I met Sarah Witmer at a meeting at The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation some time ago and, in looking through the non-profit’s website, came across a powerful speech she gave last year at an event for the organization.
Sarah moved to Japan when she was 11-years old. “As I learned to speak Japanese,” she writes, “I was able to communicate more with my neighbors, several of whom had lived through World War II, and had carried significant war trauma all their lives. This sparked questions in me regarding justice, peace, and reconciliation—questions that I couldn’t shake.
“After studying International Relations and East Asian Studies at Sciences Po in France, and at Columbia University in New York, I came to work at The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. We focus on sharing our Peace Literacy curriculum with teachers, students, and community leaders, and on advocating for peaceful solutions to the root causes of humanity’s greatest threats: from nuclear weapons, to war, to racism, to other forms of violence.”
Her speech, delivered last August at the annual Sadako Peace Day event held by NAPF, was as inspiring as it was informative.
“A couple of months ago, I was discussing Sadako Peace Day with Sandy, and this Japanese proverb came up as we were talking about the themes and symbolism of our evening. The proverb is ‘Nana korobi, ya oki’ which means, ‘Fall down seven times, stand up eight.’ It means choosing to never give up hope, and to always strive for more. It means that your focus isn’t on the reality in front of you, but on a greater vision that may not be reality yet.
“I don’t want to make the mistake of oversimplifying this proverb with the wrong words—I don’t have the words to fully capture the strength, courage, and even defiance of choosing to stand up again after being knocked down. And I know that this community understands, very personally, what it feels like to stand up again.
“We’ve all chosen to stand here at La Casa de Maria today, after everything that it and our community have endured over the last few months. And we’ve also all chosen to stand here on the 73rd anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and the unimaginable devastation that’s wrapped up in that. Santa Barbara and Montecito are standing up again, just as the hibakusha [person affected] of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stood up again.
“Whether it’s through natural disasters or man-made ones, falling seems to be part of life’s cycle. I can understand why some people, fearful of falling down again, decide to limit their dreams, and live their lives close to the ground. But I think that those who have changed the world most deeply are people who chose to stand up again, even though they knew that they might also fall down hard again.
“Twelve-year old Sadako continued to dream big and ask for more, even as cancer made her weaker and weaker. Even though she wasn’t healed, and didn’t see peace in her lifetime, she boldly stood up despite the possibility of falling. But I’d say that even though she didn’t live to see what she hoped for, she continues to stand, through those who remember her dream, and honor her memory.
“So, thank you for standing here today. Thank you to the people of La Casa de Maria for standing up again. Even through recent knockdowns, you’ve given our community so much. Thank you all for standing with NAPF through our ups and downs and the world’s ups and downs, as we pursue a just and peaceful world, free of nuclear weapons.
“To me, our work gets its meaning from the people who believe in it with us. We stand taller because of you.
“Nana korobi, ya oki. Fall down seven times, stand up eight. Today, we celebrate standing up again.”
We need more bright, young minds like Witmer; individuals with the passion, commitment and persistence necessary to change the world. I believe she will contribute mightily to that end.