Friday, November 29, 2013

The Parable of the Hikikomori Son

NaNoWriMo is almost at its end, and while I am still not quite finished with it, I really felt like writing this post, so… A Series of Miracles is back!

A lot of the post below is inspired by--and paraphrased from--the book "The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Check it out if you want to learn more.


Hikikomori refers to people who shut themselves in their house or even in their room for an extended period of time. Coming from the Japanese language, it reflects a certain, somewhat unsavory aspect of Japanese culture where the pressure to perform causes some young people to crumble under stress, thus causing them to shut themselves in, while the shame associated with having to seek out a therapist prevents that person's family from getting him/her help. As such, it comes up a fair amount in anime. However, anime portrayals of hikikomori are quite wide-ranging, and many of them simply have such characters be treated as comic relief or even as some kind of remote superhero that fights crime from within her room.

Every now and then, though, anime provides a look at the seriousness of the problem of being a hikikomori, and what it is like to be one. A recent example of this is Outbreak Company episode 8, in which the empress, Petralka, overburdened with all the duties of being the empress of Eldant, decides to lock herself in her room, seeking out what it means to live the hikikomori lifestyle. When Shinichi arrives to help her, at first things start out humorous as he, a former hikikomori himself, instructs her on all the proper ways of being a proper shut-in, letting Petralka indulge in all the enjoyable aspects of such a life. However, things later turn serious as he talks about how being a hikikomori is not all fun and games, and how it is actually a rather painful way to live.

Of course, hikikomori are not solely a Japanese phenomenon, and shut-ins of various sorts can be found in all kinds of media. In fact, the Bible has its own example of a hikikomori, even if he did not shut himself in the house, so to speak; at the very least, it would not be hard to imagine this guy as a hikikomori.

Be warned that there are some spoilers for episodes 7 and 8 of Outbreak Company after the jump.

Those tiny shoulders bear the weight of an entire nation. Art by ユイザキ.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Is Actually Not Really About the Prodigal Son)

The parable of the prodigal (meaning "wastefully extravagant") son, which can be found in Luke 15, is one of the more well-known parables of the Bible, and is one of my favorite parables. The story goes as such: a son of a wealthy landowner decides he has had enough of life at home, and asks his father to get his inheritance money early. (Note that culturally, this basically amounts to telling the father, "I wish you were dead.") He then heads off to a distant country, squanders all the money, and then finds himself broke during a famine, working as a pig feeder and wanting to eat the food he's feeding the pigs (yuck). He decides he'd rather go back to his father's place and work as a hired servant--there was no way his father would accept him as his son anymore, after all. Except as he nears home, his father sees him in the distance, runs off to meet him (note that culturally, this was considered very improper for a rich person to run), and embraces him, then proceeds to throw a party to celebrate the return of a son he once thought dead but has been found alive.

This is a nice heartwarming story illustrating the grace of God… except that is not really why the story was told. Jesus told this parable after he got some flak from Pharisees (very stubborn, highly religious folks who believe living a righteous life entails following a bunch of strict rules) for hanging out with tax collectors and other notorious sinners. Indeed, while the first part of this parable was a nice reminder to said sinners of how God has forgiven them, it is the second part--a part that does not quite have a happy ending--that is very pointedly told for the Pharisees.

The prodigal son had an older brother, who had been working hard on the land of his father. When he heard about the return of his wayward brother, and the party being thrown for him, he refused to join in out of spite. At this point, I can imagine said older brother going, "I've had enough of this!" and shutting himself up in his room and living a hikikomori lifestyle (whatever that would look like during the first century A.D.). When the father finds him, wanting him to join the celebration as well, he responds that unlike his brother, he had been obediently serving him for so many years, yet he never got anything like a celebration, and yet his brother, after living it up like a frat boy, comes back and he gets a party; that has got to be unfair, right?

The father's response is simply that, everything he owns also belongs to the older brother; it was simply fitting to celebrate the younger brother's return because who would not celebrate after finding a loved one thought to be dead?

