Are we carried along by destiny, or are we actors that influence the course of our lives? I haven’t given this much thought before reading Memoirs of a Geisha. The recurring theme in the book is that the characters are floating on a river and exert little to no influence on the course of their own lives. The book presents this belief as a sensible outcome of Buddist teaching.
I didn’t notice until reading this book how this idea might strike at the fundamental difference between Western religions and Eastern religions. I know my bias as an actor in my life stems from my Christianity-soaked childhood. The core of Christian thought is that we must exert control over our impulses and with God’s help can bend away from our natural inclinations. Sure Christians often say that they follow God’s plan for their lives, but I’ve rarely seen someone who truly lives like that. This diverges greatly from Buddism’s pushing people to stop resisting their human experience and embrace what is and what comes.
This book was great. I enjoyed all the thoughts it provoked in me. I enjoyed peeking into a world that feels fully foreign to me. I enjoyed the character’s perspective as a receiver for what life brought to her.
It’s very anti-American to consider your life as something that happens to you as opposed to something you influence and create for yourself. This idea flies directly in the face of that capitalistic mantra of pulling yourself up by your own boot-straps. That saying was originally meant to describe an exercise in futility, given that it’s physically impossible to pick yourself up. Perhaps the current American meaning of this statement is illustrative of the conflict inherent in saying that God controls everything, and yet we must control our behavior.