Sarah Witmer, NAPF’s Director of Development and Partnership, delivered this talk at NAPF’s 26th annual Sadako Peace Day event on August 6, 2020.
We’re living in the midst of a pandemic. Maybe you heard something about that… I’m kidding. It’s inescapable, isn’t it?
It’s in the very air we breathe. I’ve learned in this time that my own breath could be a weapon. When considering going to visit my grandma and my parents, or wanting to hug my sister, or walking past somebody in a parking lot when I don’t have my mask on, I’ve learned that I could accidentally hurt those I love the very most, and even those I don’t know at all, by the involuntary, necessary act of breathing.
I could do that in non-pandemic times too. But that never felt as real or as urgent as it does now. My colleague Paul K. Chappell says that this pandemic is “pulling back the rug” in our society and revealing problems that we’ve swept under the rug for years, hoping nobody would notice that the carpet is getting harder and harder to walk on with all these bumps. Problems of injustice, inequality, and ignorance have existed as long as we have, most definitely. Hibakusha and nuclear testing victims have carried the burden of injustice for 75 years, while others have had the option to look the other way. But it can’t keep going this way. We’re just going to keep tripping over what we’ve swept under the rug, with more war and more needless pain.
I read a fantastic article this week in the Guardian called ‘Daughters of the Bomb’ by Professor Erika Hayasaki at UC Irvine. In her article, she talks about a Japanese saying which we also have in English: in Japanese, it’s “kuuki wo yomu.” It literally means, “Read the air.” In English, we say “Read the room.” What is the air telling us? One thing it’s telling me is that we homo-sapiens are vulnerable, and at the same time, very powerful. Even in our breath.
So we have this strange paradox in us, don’t we: this great vulnerability, and also this great power. The paradox can cause extreme conflict. Professor Hayasaki says, “I know that a single soul can hold within it two opposing sides of the same war… I know too that at some point one side always wins.”
To avoid vulnerability and to assert power, men in suits dropped bombs on little children in 1945. That wasn’t the first time, and it wasn’t the last. To avoid vulnerability and to assert power, people make up rules about who should have power and who should not, based on the color of your skin, your gender, who you love, where you were born. To avoid vulnerability and to assert power, some people are refusing to acknowledge that there’s a contagious pandemic at all—refusing to wear masks in public, continuing to hold parties, even intentionally coughing on people.
To avoid vulnerability and to assert power, some have found ways to take away even oxygen. 75 years ago, the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki sucked the oxygen out of the air in a one-mile radius, causing hundreds to suffocate. The remaining air filled with fire and smoke, as thousands of people stumbled down to the Ota River in Hiroshima to find water to dull the pain in their burning lungs. On May 25th of this year, George Floyd was taped on camera gasping as a police officer knelt on his neck. He said, as many black men have said before him, “I can’t breathe.”
This is not just a problem on a global scale. It happens in our daily lives too. Our society has a problem with really understanding power and vulnerability. The suggestion that they are opposing forces pressures us to silence empathy and humility, and to heighten our defenses. Our society suggests that power is a protection against being hurt, attacked, or taken advantage of. But power that allows some to be heard and others to be ignored, that allows a select few to prosper, that looks the other way while others struggle to succeed, is not real power.
My colleague Paul, who created the Peace Literacy movement, suggests that real power looks very different. Paul says, “When we change our minds about a subject after considering new information, our society tends to view this as a weakness, as being wrong and losing…” but it’s really “a sign of strength, of growing and gaining.”
Brené Brown, whose TedTalk called ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ has 49 million views, says that “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” Vulnerability doesn’t mean we’re weak. It isn’t something to hide or to sweep under the rug. It’s part of being fully human. It offers us the chance to try things differently. It challenges us to respond with humility and with wisdom rather than with arrogance and force.
There has to be another way. In a country where freedom of speech and expression is a guaranteed right, but freedom of oxygen is not, who will speak for those whose breath was abruptly cut off? What can we do, with the breath that we still have, to make the world more just and more peaceful, and to honor those who continue to die because the world lacks justice and peace?
Martin Luther King Jr., whose voice was also abruptly silenced, understood that a world with nuclear weapons is a world where true freedom and equality will never exist. Professor Hayasaki quotes him as saying, “We must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race, which no one can win, to a positive contest to harness man’s creative genius for the purpose of making peace.”
Focus on the breath in your lungs right now. This breath means you have power to transform the world around you. It challenges you to also make room for your own vulnerability to speak. In honor of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in honor of Sadako, in honor of Toshiharu and other hibakusha who have used their pain to teach others and to tell the truth, in honor of human beings who were told that their lives did not matter: let’s make our breath count.