What Must Be Done

On Monday, we took time to remember those who gave their lives for others.

Today, I have a salute for those willing to do it now.

I’m not talking about the soldiers. Not this time. I have before and I will again, and heaven knows our men and women in uniform have done a lot to be praised for.

But this time, I’m looking across the sea, to the folks who earned their rest – but still want to be in the fight.

Namely, the pensioners of Japan.

I first saw it in the BBC. More than 200 retired engineers and other professionals, not a one younger than 60, are asking to go to the Fukushima nuclear power plant – yes, that one – and help shut down the crisis.

Their leader, 72-year-old Yasateru Yamada, calls it simple common sense. Here, he said, the old can best help by protecting the young.

“I am 72, and on average, I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live,” he told the BBC.  “Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop. Therefore, us older ones have less chance of getting cancer.”

I don’t know if the Japanese government will let them do it. I don’t even know how much of a gap 200 workers will plug.

But I do know that’s one of the most amazing displays of nerve and compassion I’ve seen in a long time.

“Yes, it is,” agreed a friend of mine who teaches in Asia. “And it’s also one of the virtues of Confucianism (when it’s done right, which isn’t often enough). The older are the wiser and have a duty to protect the young. In return, they get obedience and respect.”

My own mind, meanwhile, goes to a word beyond even duty, a word that knows no age or culture.


It’s not a word we call upon much anymore, outside of church services and military celebrations. So many of us have been taught what we deserve, what we have a right to expect, what we’ve got coming to us.

Sacrifice requires a different mindset.

It’s not volunteering because it feels good. It’s volunteering knowing darned well it’s going to be awful. It’s giving up what you need because someone else needs it more, turning your eyes from a piece of your life so you can patch the hole in someone else’s.

It’s discomfort. It’s pain. It’s risk.

And it’s absolutely essential to anything worth doing.

It’s what proves the worth of a friend, a relative, a spouse. Anyone can like or love when the going is easy. But when it’s sickness instead of health, poorer instead of richer … that’s when you find out what the other person is made of.

It’s in sacrifice that we see the heart.

Another of the retirees, this one a teacher named Michio Ito, put it simply.

“The question is whether you step forward, or you stay behind and watch,” he told the BBC.

Here’s to all the ones who stepped forward. Today. Yesterday. Tomorrow.

May more of us have the heart and the courage to follow in their steps.

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