Metaphors comparing the whole span of a human being’s existence to some household object or process—“Life is like a sponge!”1—are usually cheap and easy. But they’re fun to make anyway. So here goes.
A human being is like a sword, and life is the history of its making and use. The best human beings are the product of good materials and loving care in the making.
In the Japanese art of swordmaking, the master smith smelts and refines his own iron, prepares the wood to make charcoal for the steel’s carbon content and for heating the furnace and forge, and attends to every detail of the manufacturing process, including those components made by other artisans: the handle of ray skin wrapped with cord; the guard made of decorative but strong metal forged and carved into a memorable pattern; and the wooden sheath that both protects the sword and is itself protected by layers of shining lacquer. This attention to materials is like a child who starts with good genes, is born into a loving home with attentive parents who have consciously decided to nurture another human being, and is then given over to dedicated teachers who will work to make him or her into a confident, loving, productive, and happy adult.
The Japanese sword is made from two kinds of steel. The central core is a low-carbon alloy that is relatively soft and flexible, giving the sword its strength and resistance to shattering. During the forging process, this core is hammered into the groove of an outer jacket made from a high-carbon steel that is hard and stiff, able to resist blows and to hold an edge. When these two steels are quenched after being pounded together, the inner core contracts more rapidly than the outer jacket, giving the sword its characteristically graceful upward curve.
In similar fashion, the best human life is made of both flexible and hard mental and spiritual components and attitudes. A person who will be both successful and happy must have some measure of vulnerability to the world and the people surrounding him or her, able to understand and respond to the pressures that the world brings in into any life. A person who cannot bend under pressure will break. A person who cannot perceive love and pain in others and respond with compassion will live alone in a muted, unhappy, and unproductive life. At the same time, a successful person needs a shell, an outer jacket of mental and emotional toughness, able to withstand adverse opinions, direct and implied criticisms, and outright emotional and physical assaults without folding up or losing his or her drive and sense of purpose.
The Japanese smith prepares each piece of steel, core and jacket, before joining them. He hammers it out, then folds it over and hammers it out again. The steel may be folded and hammered between eight and sixteen times. The folding creates layers exponentially: one becomes two, two become four, four become eight—like the process of putting one coin on the first square of a chess board, two on the second, and so on until reaching a staggeringly immense number before loading the sixty-fourth square. With this level of combined folding, the samurai sword may have between 256 and 65,000 layers of steel in each of its component parts. These layers and the welds that are made where they fuse together give the steel its strength.
The best human life has a recursive element. Whatever a person undertakes—practicing a profession like law or medicine, playing a musical instrument, engaging in a sport or martial art, or perfecting a fine art like painting or writing—requires repeated practice, usually on a daily basis. Each time a lawyer or doctor takes on a new case, a musician confronts a new score, a player engages in a particular skill or move, a painter confronts a blank canvas, or a writer slips into the stream of a story, the person’s quality of effort improves. The practitioner discovers and sheds excess motions and bad habits. And he or she develops a deeper and deeper sense of the art and its complexity. The adept has explored both the art and his or her own psyche and abilities at a level that the beginner and the novice cannot understand. This layering of experience and expertise has its dull spots and its plateaus, like the weld line between one layer of steel and the next, where weeks of work seem to advance the practice and the art not at all. The knowledgeable student—or one guided by a knowledgeable mentor or teacher—knows that these plateaus are gathering places, where the mind and body are accumulating, analyzing, and storing past experience. Each plateau will be followed by a renewed climb with sharply increased ability and understanding.
In the same way, people build up a relationship with their life situation and with the people who inhabit it by going through periods of intense feelings of happiness, acceptance, and love, followed by periods of depression, doubt, and dislike. This is the way the brain and the mind build up a rounded picture of the physical world or of another special human being: seeing the object of life and affection from different sides at different times, making and remaking judgments about the situation and the person, reaching a state where one can say with confidence, “I know this place, this life, this other person.”
And finally, the samurai blade—like any sword or knife blade—is heated and then quenched, plunged into cold water or oil, to temper and harden it. The Japanese swordsmith coats his blade with clay in varying layers before this tempering. The thicker clay laid along the spine allows the steel in this area to cool more slowly in the water, making the sword’s backbone more flexible. The thinner clay along the cutting edge allows more rapid cooling, making the steel there harder.
Human beings are tempered by the shocks and reversals of life. A person heads in one direction, with one set of goals and expectations, only to be turned or thrust aside from the path by a personal failure, external conflict, or unexpected disaster. A person with the best preparation and attitude—the steel that is both flexible and hard—accepts the shock, adjusts his or her course, learns from the experience, and begins anew. A person with poor preparation and attitudes—the steel that is too soft or too brittle—collapses or shatters, stops, folds in on him- or herself, and does not begin again.
The finished samurai sword is a thing of both purpose and beauty. It is a weapon, created to be the best at the purpose for which it was designed: to cut a human limb or body apart with one blow, cleaving armor, clothing, tissue, and bone. It is a savage purpose, but one that is clear and obvious. At the same time, the sword is an object of love and beauty. The blade surface is polished to a mirror finish; the edge has a carefully defined, satiny appearance; and the components and appliances like the handle, guard, and sheath are examples of the highest craftsmanship.
The best human life should be a mix of purpose and beauty. The adult must take up and hold a position: a place in society, a profession or pursuit, and a role in the family or other communal group. These purposes define the life and make the person whole. At the same time, the developed life should be a work of art in itself: the person fills his or her time and expends his or her energy apart from the working world in acquiring and savoring experiences, knowledge, new skills, and wider associations that make a human being into a more rounded, capable, and attractive individual. The person creates order and beauty in the world through his or her thoughts and actions.
These are the elements and attributes of a good life—the best life. But not everyone gets to live such a life.
In feudal Japan, every samurai—the military adherent of a noble lord—carried both long and short swords, even in peacetime and always on his belt except in the most intimate moments at home, and then the swords were always within reach. The sword was both the symbol of the samurai’s position and the primary tool of his profession. During World War II, Japanese officers were expected to wear a samurai’s long sword, or katana, as a symbol of their rank. Many carried heirloom blades handed down in their families for generations. But toward the end of the war, when losses in the field had reduced the numbers of both established officers and antique swords, the crop of newly promoted lieutenants carried swords of no distinction, mass produced, and sometimes just hammered into shape and filed to an edge from any old piece of flat steel, such as a truck’s leaf spring. These swords were no better or more attractive than the black iron blades with hooked ends given to the orcs in The Lord of the Rings movies.
In these days in the West, with the decline of family life and the reshaping of education to focus more on self-esteem and a sense of entitlement than on knowledge, effort, and experience, many of our young people are left in a bleak state. A child from a broken family in a declining school, given no opportunity to recursively practice a sport or musical instrument, prepared for no particular purpose in life other than general dependency, and shielded from the mental and emotional shocks that are natural to sustained effort, prepares for a flat, dull existence without the tempering of personal trials and painful adjustments. Such a person is like a truck spring hammered out to look like a sword but with none of the internal qualities or external finishes that define a battle-worthy weapon.
I fear that we are making a nation with more truck springs than samurai swords these days.
1. You spend all your time wiping up messes, and when you’re old and saturated with gunk, you get thrown away. … Ewww!