Hiroo Onoda died recently at the age of 91. You should know who he is. We should all know who he is. Though we may never before have heard his name, we share a crucial personality trait with him. It has to do with what we believe and more importantly, the way we believe it.
We all have beliefs, those core ideas about life and living that we like to identify as guiding lights. What we don’t discuss is that second set of beliefs hiding behind the noble pillars of the views we espouse. This ideological duality is so deeply rooted that we forget it even exists. We take quiet pride in signing on to the Big Ideas of Truth, Justice, and (fill in your own Big Idea here; for Superman it was “the American Way.”). But we don’t always practice the Big Ideas.
So what do we really believe? There’s hardly a need to go over the answer. We believe what we do, not what we say. We publicly insist on healthy eating and privately devour Twinkies (or replace with your preferred equivalent). We publicly praise regular exercise while privately avoiding it like a medieval disease.
This doublethink should endow us with a healthy level of skepticism about beliefs in general and our personal beliefs in particular. But there’s something worse than not really living up to the lofty ideals we pretend to embrace. There are ideas we hold sacred that are in actuality less valid than the myth of King Midas.
Will Rogers opined that it isn’t the things we believe that are the problem; it’s the things we believe that just aren’t so. Hiroo Onoda’s example allows us to explore our own intellectual stubbornness from a safe distance. Mr. Onoda was a soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. When Japan surrendered, he was in the Philippines. His commanding officer ordered him to stay behind and spy on the Americans. While he held his position in the jungle, the rest of the world moved on. Rock and roll, civil rights, the cold war, and TV, Vietnam, the moon landing, and hot pants zipped by. He even missed the Hula Hoop. Elvis, the Beatles, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Khrushchev, and Frank Sinatra rose and receded while Hiroo concerned himself with the necessities of raw survival.
When Mr. Onoda was finally found, he wouldn’t come out. His former superior, Major Yoshimi Tanigushi, had to be located and dispatched to personally issue the order. One can only imagine the shock he felt on being catapulted into the early ‘70’s without any psychological preparation. The fashion scene alone must have been enough to frighten him into retreating to the real jungle.
We either laugh or grimace at stories like this. It seems like a scenario from a situation comedy. An eccentric soldier is found still fighting a war that ended a generation earlier. Didn’t he suspect something might be wrong when he didn’t get any new orders for ten years or so? What did he think when the first jets started passing overhead? Would he have just stayed dug in if they hadn’t pulled finally pulled him out?
Yes, he would have. And we can’t afford to dismiss him as a figment from “News of the Weird” because we have our own dogmas that we grip in our ideological teeth. Once Mr. Onoda was liberated, he went on to have a life of impressive accomplishments. What will it take to liberate us from the notions to which we so stubbornly cling, those misguided views that stand like a figurative Wall of China between us and what we might be? How long will we remain entrenched in jungles of our own making?