From “you are what you eat” to “when you have sex with someone, you are having sex with all of their sexual partners,” we seem obsessed with fear-mongering in order to shape how people behave, and thus, who people become.
About fifty pages into Keiichiro Hirano’s A Man, the reader experiences the first hints of what becomes one motif of the novel:
In the end, although Kido would only drift to law school in the grips of the fuzzy thinking that plagues many students of the humanities, his father’s words would contribute to his firm decision, while enrolled there, to try to see things through and become a lawyer.Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 56)
A work written by a Japanese author about a Korean naturalized as Japanese (Akira Kido) resonates in several ways with growing up and making career choices in the U.S.
In less than fifty more pages, Kido is gripped in a panic attack identified as “existential anxiety”: “Kido’s fear of the same thing [death] happening to him made him painfully sensitive to the minutiae of life” (p. 99).
Kido recognizes as he approaches middle age that he is revisiting similar questions he faced as a teenager:
As was typical of someone that age, in the process of trying to decide what he wanted to be, he had thought long and hard about what kind of person he was. In the end he had drifted along and become a lawyer in accordance with his father’s advice. His doubts about whether this was truly the right path had never completely left him, but he went on looking to the future, telling himself that the person he was meant to be would be realized through the profession ha had chosen.Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 99-100)
Kido had lived “[f]or fifteen years now” complacent in those choices, who he had become—a lawyer with a wife and child. Yet in his new surge of existential anxiety, he recognized “steady work was no longer as common as it once had been, and many in his generation were denied the opportunity” he had received (p. 100):
He understood the struggles such people faced all too well because he dealt with many of them as clients. Forced to accept a life in which their social position and income were always unstable, they could never hope to self-actualize their profession as he had.Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 100)
Despite feeling fortunate, Kido must confront renewed angst prompting a new question: “Did I make the right choice?” (p. 100). And Kido becomes starkly aware “there might have been other paths he could have taken and therefore other people he might have been”:
The problem now was not who he was in the present but who he’d been in the past, and the solution he sought was no longer supposed to help him live but to help him figure out what sort of person to die as.Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 100)
For Kido, “the minutiae of life”—career as a lawyer, his family, and his Korean race beneath his naturalized Japanese citizenship—resulted in his “reignited existential anxiety:
The judicial order that Kido worked hard as a lawyer to preserve propped up his quotidian life. It protected his family’s human rights and maintained their status as sovereign citizens.Keiichiro Hirano, A Man (p. 101)
I am now in the late fall/early winter of a life and my so-called career; I turn 60 in about three weeks.
Regrets linger around me, but they are not primary my existential anxiety (that has been my companion since birth); although I do recognize in Kido’s dilemmas my own mixed feelings about who I have become and what sort of person I will die as—since I can recognize on the horizon many endings such as my career and my ability to do some of the things associated with younger humans.
My body’s deteriorations seem exponential by not the year, but the month and even day.
What strikes me about this aspect of the novel is that we rarely utter what Kido is confronting: you are your job (especially for those of us living in capitalism). I suspect this is one fear-inspiring slogan we don’t launch at children because it is the most frightening of all.
In capitalism, we must work in order to be fully human, especially in the U.S. where working is the only access to even marginal health insurance and care as well as livable retirement savings.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. government has been the least responsive internationally in providing financial support, but one of the most aggressive about maintaining the economy (which, in fact, really means keeping workers on the job).
Millionaire U.S. senators held forth about the dangers of sending citizens money and expanding unemployment payments because of the cancerous dangers of “handouts.”
And there has been during the election cycle the ever-present mantra about “socialism” (a red herring, but common from the Right none the less).
I have been talking with a family member and close friend, one in their 30s and on in their 20s, and hearing a common theme; they are both not just disillusioned about their professions/jobs, but about working.
Why, they are asking, should someone work five days every week for the brief two days of the weekend? And why work forty or fifty years just so you can retire in your dotage?
And like Kido, I think of my father, a young man in the 1950s and young husband/parent in the 1960s who bought the work-yourself-into-the-grave mentality hook, line, and sinker.
Then, of course, he passed it onto me; he imprinted it in me.
To these questions by young people, I can honestly say that the answer is capitalism is your Daddy.
You are your job, and if you are not careful, if you fail to ask these questions and then act, that’s the person you will die as.