The parable ends here, with no resolution as to whether or not the older brother ends up going to the party. After all, it was ultimately up to the Pharisees, whom the older brother represented, whether or not to accept God's love and not begrudge it in sinners. As for modern day Christians, it is easy to think that we are not like that jerk of an older brother; sure, we might be like the younger brother, going off and doing our own thing before realizing God's ways are better, and receiving God's grace and love still… but definitely not like that older brother.

And yet, it is all too easy to end up like the older hikikomori brother, shutting ourselves in, if not physically in our house/room, then in our hearts as we distance ourselves from others and God. The various reasons that led to the older brother's rejection of the party are frequently also what leads us to become emotional shut-ins (and sometimes physical ones too).

Ways to Become a Hikikomori

1. Resentment of our work. The older brother grew to resent working for his father, feeling like he was just doing slave work. Petralka, wanting to be a stellar empress after her parents were killed in a power struggle, grew to resent her work as it got more burdensome. That she was promised a visit from Shinichi if she completed a particularly large stack of work, only for Shinichi not to be available, was pretty much the breaking point for her.

There are various ways of becoming resentful of working and serving God. Certainly, at times we can feel great about being able to participate in God's great plan to save people, restore the world, and bring His kingdom to the world "as it is in heaven". But at times, the various voices of the enemy and the stresses of this world break us down instead, and we end up hating the work we used to love, even if we never outright say it. But when we reach the cracking point, we end up at a point where the last thing we want to do is work for God, and hence we retreat to our rooms without wanting to emerge.

2. Resentment of a lack of a reward. Related to the above is the expectation that we would be rewarded for doing good, and the resentment when that reward does not come. Now, wanting to do work we would not normally do in order to be rewarded is not a bad thing; rewards are great motivators, and even the Bible says that our faithful work on earth will garner us rewards in heaven (which, unlike earthly rewards, will never get stolen or worn down or otherwise lost). Rewards are great… if it is made clear exactly what kind of a reward we can expect and when we can expect to get it.

Where we can grow resentful is when we think we are entitled to rewards that we were never told we would get, simply because we are doing good. This is part of the worldly way of thinking that "good is to be rewarded, bad is to be punished", which is not how God's grace works; after all, as far as God is concerned, no one is good enough to deserve a reward… or to be saved, for that matter (Romans 3:23). And yet, as our thinking remains stuck in "reward/punishment" mode, we all too easily slip back into thinking that our hard, faithful work should be rewarded. Even if it is not some blatant "after all I have done for you, this is how you treat me?" attitude, sometimes the very expectation of a reward, like Petralka's expecting a visit from Shinichi, that ends up going unfulfilled becomes enough to lose all will to work.

And sometimes, it is not so much an expectation of rewarding hard work as it is an expectation of some kind of special treatment because of our closeness with someone. The older brother expected he would get a celebration of his own simply for being his father's son. In Shinichi's case, he ended up becoming a hikikomori because he confessed to his childhood friend, expecting, if not a return of his feelings, at least a kind rejection… and instead got told that he was undesirable as a romantic partner because he was an otaku. One way or another, when we do not get something we were expecting to get, even if it comes solely from our own assumptions, that causes a sense of resentment that can lead to shutting ourselves off from the world.

3. Resentment of others's blessings. If there is one part of the elder brother's attitude that I think is easy to sympathize with, it is how he feels that it is unfair that his vagrant brother gets a celebration for coming back after squandering away his life, while he just keeps working along like he should and gets nothing for it. It feels unfair, doesn't it? And yet, the easiest way to start resenting other people and thus stop wanting to having to interact with them is to start thinking about how they are getting what you do not have, even if they do not deserve it.

