The bright laughter of children is the true measure of a society’s health. Ten years ago, I was in San Jose, Costa Rica, for the opening of an exhibition on the reality and threat of nuclear weapons. Even as participants began a dignified rendition of the national anthem, through the wall that separated the venue from the Children’s Museum next door came the sound of free and raucous voices — elementary school pupils waiting for the exhibition to open. As the ceremony proceeded, the noise generated by the children at times came close to drowning out the speeches of the invited guests.
The ceremony participants exchanged smiles. It seemed that the cheerful and vibrant voices of the children were the symbol and embodiment of peace. Their voices conveyed a sense of hope capable of countering even the threat posed by nuclear weapons.
As adults, it is our responsibility to ensure that these pure voices resonate loudly throughout society. And yet, in Japan in recent years, hardly a day passes without news of tragic and disturbing incidents involving children. It is painful in the extreme to learn of children and young people falling victim to or becoming otherwise entangled in violent crime.
The lives of children are a mirror on society. These incidents reflect an underlying pathology, one that justifies indifference to others, the casual disregard of their pain.
I am intensely concerned that by offering young people only the example of an uncaring and brutal way of life, we are extinguishing from their hearts the light of hope. The unfulfilled hearts of children become desolate. They are then rendered even more vulnerable to a distorted value system that — by the single, arbitrary measure of wealth — coldly separates society’s “winners” from its “losers.”
We need to initiate an earnest and principled rethinking of what it means to win in life and what a genuinely affluent society would look like.
The members of my generation also experienced the pain of finding the values offered us by society empty and meaningless.
I was 17 when World War II ended. There was among young people a tormented sense of spiritual void. It wasn’t just the physical landscape that had been reduced to ashes. The bizarre system of values drilled into us in the wartime years had been exposed as fraudulent and razed to the ground.
It was only natural that many young people fell into a state of desperate skepticism, convinced there was nothing in which they could believe. Like them, I found it impossible to trust the intellectuals and politicians who, having sung the praises of war and driven large numbers of young people to their deaths, overnight became apostles of peace and democracy.
I feel deeply fortunate that at this most difficult juncture in my youth, I was able to encounter a person who was willing to engage with me and other young people head-on and whom I would come to regard as my mentor in life.
When I first met Josei Toda at a small gathering of Soka Gakkai members, he was 47, almost 30 years my senior. And yet he responded to my questions with unadorned directness and sincerity. Toda had resisted the militarist regime that stripped the Japanese people of their rights and freedoms, plunging the country into a war of invasion. As a result, he had endured persecutions and a two-year imprisonment. The words of a person who had suffered imprisonment for his convictions carried a special weight. I felt intuitively that I could trust him.
Toda was an educator with a profound love for the young. Puffing a cigarette, his talks would range freely across different subjects as he shared insights into life’s more intractable problems.
He organized outdoor study sessions for young people in beautiful natural settings that helped us regain a sense of expansive vitality. I recall an occasion when, around a campfire by a river, we spoke with him late into the night about the things that concerned us: our relations with our parents, marriage, our lives and futures.
Toda had a deep faith and trust in young people. He saw in them possibilities they themselves could not imagine. In turn they were transformed by the confidence, courage and hope he instilled.
From my own experience, I am convinced that few things are more crucial to the healthy growth of children than encountering someone who truly believes in them. Studies suggest that young people who act violently often suffer from the feeling that no one is interested or cares. The problem behavior of children is a harsh reflection on the heartless egotism and apathy of adult society.
The Lotus Sutra includes the following parable.
There once was a man who had a rich friend. One day the man called on his friend who entertained him until, sated on wine, he fell asleep. The rich friend was called away on business. Before leaving, as a parting gift he sewed a priceless jewel into the hem of the sleeping man’s garment. Knowing nothing of this, the man awoke and went about his business. Falling on hard times, he wandered the world in poverty. Years later, they met again. The rich man, astonished at his friend’s condition, told him of the gift he had given him, and which he had possessed all along.
Each young person possesses a precious inner treasure of infinite worth. To remain unaware of this and stumble about in spiritual poverty is a tragic waste. In contrast, a person fully awakened to the jewel-like dignity of his or her own life is capable of truly respecting that treasure in others.
We all have opportunities, in our families and communities, to interact with young people. I hope adults will take the time and make the effort to listen attentively to the voices of the young. Such small acts of caring can help refresh and replenish a young heart. We should each strive to be a consistent source of warmth and spiritual nourishment.
While this may seem laborious and time-consuming, I am convinced that from such efforts — the resonance and trust that arise between one life and another — emerge people keenly sensitive to the sufferings of others, people capable of empathetic action on others’ behalf. This is the first step toward building the values that will support a genuinely healthy society. These are the seeds of future hope we can plant today.