“The imposition of physical reluctance upon the self”… gaman (我慢) is one of those Japanese words that doesn’t translate neatly into English. Deeply-ingrained in the Japanese culture from Zen-Buddhist virtues, gaman means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity”…in silence. Keeping your private affairs, problems, and complaints silent demonstrates strength and politeness. The idea is you are are rising above poor behavior or difficult circumstances. The high road, if you will.
As my husband, daughter, and I rise above the Boston skyline, I see more clearly, too. Sky views afford that perspective. I see how gaman has colored many relationships past, and is not nearly so virtuous as originally contemplated by the Zen Buddhists. At least, not when it comes to love and relationships.
Gaman is personal and psychological restraint. It’s evident when you hold back, just take it, and do not give in to what you really want to say or do. Following the Tohoku earthquake, the world witnessed gaman in action. There was no looting in the tsunami-devastated areas. Instead, we saw footage of Japanese people patiently waiting in long lines to receive rations of food and water, and dealing with the incredulous circumstances with complete civility and composure. Even in the everyday, foreigners are amazed to watch people get squeezed into over-packed trains during Tokyo rush hour without complaint.
The sentiment is: bite your lip, take a deep breath, and gaman.
But, there is a point when gaman loses its nobility. It becomes disrespectful and abusive. A slippery slope to inappropriate behavior and an easy excuse for someone with malicious intent. Even if that someone is your mother and her target is your daughter…her granddaughter. There are times for all of us when gaman becomes unacceptable. That was my lesson to learn as I pilgrimaged to Boston for my mother’s 80th birthday.
I look at my mother incredulously as a sly grin creeps across her face and she points the camera. The more Desiree screams and flails, the happier she seems.
In my mind, I pull the camera from her hands and smash it into a million pieces on the ice. I could feel the rage boiling inside me. The past 72 hours attempting to gaman my mother’s difficult behavior has taken me here. No more. I sweep up Desiree in my arms and skate over to the nearest exit. Moments later, my mother joins us on the bench without uttering a word, obviously livid. As I console Desiree who doesn’t understand why she has been forced into this impossible task — skating at age 2, I remove her rental skates and distract her with talk about the vending machines that fascinated her before we took to the ice. As I finish untying her skates, I notice my mother out of my periphery storming off past me, past my husband, in her own rage. It’s okay, I assure Desiree. No more, I whisper.
Sarah, have you decided on her name?”
I have, actually…Desiree.”
As her friends smile with nods and words of praise and I caress the baby growing inside my belly, I notice my mother roll her eyes and mutter under her breath…
What an awful name.”
I brush it off best I can by changing the subject. Food will help. Wine will help more… I didn’t have a choice about the name, I rationalize to myself. “Desiree” came to me like a divine message months before she was even conceived. I certainly wasn’t flipping through baby name books and thinking…hmm, which name will piss off my mother the most? True, she wasn’t involved, but, at some level, neither was I. But, being uninvolved and not in control is unacceptable to my mother’s sense of justice.
Your father would have never accepted this behavior from you or your brother!”
My mother chides me about Desiree’s behavior again. This time, the offense is the way Desiree is attempting to cut her pizza with a knife in both hands.
I look at my husband in pure disbelief. My dad never raised his voice at anyone! Is she delusional or desperate, I wonder. Moreover, how could someone not love Desiree? She is joy wrapped up in chunky thighs and an adorable smile. True, she sees mealtime more as art class and condiments as side dishes, but, as she should — she’s two!
I assumed becoming a grandmother at long last would bring out a different side to my mother. As a grandparent, she could do what grandparents do…love unconditionally…and shower their grandchildren with gifts and love. As a little girl, my favorite place was on my grandmother’s bed. Sitting with her and watching TV, playing Scrabble, sipping Diet 7-Ups, and learning how to needlepoint. Life doesn’t get better than when you realize at such a young age how much you are loved.
By showing me what I don’t want, the contrast teaches me what I do want. Returning to the familiar New England landscape below, I reflect how Desiree has been the impetus for several of these eye-opening “gaman dekinai” (I cannot tolerate) relationships in my life. I thank her for that. She has made evident the things I used to endure…when I should not have. With her, it’s easier. It breaks my heart, brings tears to my eyes, and helps me remember who I am…and what we both deserve. Love. Safe, blissful, affectionate love.
From an upcoming book, Unlocking Stella. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.