A Confucian Take on ‘Follow Your Heart’
How Japanese values of harmony in relationships enhances American individualism
May your heart be your guiding key. — Master of Masters
There’s a story 17-years-in-the-making (as of this writing) of light and shadow. Friends and foes. Mickey Mouse and manga. The smallness of the world and the connections that no distance or darkness can remove.
But don’t let the opening quote fool you; where Disney storytelling invites you to wish ‘if your heart is in your dream / no request is too extreme’ (Pinnochio) and enter a world where there is ‘no one to tell us no’ (Aladdin), Kingdom Hearts, the world and narrative of game designer Tetsuya Nomura, introduces a question:
At the heart of a person, will one find light or shadow? Yes.
For anyone whose childhood centered around Playstation and Playstation 2, then there is a good chance you were introduced to characters like Square Enix’s Cloud and Aerith — ｡ﾟ(ﾟ∩´﹏`∩ﾟ)ﾟ｡ — and Disney’s Aladdin and Jasmin. In 2002, suddenly the best of both worlds collided in a series called Kingdom Hearts. A world where a protagonist named Sora fights heartless, the darkness of human hearts embodied in creaturely form, in worldscapes like Agrabah, Halloween Town and Neverland.
Since then, 11+ storylines across many platforms have kept once 12-year-old boys now nearing 30 still enraptured by the complex storyline. With that said, the story is far too epic to highlight every character, plot point and resolution, but it poignantly illustrates the power of cultures sharpening other cultures.
‘We’ is better than ‘me’
We laugh at Tex-Mex or Panda Express for their Americanized take on Latin American and Chinese culture, but in a globalized world, American culture isn’t the only expression of humanity altering others. Whether it be the proliferation of yoga studios or the minimalist design of Ikea furniture in US cities, the exchange of culture is mutual.*
*This doesn’t mean that one culture cannot have greater power and privilege in influencing over another the shaping of their cultural values, but it is critical to understand that culture is fluid, not static. It is better to picture the world, not like a Tetris board of varying colored-blocks fitting and offsetting one another, but like an ocean with a kaleidoscope of colors dyeing their surroundings and constantly creating new shades. Before you can pinpoint its expression, it changes again. Any attempt to highlight it in terms of cultural values and norms is like one photographing traffic at night: It is solid with lots of blurred and hard-to-define edges.
Now, for some readers, this might sound like an awful reality. Your shade of blue is phenomenal, and you hate the idea that it might be “discolored.” But, all you have ever known is blue. You have no words to express red or yellow.
Similarly, American culture is adept at the mantra to “follow your heart.” But, like a diamond, there is elements of truth and many other facets of human nature that we don’t even have the words to articulate.
Light comes outside ourselves
Individualism, a value for one’s personal rights, has created wonders like the notion of human rights and human dignity. It allows someone to ask, “What is my impact on the world?” This is part of the core to what makes someone human: their relating to self.
But individualism cannot answer what it means to be known and loved, other desired traits around relating to others. Where individualized cultures might flourish in the championing of one’s aspirations, it often lacks in the richness of interpersonal relationships.
It seeks to look solely within for the answers — what an entire category of books, self-help, attempts to solve — behind closed garage doors, personal property and iPhones. Here is the twist of Kingdom Hearts.
In Japanese culture, influenced by Confucius ideas of ‘li’ (order) and ‘ren’ (inner harmony through order), peace and wholeness centers around relationship. It says that how I relate with authority, parents, spouses, siblings and elders governs everything else. This value of relationships and connections is the string that connects the entire narrative of Kingdom Hearts.
It posits that the human heart has the capacity for great good (individual aspirations) and great evil; in its ability at evil, it is the connection to those outside of ourselves that lifts one out of darkness. This is not the message of Disney nor the message of American culture.
At the same time, one cannot peg it as simply Japanese, for it also invites one to let their heart be a guiding key. The Master of Masters who first encourages this mantra, himself needs to be questioned by his followers. This is anti-hierarchy and anti-‘li’. It is a narrative of cultural tension and illustrates what can come about in a healthy cultural exchange of ideas and values.
Learn to say the ‘d’ word
Great, you think. So Mickey might reconsider only following your heart, what of it?
At nothing less, we can stop and appreciate living at a time where culture can mutually create something greater than in its parts, like Kingdom Hearts. But it isn’t only gamers who can rejoice.
I can find a yoga studio across the street from the coffee shop at which I type but could fly halfway around the world tomorrow and discover Seattle-imported coffee. This is the global village.
More so though, we can learn to stop calling other cultural expressions as “right” or “wrong.” We need to learn how to say “different.”
I’m a firm believer that universally there is a human desire to be known, loved and make an impact. Every culture is an expression of humans working with the environment that they have toward such ends.
There are ways that cultures do it right — collectivist hospitality, egalitarian shared leadership, hierarchical onus of responsibility and individual human dignity — and ways cultures do it wrong — honor killings, neglecting poor and elders, dictating despots and technology-inducing loneliness. It’s in the tension of different that new, yet-to-be seen expressions of human ingenuity can occur and overcome even the limits found in other cultural expressions.
Your life is such an expression. Stop right where you are and consider the exchange of culture that allows you to function right now.
You are being energized for the second part of the day by coffee imported from Ethiopia, reading this article on your smartphone manufactured in Korea, and searching date spots for tonight’s dinner through California-based search engines. Not to mention the French-influence of RSVPing to that party next weekend, Arab mathematicians who give sense to the number totals on that online purchase and the Mexican workforce who manufactured your Dodge RAM.
For some, this is all new, and that’s the practical take away. Apply looking around you today at what is different, but not necessarily wrong.
For others, it leads to more questions and searching. Where personality assessments and the Enneagram allow you to better understand your tendencies and motivations, understanding cultural expressions of human nature allow us to have a fuller understanding of what makes us human.
I want myself and future generations to live in a fuller-colored world that sees my heart has value but has the potential for great evil. I want to see the depth of good in relationships with one another while understanding that there is always greater clarity looking outside of whatever I consider “in” and authority.
Cultural exchange is beautiful for learners and disturbing for those who think they have already arrived at the ideal.
What new stories are waiting to be told that will lead to a better understanding of who we are and how we relate after all in this small world?