A version of this post originally appeared in The Rafu Shimpo.
By Bill Watanabe
OK, I admit it—I used this title mostly to get your attention. But please read on.
They say that in Florence, Italy, about 500 years ago, there was a large column of marble that was being worked on for a proposed civic sculpture. However, a major flaw in the marble appeared and rendered it useless, and it was thus discarded, unfinished. The great Michelangelo took that piece of flawed marble and sculpted the beautiful statue of David, perhaps the most famous statue in the world. For the longest time, I grew up thinking there was supposed to be a modestly-positioned fig leaf on the statue, but I later discovered the original statue has no fig leaf but rather full frontal nudity (you see, there is a connection to the title of this article!). The statue of David represents an athletic young male carrying only a sling and some pebbles (and when I say “only” I mean only). The shepherd boy David (as we know from the Bible) stands and gazes at the formidable foe he is about to fight: the terrifying giant warrior Goliath. David has no fear in his eyes, but rather a confidence in God and perhaps the cockiness of youth.
There is a wonderful message in this entire story—taking something without shape or form, perhaps even flawed and deemed worthless, and then in the hands of a great artist, chipping away at it, shaping it, smoothing it, until it becomes something of great value and beauty. In a way, each of our lives are like that: we begin without much direction or form or substance, and we make mistakes along the way, but we keep learning and gradually, through a multitude of experiences, events, knowledge, and challenges, our identity and character starts to take shape. As we get older, we hope that someday our lives will represent something of value and beauty. The statue is also an encouragement to face obstacles with faith and courage, no matter how big or scary they may be—sort of a physical embodiment of the saying “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”
There are many factors that helped to chip away and shape my life. Influences like growing up with Issei farmer parents who experienced the Great Depression and went to Manzanar and Tule Lake. My parents taught me a lot about Japanese culture and values. Other influences were sociological, such as experiencing prejudice for being part of a racial minority in America, or attending a Christian church, or working in the Nikkei community. Some factors are major, such as being married and having my own family, and some may be minor, like movies and songs that impacted me in some way. There are thousands of such things that have “chipped away” to give my life form and character and which makes me the unique person that I am today.
Now that I turned 70 years old this past January, I find myself looking back on my life more and more. Some people may think that this “chipping and sculpting process” is simply random events without direction or purpose. But I like to think that there is a Grand Artist who has something of beauty in mind and who shapes each of us as unique beings who are always evolving. I may sound like an ethnocentrist, but I do believe that if one hones and chips away at our marble selves, keeping both the best of Nikkei culture with the best of our American culture, the final result could be something of great worth.
Bill Watanabe co-founded the Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles, California, and served as the LTSC‘s executive director for over 30 years. He has served on the boards of numerous local organizations, and is a highly respected member of the APA community.