Therapy with Doctor B. Monday night. It’s cliché as all get-out, but it came down to the idea that I may hold a less-than-generous opinion of myself, hidden behind a self-effacing sense of humor. This was true before the autism diagnosis, but having that label to hang on the collection of things that has kept me feeling a few steps behind “normal” has maybe in some ways been less therapeutic than it’s been another weight strapped to the idea that I am, in some nebulous way, “defective”. It’s an idea that’s been in the periphery of my vision for a long time, but having embarked on a new adventure in marriage—with a new reason to overcome this “defect”—I’m appreciative to have it brought front-and-center now, with the sense that this will be where I square off with it, without backing down or sticking a pin in it for another time.
In tandem with that, our human nature as creatures of narrative is a thing that’s been on my mind for a long time: the way we latch onto great stories that help us re-frame who we are, what we’re doing, and how we relate to each other. Legend, myth and religion are tools that have served this function for millennia, but I’m attracted to the idea that modern media (for all its noise and fluff) are also providing us with new and more relevant and relatable tools for redefining that sense of self and society. I like to think that the superhero movie boom for instance, despite having been worn down largely to new batches of cookie-cutter clones with fresh coats of paint, might somehow represent the new legends, the new tablets brought down from Sinai for a generation in search of fresh inspiration. Maybe even because of that cookie-cutter quality: you take a basic message about ordinary people (once you set aside the gamma rays, mystical arts, and, well, being rich and violently orphaned) put in a position to make a moral choice—and coming down on the side of looking after others instead of just taking care of themselves—and tell it over and over again, with slight variations on the theme…I like that it speaks to how complex outcomes can hinge on simple decisions.
It’s in that spirit that I wanted to geek out about the story I keep coming back to, that’s given me a template for what I aspire to, and that I hope other people could potentially discover for themselves and derive similar benefit from. And that’s gonna’ mean…
Rurouni Kenshin is the story of an infamous (fictional) swordsman, active first as an assassin and later a frontline soldier in Japan’s last civil war in the 1860s. This war ended military rule of the country and restored the emperor to political power (see also: The Last Samurai). Following the war’s conclusion, our man drops off the map, and ten years later we find that Himura Kenshin travels the country as a rurouni, a wandering swordsman—as atonement for the bloodshed of his revolution years, he’s vowed he will protect the people on the fringes as Japan enters a new era, but he’ll do it without ever again taking a life. To this end, he carries a sword that’s blunt where it should be sharp, and sharp where it should be blunt. As he settles down in Tokyo and attracts a new circle of friends drawn to his idealism, old grudges—and new aspirants to his title as the strongest warrior—emerge to challenge him. For his vow against killing, these challengers find him to be weaker than his former reputation promised, and seek to push him into becoming his legendary self of a decade before. At his physical and emotional limits, we find that Kenshin’s wartime persona emerges like a split personality, resulting in a will-he-or-won’t-he drama over the lives of his opponents.
The story goes on to see Kenshin convinced by the new Japanese government to return to Kyoto, the last battlefield of the revolution, to put down (in one way or another) another veteran of that conflict who now seeks to return Japan to a survival-of-the-fittest battlefield. Along the way, Kenshin’s commitment to his vow not to kill is sorely tested, not least by our villain’s chief acolyte, who destroys his unique reversed-blade sword in single combat. In the run-up to his final fight with the Big Bad, Kenshin finds a replacement for his sword and is reunited with the master he left prematurely to join the revolution. From his former master he seeks to learn the final technique of their martial art style, and here’s the part where this story became the one I adopted for myself:
Learning of his former pupil’s struggle with the killer persona inside him, the master recognizes something that is lacking in Kenshin. Fail to uncover this deficiency, the master states, and not only will you be unable to learn the final technique, but you will forever be tempted to return to a life of killing, and to spare you that pain I will instead end your own life. Faced with both failing in his mission and losing the people who have become close to him, Kenshin discovers the thing he has lost is his sense of his own worth, beyond what he’s found in his service to others. He learns the technique he has sought, and takes it into His Greatest Battle where, well…okay, he wins, but it’s so much cooler to see the thing play out for yourselves.
Before I continue, I should maybe mention that I’m half-Japanese, so this story is only one-half cultural appropriation. Not to perpetuate a stereotype, but I’d legitimately love to see a Venn diagram of people with autism and people obsessed with Japanese culture and popular media—being not especially cognizant of my own emotions, I believe that such stories, produced by and for a people known in no small part for their stoicism, can offer a very satisfying catharsis in their execution.
I’ve put a great deal of thought into the logic behind the catharsis of this character embracing his own worth, and I’ve come up with this: the book Hagakure, published (I think) as feudal Japan settled into a long period of relative peace, and the samurai class began to drift from their role as warriors, reminded its readers that those born into that role were already fated to die violent deaths, and only by embracing that fate could they risk life and limb in the pursuit of their duties. (Having studied a Japanese sword art for more than a decade—in no small part due to this story—I have been taught that the difference between killing your opponent and going down with him is the difference of less than an inch in one or the other’s cut.) And so in this context I think that having discarded the value of one’s own life, there’s a lack of appreciation for the value of the lives of others around you. Lacking an sense of value in others’ lives, then when pushed to your limits, why not just kill the other guy to ensure you come out on top? But if you insist on not killing your opponent, seeking instead a knockout blow, then the alternative becomes to put less than you’ve got into the fight, and hoping you come out ahead in the end. To me, what Rurouni Kenshin offers is the idea that, contrary to Hagakure, having something you want to come home to after the fight is done—realizing your will to live—is its own motivation to compete to your full ability, without the expectation that you yourself must eventually die in the process of defeating your opponent.
What I’ve taken away from all this is that yes, every one of us harms others in our day-to-day relationships (albeit absent the same violent consequences), whether it be by a lack of social graces, lack of some knowledge to better conduct ourselves, or some impulse to act out in the moment—this is the bloody past we all must atone for. But we must embrace the fact of our past failures in order to learn to do better. We must learn to value ourselves as whole people—to value ourselves as we would others, in spite of our failures along the way—before we can truly value others as we do ourselves.
In line with my automatic assumption of defect, everything I post here is with the caveat that I may simply be entirely up my own ass, but in this story I feel I’ve found a framework for how the things I’ve done wrong to this point don’t limit my future potential, and a new mindset that could potentially inform my way forward. Autistic or not, what are the stories that fill this role for you, and how do they inform your aspirations for your own development?
Rurouni Kenshin links on Amazon:
I don’t have one of those nifty kickback deals with Amazon, so here’s just to share my love of the story—the movies are a cheap online rental from them, so if martial arts flicks are your thing, or you want to see what this thing is I’m so stoked about, here’s a couple of quick links to the recent live-action adaptations on their site: