibit really got me thinking about my own love of recycled items, my own love of making something out of nothing (or out of other people’s trash), my own desire to see beauty even when I’m grieving.  It made me realize that even in the worst of times, glimpses of grace have been evident for me, that even in pain, I have always known some counterbalancing (or compensating, or even greater) measure of comfort and love.

I don’t believe pain wins.  I believe hope wins.  Not a naively optimistic sort of hope…but a hope grounded in Redemption.


2 responses to “The Art of Gaman, Grief, Survival and Hope

  1. Now I’ve got to get to the Renwick.

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