Shinichi probably felt this way to some extent, not just at his friend, but also at the non-otaku population in general for being able to live "normal" lives while he gets socially shunned simply for his interests. It is a little more complicated in Petralka's case; the racist beliefs that humans are better than elves and half-elves that she grew up believing get challenged as Shinichi pays more attention to the half-elf Myucel than her, and for a time that did cause her to be resentful (and rather outwardly so)… until certain events happen that make her recognize Myucel as an equal. Of course, when you no longer have someone below you to blame things on, you end up having to blame the next person up, and that leads to…

4. Resentment of ourselves. This does not show up in the older brother's tale, but does come up in the younger brother's tale, as he considers himself no longer worthy of being his father's son. There is only so much we can do as far as placing the blame of how bad things are on other things, until eventually we start blaming ourselves. Ignoring the voice of God that says that we are loved as we are, no matter what faults we have or what bad things we've done, we start to think that we are bad people and that there is no point in doing good… so into our rooms we go.

You probably have noticed the common word here: resentment. Unhappiness will not make us lock ourselves in our rooms--it is possible to be unhappy at any moment but still be joyful overall--but when we try to find something to blame for that unhappiness with a bitter attitude, joy becomes out of the question. And when we are unable to be joyful, our hearts shut down, and we become emotional hikikomoris.

A Downward Spiral

What is especially dangerous about the last type of resentment--the resentment of ourselves--is that while all four will make us go into our rooms, it is the last one that will keep us in there. After all, being a hikikomori means being a loser, and eventually, whatever else we may resent, we ultimately will end up only hating ourselves in this cramped room, wasting away our lives playing video games and sleeping all day. The sad news is, our shame at what we have become keeps us from wanting to face anyone who could help us. Shinichi describes it as "the door gets heavier and heavier", showing how those who fall into this lifestyle find themselves helpless to get out of it.

Fact of the matter is, there is no way a hikikomori can emerge from his room on his own. Someone must first open the door and reach out to him. While Shinichi was "forced" out of his room by his parents' giving him the ultimatum to "get a job, go back to school, or get disowned", it was ultimately the kindness of the people of Eldant that allowed him to interact with everyone there and no longer be a shut-in. Likewise, for Petralka, it was Shinichi's visit, and his letting her know that she is fine just the way she is, that allows her to pick herself up and walk out of the room.

And for the older brother, the father went to find him and invite him out of his seclusion. After all, the father loved both of his sons equally and dearly, and while he will not drag his son out of the room, he will definitely go to the door his son is unable to open and open the door for him.

While the hikikomori is powerless to open the door on his own, that does not mean that he is to do nothing until someone rescues him. The two most important things for any physical or emotional hikikomori to have are trust and gratitude. Trust is what defeats the self-hatred that has kept us locked in our rooms, by allowing someone else to open that door for us. Petralka displays this trust in allowing Shinichi to talk with her; she did not trust her own retainers, thinking they would just drag her out, and had thus placed a barrier on the door to block them, but she trusted Shinichi when he said he only wanted to talk, and let him inside. Later on, she trusts him when he says that she is okay as she is. For modern day Christians, trust means believing that God does love us as we are, and still wants us back.

Fittingly for a post written after Thanksgiving, gratitude is the next most important thing. Gratitude is resentment's worst enemy; when we have a spirit of thankfulness for what we do have, instead of envy of what we do not, there is no reason to seek blame for those things that are maybe not going too well. Gratitude involves us realizing that "all that God has is ours", and that to be able to work for God as one of His children is the greatest blessing we could have, and thanking God for it. Of course, trust and gratitude are not only the way out of the room, but the way we keep ourselves from going back to locking ourselves in our room again.

Two Sons

In the end, the prodigal son and the hikikomori are incredibly similar. Both of them ran away from the pressures of their life, one by going to a faraway land, one by shutting himself in his room. Both of them squander away what they have left in money. Both of them eventually end up in despair, and realize it is time to go back to their proper home. Both of them expect that those outside would be disappointed in them (Petralka outright says this), only to find that those waiting for her are simply glad to have her.

There is a little bit of both the younger and the older son in ourselves. The voice that enticed the younger son tells us to stop bothering with work and just go out and have fun; the other voice tells us that the world sucks and it's time to just hole up in your room.

And in the end, God loves both of them dearly, and died to adopt them into His family.

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