Podium: Sorrows carried in a snail's shell

Empress Michiko The Empress of Japan reminisces about her childhood reading to a conference in New Delhi on books for the young
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The Independent Culture
FROM THE time they are born, people must build bridges one after another to all those around them, deepening their links with other people and things, thus creating their own world to live in. If such bridges are not built, or if the bridge fails to fulfil its function, or if the will to build bridges is lost, people become helplessly isolated and lose their peace.

I think, too, that our bridges must reach not only outward but inward, continuously connecting one to one's inmost self, discovering one's true self, and being an incentive to the proper setting up of the individual self.

Although I was caught up in evacuee life because of the war, the protecting hand of my elders was always there, so my childhood was a time of relative tranquillity. Nevertheless, the repeated changes of life environment were hard to bear for a child, and I sometimes felt ill at ease with my surroundings and even was at odds with my own self, and I remember there were times when I was quite exhausted. At such times, how much did I enjoy and how greatly was I encouraged by a few books that I had by me, which, though they could not solve each and every problem, helped me to go on!

While I was still a little girl, I was told a story of a snail. Since my memory of it is blurred, I will talk about it following the book on which it was probably based: The Sorrows of a Little Snail by Niimi Nankichi. Suddenly one day, a snail became aware that the shell upon his back was stuffed full with sorrows, and went off to see his friend, saying that he could no longer go on living, and pouring out his tale of woe. But his snail friend said: "You are not alone in that. The shell on my back, too, is filled full of sorrows."

The little snail went to another friend and then another friend and told them the same tale of woe, but from every friend the same reply came back. So the snail at last came to realise that everyone had his burden of sorrows to bear. "It is not only me: I too must bear my own burden of sorrows."

The story ends when this snail decides to stop bemoaning his lot.

What age would I have been at that time? Since Mother, and Grandfather and my uncles and aunts, read to me and told me tales up to about my second year in elementary school, I think I would have been between four and seven.

At that age, I had not yet known anything you could call a great sorrow. For that reason no doubt, when I learnt that in the end the little snail had stopped bemoaning his lot, I simply thought, "oh, good!". That was all. I gave no special thought to the whole matter.

But afterwards, that story kept coming to mind: it would seem that the sorrows that filled the shell quite full, and the sudden awareness of this, and the anxiety that made the snail feel he could no longer go on living, were all indelibly engraved on my memory. As I grew a little older, I could no longer simply conclude "oh, good!", and I even had at times some vague, uneasy intimations that just to go on living was no easy thing. In spite of that, I certainly did not dislike this story.

Looking back on it now, what did my childhood reading do for me? Above all, it gave me pleasure, and then laid the foundation for my later reading during adolescence. At times it gave me roots; at times it gave me wings. These roots and wings were a great help to me as I threw bridges out and in, expanding bit by bit and nurturing my own personal world.

Reading gave me opportunities to ponder over joy and sorrow. It was through reading books, with many kinds of grief delineated in them, that I could come to know how deeply people other than myself can feel, and that I could perceive the many hurts they bear.

When I think that there are children who go through griefs and pains beyond comparison with mine, maybe I should refrain from saying that in my own sheltered childhood, too, there were such things as sorrows. But, in any life whatever, there is pain and sorrow. The tears of every single child have their specific weight. For me, when I was caught up in my own small sorrows, it was a blessing to be able to find joy in books. Learning of life's sorrows to some extent adds more depth to one's own life, and deepens thought for others. Similarly, coming in touch with joy in books, the joy that was the wellspring of creative works by writers past and present, imparts the joy of living to the reader, and when at times he is overcome by helplessness, may help restore his hope in life, providing wings for him to take flight once again.

In order that children may cope with life in this world of sorrows, as well as preparing them to endure sorrows, I think it is so important to foster in them hearts susceptible to joy, hearts sensitively tuned to joy.