Cancer, Art, and Children

The following is a sad post that focuses on the death of an artist that created work I admire. Below the fold for the rest.

Last night I spent the better part of an hour tearing my heart out reading the last words of Satoshi Kon. After finishing the whole piece, I was struck with a profound sadness at both how Japanese it was, and the relationship that Satoshi Kon had with his mother and father.

For those of you unfamiliar, cancer is a stigmatised disease in Japan. Seen as a polluting, corrupting influence, and ultimately a death sentence, people do not talk about cancer, nor do doctors typically explain cancer to their patients. Taking anti-cancer treatment is similarly stigmatised, which means that deaths ‘to cancer’ are rare but deaths to pneumonia are common. I understand a similar situation is in place regarding AIDS. It’s a flat-out social convention, where the patient is encouraged by everyone around them to think they’ll get better, as long as they don’t mention cancer.

Satoshi Kon apologised for having cancer to his mother. And she apologised for not having made him stronger. The cultural divide is absolutely mindblowing to me. Cancer isn’t something that anyone can be blamed for. You can make something of a case that smokers and second-hand smokers can trace a cause-and-effect line, but cancer, certainly things like pancreatic and bone cancers, are like lightning strikes out of a clear blue sky. There is almost no way to predict them, and when someone gets hit, the appropriate reaction, dear god, is not to blame anyone. It’s to support and care for the patient.

I may be a bit sensitive to the topic of cancer.

This cultural strangeness aside, what struck me as most haunting about Satoshi Kon is that nowhere did he mention children; he did not even mention a sadness or a regret at not having had children, or giving his parents grandchildren.

There was a time when I had a quiet internal conflict about my decision to not have children of my own. My reasons against it were fourfold;

  1. A very broad and liberal attitude that we have enough people on earth and overpopulation wasn’t going to be helped by me adding to it.
  2. Pragmatically, the time and money investment in having a child is something I feel should be done responsibly; when I had attained a work/life balance where children could fit in and not be neglected or want for anything, I might reconsider it. Since my goal is to be a writer, I don’t imagine that this will ever happen.
  3. A general fear of myself as a father. I am familiar with my temper; I know I have still marks from bullying on me, I know that the responsibility for another’s life gives me inordinate power. I would hate myself for harming another in that situation – and I cannot say with confidence that I would not harm.
  4. Kids go through this… seven year period of being boring, stupid, incurious and yelling that I don’t like. Then five years later, they kind of do the same thing again.

When I was younger, I worried about this from an evolutionary perspective. Did I owe it to the species to try and pass on my own DNA, in the hopes that my children would have as much potential as I did, but squandered? Was I somehow, in a tiny way, contributing to ‘stupid’ society by refusing to introduce ‘smart’ kids? The answer, not that I understood it, was a resounding and overwhelming no.

The fear I had was one born out of my ignorance. It is not that smart parents have smart kids and stupid parents have stupid kids. Stupid societies build stupid parents that build stupid kids. Einstein was a remarkable intellect, but his intellect needed external intellects to grow; had Newton not reduced integral and differential calculus, Einstein would have had nothing to tune his remarkable mathematical mind. The tragedy of Einstein is to wonder how many minds, equally gifted to mathematics and physics, have never seen a mathematics textbook, have never had someone open up the world of worlds to them – and laboured their lives in truck stops, fields, in fishing villages and bashing rocks together, doing things they hated.

One does not need to contribute DNA to contribute to the species. One does not need to have children to have a legacy. For many of us, we feel that’s the only option – but I think, more than anything else, what I want to do is influence people to dream big. An idea can live on past the person who shaped it. This is the glory of Satoshi Kon. With no sons or daughters, what lives on after he did is his ideas – and maybe people will be a bit nicer to homeless people on snowy days, remembering Tokyo Grandfathers, or perhaps people will show more respect online after Paprika. Heck, after Paranoia Agent, maybe Japan might do something crazy like reduce its reliance on the kawaisou and its appearance-driven world, and maybe stop stigmatising cancer.

This is my 100th post on this blog; I thank you for reading along if you have been, and hope that it’s been interesting enough to keep reading.

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