To favor the flower, we must respect the roots

My psychiatrist told me I was crazy
 and I said I want a second opinion.
He said okay, you’re ugly too.

Rodney Dangerfield

What is real? How things appear on the outside and what’s actually in the inside can be extraordinarily different.
Reminded of the story of my grandfather, my namesake John Toraichi Obata, when he went to an American  grocery store for the first time. He was a new immigrant 110 years ago and as the story goes, he saw a can of tomatoes on the shelf. He m

arveled at the beautiful picture on the label of plump ripe tomatoes. He loved tomatoes. But when he got home and figured out how to open up the can, he was shocked 

by the soupy mess that was inside. He returned to the store with the open can in hand to get his money back. He tried to explain in his broken English, pointing to the label and then to the contents exp

ressing his dissatisfaction to an impatient and befuddled manager. As you can imagine, he received neither his money nor an understandable explanation. His first brush with advertising.

What if we knew what was inside every person, every situation, every thing? I am not just talking about the search or pursuit of the truth, but a view into the forces that caused the manifestation on the surface. A way to deepen our empathy and understanding of what is really going on.

We could see people’s hearts and minds. It might slow us down.

We are so quick and getting quicker to assess what we see, to laud it and to condemn it in a blink of any eye. Our brains conditioned by technology and the media we consume accelerate our emotional and intellectual reaction time. Elite athletes have fast-twitch muscles, but most of us suffer from fast twitch judgments. Fast twitch judgments driven by layers of assumptions and a disinterest in context, intention and rationale.

How about upside down?


I have made no mystery of my love for the lotus plant and flower. It’s sheer beauty that emerges from the dirtiest of waters. Imagine the lotus floating upside down. Roots up and flower down. The dangling tentacles that filter the scummy pond water would be pointed skyward and the extraordinary blossom faced down hidden under the water. Would we appreciate the rooty tops more or just flip them over?

We are so oriented to outer beauty. The public display of the aesthetic. We are not inclined to hidden attractiveness. We tend to prep it, preen it and parade it. For so much of life is external showy flaunting and excessive gratuitous performances to offset what lurks beneath. I’m not saying the lotus is deceptive, even though the roots are delicious. I’m saying we over-emphasize the pretty face.  

To favor the flower, we must respect the roots.

And the care and the work to sustain and nurture the lotus.

The old saw: Anyone who loves the law or sausages should never watch either being made.

Our capacity to appreciate what it takes to make things, to form personas, the disgusting ingredients, the history, the sheer work, the fighting, the collaboration, the courage, the cowardice, what corners or deals were cut….

But also to fully appreciate the beauty inside, under and beneath the surface.

Perhaps it is my age where I’m able to spend more time observing things. I take great pride in my evolving ability to see. I realize how much I see is influenced by my DNA, my family and my experience. My history emerges through my vision, my brain, my mind, my intellect all shaped by forces, people and events. We pass on the good and the bad. The clarity and the obscurity. It is so important to see both to understand how they intertwine and connect, how the fusion of life creates something different, something new and that newness is special even beautiful regardless of its roots but because of its roots.

We can never know all of history, but the more we learn we gain a sense of what it took to give us the present. Who we have become. 

The mud, the fertilizer, the water, the bacteria, the other plants and bugs that enable the blossom to steal our attention.

We like shiny things. Pretty things. Things that make us feel good.

And we want the opposites removed.

Instant cancel culture can eliminate and destroy our understanding of history and why bad things happen, how bad people come to be. I have always had mixed feelings about the removal of statues and the renaming of buildings. There is a need to confront the past and the truly horrific acts and people who led and committed these acts. But to turn it upside down and inside out we can see the ugliness of the systems, the ingredients of the sausage, and learn about the causes of the crimes against humanity. Singling out a person for wrongdoing we might miss the culture, policies and institutions that conspired to enable the despicable behavior.

I think of these things because I’m getting older. I am grateful for my interactions with younger people, leaders who are not afraid to raise questions about meaning, words, and history. We’re all coming to grips with our complicity with the assumptions of the past. We gloss over things. We forget things. And the younger generation reminds us of our shortcomings our failings, our blindness to the things that we have done and are doing.

Confrontation, creates sparks, which can lead to a fire that alters the landscape of learning and understanding.

The fires always make room for new growth.

But we have to spend the time and energy to turn things upside down and inside out so we could see the truth about everything and everyone.

I’m always in the midst of multiple challenging conversations about racism, capitalism, climate change, homelessness and healthcare. And inevitably in these conversations it can feel like my credentials, my experience, my knowledge are being questioned on the surface—they aren’t. Inside, it’s my ego in its defense mechanism. It takes me time to really hear and to turn it upside down to see it. Forcing myself to create the space and opportunity to learn and unlearn and relearn.

We all have something to gain.

Every beautiful thing has an ugly past. And every ugly thing has some beautiful roots. 

If we turn things over, inside out and upside down can we see more than the tip of the evil iceberg? Can we learn from the effort, the sacrifices and mistakes? Can we appreciate the privileges and rights we enjoy? To push and pull us to more compassion and understanding.

Can we respect the roots to favor the flower?

Can we see each other no matter how crazy or ugly?

I took this photo last month of a trail that had been destroyed by the Eagle Creek wildfire in late 2017. The forest floor is regenerating new amazing growth amongst the blackened tree trunks.
Update: The koi appear healthy and energized as ever.

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