Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Forty-seven is not an especially notable number. It’s a prime number, but then a lot of numbers are—an infinite number of numbers, in fact. Pretty much the only fame associated with that number that comes to mind is the story of the 47 Ronin. No, not the movie starring Keanu Reeves which for no apparent reason takes a tale of samurai in feudal Japan and inserts into it … Keanu Reeves. I’m talking about the original 18th century story, in which 47 men go on a long-term quest for honorable vengeance, not one them ever bursting into an air guitar riff and saying “excellent!”

The ronin were masterless samurai, treated as outcasts. The 47 samurai at the heart of this story became ronin after their master was forced to kill himself due to the machinations of a petty but well-connected bureaucrat. The men plotted revenge against the bureaucrat, as they felt their code of honor demanded—even though revenge was forbidden by law. Importantly, their plan took time. They needed to convince the authorities that they in fact had no such desire for vengeance, that they had accepted their disgraced state for good. They got low-level jobs, dressed and spoke and acted like common laborers, appearing for all the world like they had abandoned their samurai ethic completely. When the day came that they realized the bureaucrat’s spies were no longer watching, they made their move. They assembled, fought their way into the bureaucrat’s home, and killed him. They were punished, of course, but out of respect they were granted an honorable death by suicide instead of execution.

The story of the 47 ronin is suspenseful and exciting, but in truth there’s not a whole lot of personal takeaway for me. I suppose if I were, say, Klingon, I’d really dig the idea of dying with honor in the interest of justice, though really just about every culture in every era has loved revenge stories. As long as we’ve been able to perceive that injustice is being done to us and that the powers that be are unable or unwilling to do anything about it, we’ve dreamed of being able to right the wrongs in our own way. It helps that revenge stories tend to be simple ones: someone innocent is treated unfairly by someone rotten; therefore, it is only right that the perpetrator be punished. Even when the story isn’t quite so simple—it doesn’t take a Shakespearian scholar to realize that vengeance-seeking Hamlet kills far more innocent people than his uncle ever did—we still choose to see it simplistically. In reality, life is seldom that straightforward, and so, though we crave revenge, we usually have little choice but to choke down our rage and move bitterly on.

That said, the fact that the ronin get revenge isn’t as notable as how they get revenge. They took their time, you see. In truth, all they had to do to uphold their code and die an honorable death was to try to avenge their master. But the 47 ronin didn’t just make an attempt; they made absolutely certain they would succeed, even if it meant being temporarily disgraced, even if it meant appearing for all the world as if they had abandoned the one thing they valued the most. That’s doing things the hard way, to say the least, requiring steadfast focus on an ultimate goal. So much could have gone wrong for the 47 during those long months they waited, it had to have been hard to keep believing all this would be worth it in the end. 

That’s maybe the one part of the story that speaks to me. How do you know a difficult endeavor is going to be worth it in the end? Or, put more broadly, how do you keep going? It is simply not true that good things come to those who wait; sometimes you get lucky, sometimes sooner and sometimes later, but sometimes not at all. Not everyone gets their goal; not everyone gets justice, or love, or happiness, just for being patient and keeping the faith, just because time passes and surely, surely it can’t be much longer, surely you’re due for a win. During those times when I felt like I had dug a deep hole in the middle of my life and fallen into it, it was no consolation to me to think that one day things would be better. They might be, sure, but how was I supposed to get there? How was that going to help me get out of the damn hole? I didn’t know, and I couldn’t just believe it would all work out somehow. I kept going only because I didn’t know what else to do. The ronin picked something to do and did it, kept doing it, and that got them through their lives. My life does not even remotely resemble that of an 18th century samurai, but right now, one day shy of 47 years old, I can at least say that all 48 of us, the ronin and I, somehow figured out how to keep going.

It would be tempting, feeling pleased with my life right now as I do, to say yes, it was worth it, all that crap I put myself through, totally worth it, all I had to do was get through and sure enough, good things came to me for waiting. That’s the payoff of the story of the 47 Ronin, after all, the fact that they went through so much to reach their goal and were rewarded with everlasting glory, as here we are, hundreds of years later, still admiring their valor. But we ourselves are not samurai, or Klingons, or Shakespearian heroes; we’re real and we’re alive right now, which means there’s still more we’ll have to get through. Will there be a payoff? Eh, who knows. The story isn’t over just yet.

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