Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Like A Good Shepherd? The Nature of Selflessness

So I've finally been able to finish A good librarian like a good shepherd (a.k.a. Daitoshokan no Hitsujikai), and it ended up being quite good. It certainly has its flaws, but it tells a solid story with likable characters, it can do emotional scenes well, and it's just overall one of the better visual novel adaptations I've seen. It also has some interesting things to say about the nature of selflessness.

Be warned: this time around, there are major spoilers after the jump.

At the halfway point of the show, the truth about Shepherds is revealed: they are a secret organization of people that can travel through books and access a special "library" where every person in the world has a "book". These books contain all the various possible futures that person can have, and the job of a Shepherd is to read those books and look out for any potential situations where a person can encounter an event that can cut a promising future short, and divert the situation accordingly. It's an interesting take on the whole "seeing and preventing the future" aspect, and sounds like a good deal for any Shepherd, right?

There's just one catch: anyone who becomes a Shepherd has his/her book erased, and as such, their existence on earth effectively disappears. They can meet and talk with people, but those people will not remember them afterwards. It is arguably the ultimate form of selflessness: the Shepherd becomes so dedicated to the happiness of others that their own self literally disappears into nothingness. It's an idea that arguably comes from the Buddhist idea of Nirvana, with becoming a Shepherd being something of an enlightenment.

That said, presented like this, of course a normal person like Kyotaro is going to have second thoughts about becoming a Shepherd. And when an untimely event causes Kyotaro to reveal the truth about the Shepherds to Tsugumi, she too immediately opposes the thought of Kyotaro's becoming a Shepherd. In a twist of irony, if Kyotaro were to become a Shepherd to make Tsugumi happy, Tsugumi would not be happy.

This conflict is something that is part of selflessness: as much as we may try to deny ourselves to help others, there comes a point where that very self-denial is hurting the people we are trying to help. We can try to get the other person to not be so torn over our self-denial, but if they are also just looking out for our happiness, whose side is right?

It's a tricky thing to work out, but in the last episode, Tsugumi talks about her vision for the Happy Project: she wanted it to be something where people would work toward making each other happy, and in the process bring happiness to everyone. It's a pretty good system, all things considered: by forming a community by which we all help fulfill others' desires where they are within reason. There certainly is room for raw sacrificial love, and room for people to realize how to align their desires such that they do find joy in dying to oneself, but even there, I think the important thing is not in denying your own desires, but being aware of them and choosing to place them on the sacrificial altar for the sake of others.

And I think that this sort of community can also be a part of Christianity. I am particularly thinking of this well-known passage from Acts about the first Christians:

"And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need." (Acts 2:44-45, ESV)
Reading over the whole section, you can easily get the feeling that the first Christians were a very joyful group overall. Certainly, some in that group were more in need than others, and as such, some people probably had to be "less selfless" than others, but the fact that everyone was looking out for each other's needs is nevertheless a good example to follow.

Selflessness is an interesting thing, one that is very important for building strong relationships and for making the world a better place, but which can perhaps be approached the wrong way so as to be destructive instead: a sort of selfishness disguised as selflessness. If the complete self-denial of the Shepherds does not appeal to you, perhaps something like the community of the Shiomi Happy Project is the kind of selflessness you can work toward.


Stay tuned for some special news later today!

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