Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States ordered all Japanese on the West Coast, despite the fact that more than two-thirds were U.S. citizens by birth, to leave their homes and move to ten concentration camps until the end of World War II.
While the Japanese were confined to these gloomy camps, they used scraps and materials they found here and there to make furniture and other objects that allowed them to beautify their surroundings. At the time, US-Americans mistakenly perceived gaman as an introverted behavior, a lack of assertiveness or initiative.
However, those arts and crafts ended up becoming essential for the emotional survival of those who were imprisoned in those camps. The objects they created, many of which can still be seen in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, are considered physical manifestations of the gaman.
What is gaman?
Gaman (我慢) is a Japanese term that originates from Zen Buddhism. It is usually translated as “perseverance,” “patience,” or “tolerance,” but it really means “bearing the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.”
It is, therefore, a kind of stoic resistance, although it also requires maintaining self-control and discipline in difficult times to face the storm in the best possible way. Gaman is not weakness or resignation but rather a demonstration of strength in the face of adversity and the suffering that it usually entails.
Gaman as social glue that favors recovery
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, looters took to the streets. Something similar happened in Haiti when it was hit by a powerful earthquake in 2010. In many places, when adversity hits communities and the force of authority cracks, the thin layer of civilization breaks.
Yet Japan steered clear of lawlessness in the days after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake and tsunami that struck Tōhoku in 2011, killing nearly 16,000 people. There were no reports of looting or indiscriminate price gouging. Instead of panic and fear, the prevailing attitude in Japan after the devastating natural disaster seemed to be one of calm and determination.
The gaman mentality is also at the base of that attitude. In fact, resilience, radical acceptance, and civility that emanate from this concept contributed considerably to the recovery.
In Japanese culture, showing gaman is considered a sign of maturity and strength. For this reason, this philosophy of life begins to be taught very early to children. Gaman is trained early in life. In Japan, patience and perseverance are part of education from elementary school.
The 5 pillars to develop gaman
Gaman is a deep philosophy and way of seeing life. It is the idea that people should show patience and perseverance when faced with unexpected or difficult situations. It implies a set of strategies to deal in the best possible way with events that are beyond our control, those adverse situations that we cannot avoid.
Its goal is for each person to develop the ability to persevere and tolerate unexpected problems, adversity, or difficult situations. Furthermore, while doing so, we must be able to maintain harmonious social ties.
This means that we must protect our interpersonal relationships from the influence of adversity, avoiding pouring out our frustration, anger or irritation on those around us. In this way, our social support network will also be more effective.
On the other hand, the concept of gaman also implies a high degree of self-control. It demands that we be able to restrain our feelings in order to avoid confrontation. It is not simply a matter of avoiding conflicts with others, but of not fighting uselessly against adversity.
Thus, gaman would allow us to put up with an unpleasant job until we can find a better one, with an annoying colleague, with crowded trains at rush hour or work overtime on a project when we’d like to relax elsewhere. Gaman is what allows us to breathe deeply and hold ourselves while maintaining our mental balance.
Therefore, gaman is based on five fundamental pillars:
1. Self control. Ability to manage emotions, especially negative ones, so that the rational part of our brain takes control of the situation to decide the best, assessing the pros and cons of the reality in which we find ourselves.
2. Patience. Ability not to despair, tolerating unpleasant and bothering situations with calm and tranquility.
3. Resistance. Ability to resist in the midst of adversity, without breaking down emotionally. It involves maintaining a certain level of basic functioning that allows us to get on with life even in the most difficult times.
4. Resilience. Ability to face the darkest situations and emerge stronger from adversity. It usually involves learning a lesson that changes us as a person or reaffirms our inner strength and self-confidence.
5. Equanimity. Ability to maintain an adequate level of functioning in difficult circumstances. It implies a level of stability and composure that is not affected by negative experiences.
The darker side of gaman
Like everything in life, balance is essential. Despite all the benefits of gaman, taking this philosophy of life to the extreme can also have a negative impact on our mental health. After all, gaman is linked to concepts such as impermanence and nihilism.
Sometimes, when people accumulate too much negativity and are not able to assertively express those emotions, gaman can show up through a psychosomatic illness. If the person thinks that he/she has to fix everything on his/her own and doesn’t ask for help, he/she may end up crushed under the weight of his/her problems.
On the other hand, gaman can also become an excuse to get stuck in situations that make us unhappy. We can use it as a justification for not taking the necessary step to get out of tossic relationships or living conditions that hurt us.
So while we need a dose of gaman in our lives to cope with those difficult events that turn our world upside down, we also need to make sure that we express those feelings and concerns in a more assertive way.