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February 25th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

‘To be honest, I had never come across this Japanese word Gaman until a few days ago. Like many words that come from Eastern cultures, it can be hard to find an accurate and complete translation, especially when these words are tied to, as is the case, philosophical or spiritual concepts that seem, initially, to have no equivalent in our Western cultures.

Gaman (我慢) can be roughly translated as patience, endurance, resilience, perseverance. That kind of thing that is not exactly fashionable in our world views. It can also be stretched to the point where it enters into ascetic territories, by also expressing “self-denial”. Incidentally, these same two ideograms, which come from Chinese, mean, respectively, I and slow: “me-slow”.

So, in this sense, Gaman is considered to be a desirable trait of a strong and governed personality, a virtue, an ethos or law with which to conduct oneself in all matter of life, and it relates to the more puritan or Calvinist idea of gratification delay.  Now, maybe these concepts of patience, endurance, resilience, perseverance, can, and should, come across as more familiar.

Asceticism and stoicism should, but aren’t, more well known in the West. At the end of the day, they belong in our philosophical traditions, those we seem to be reluctant to teach in our schools. But as everyone knows, these days you can sell an idea much better if there is an alluring and mysterious Japanese word supporting it, never mind you probably can find similar ideas in the Greeks and the Romans.

enfants riches, deprimés


I think that we have a serious deficit of Gaman in our current lifestyles. I know I have it; I am aware I should have more patience with things, starting with myself, but not stopping just there.  I believe most of us can agree we’re perhaps too prompt to cede to impatience, to be irked by the small inconveniences of modern life, of the workplace, of the society we’ve built, and we don’t stop to consider how comfortable that life is, for starters, in spite of its defects.

When we allow ourselves to be irritable, being that irritation triggered by what most often are actually just small nuisances, things that are part of life, even if we wish we could do away with them, we just prove we are immersed in a culture that has eroded and despised, mocked, that component of stoicism, of resilience, of perseverance to practically nothing. As individuals, we probably have very much neglected this core trait of a healthy character.This, in turn, is nothing new. Many others have already written about the problems with the drive towards ever more immediate gratification, our obsessions with attaining goals sooner than it might be realistic to expect. To grow at all costs, and do it quickly and exponentially; in all aspects of life; in all endeavors.

Who could quantify what that costs in terms of the anxiety that plagues so many in the Western world?

Think about it. The Chinese meaning is illustrative too, “me-slow”. I am sure you’ve heard about the slow movements, slow food, and such others. That’s a form of cultivation too. Of cultivating your character. Walk a bit more down this conceptual stroll, and you’ll see you’re already close to the revival of craftsmanship.

Perseverance, striving for mastery, cultivating that ethos, that virtue. It’s all related. The spontaneous emergence of these phenomena, away from public policies and such, shows there’s a certain want, a lacking, that is felt by a part of society, those who perhaps are more sensitive.

According to Gilles Lipovetsky, we’re living in a post-moralist society.  His rather interesting book Le Crepuscule du devoir (can’t say if it has been translated to English) precisely strikes home this point of the loss of morals. Now, don’t take this “morals” as the rather narrow sense of a certain type of religious, conservative, scared-by-sex-on-tv, simpleton morals, but in the sense of the individual losing – or that’s been made to lose – the criteria, the will and the strength to train oneself, to constantly improve, to strive for attaining worthy goals that will take time and toil, instead of looking only for the cheap and immediate steps that bring hollow gratifications as soon as possible, like rats in a lab maze.

No doubt this is a trait of our Western civilization, and probably our soft power is exporting it.  We need more Gaman.  We need to cultivate it in ourselves. In our kids, many of which are being brought up perhaps as brats that are way too spoiled. For them, this cultivation of Gaman is vitally important as they transition into teenage and early adulthood.  The way it looks now, the world seems poised to demand quite a big dose of Gaman in their lifetime, and I can only hope I going very wrong here, but that’d be a matter for a different rant.

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