Friday, April 29, 2011

eating bitterness (吃苦)

one of the more famous expressions in colloquial Chinese culture is the idiom: "eat bitterness" (in traditional Chinese characters: 吃苦). it's a phrase commonly imparted among the lessons passed between parents and children and teachers and students.

apart from its literal translation, its deeper meaning is that success requires sacrifice, in that achieving something good requires an investment of time and effort, and so anyone who desires a reward must be willing to do what is necessary to earn it. the expression is usually given within a larger implied context that to have something sweet you must first be willing to eat something bitter. for parents and teachers, the phrase is meant to remind their charges that good things will happen if they work hard, stay persistent, and exercise diligence in fulfilling expectations.

the concept is not confined to China. the message in the maxim is familiar to most Westerners. cultures in North America and Western Europe have their own equivalent phrases, such as: "practice makes perfect," "nothing good is ever easy," "earn it," or "hard work." it's also endemic in Western folklore, in fables like the Ant and the Grasshopper, or the Tortoise and the Hare, which teach audiences the virtue of hard and steady work.

with respect to the Chinese idiom, the image that is frequently associated with the phrase comes from the martial arts, with legends speaking of wise masters admonishing their students to "eat bitterness" in order to develop their martial skills. the accompanying stereotype is of a lone acolyte constantly practicing through long solitary hours enduring all manner of conditions that any audience of any culture would readily know: fatigue, hunger, thirst, soreness, pain, heat, cold, dry, wet, day, night, sorrow, despair, confusion, temptation, deprivation, isolation. the only constant through all this--in accord with the command given in the phrase--is the disciple's dedication and effort to endure and continue.

ultimately, the stories go, this is the one thing that pulls the disciple through. with hard and steady work, the student finally achieves their goals.

in doing so, however, something else happens. something related but somehow different yet very much better and very much more profound.

through the journey that is all the labors of so much time with so much effort through so many travails, the student finds an enlightenment to truths that give a grace far beyond the student's initial expectations or original awareness. and thus the diligent comes to know the real reward of all their work: transcendence.

this, as all masters at last reveal, is the supreme act of so much work, with the greatest lesson being the greatest reward. and it is something that cannot be bought, cannot be given, cannot be taken, but only earned and deserved and found and received...something only known through the revelation of experience.

unfortunately, in the modern era, the message in the maxim is often lost. many of us have forgotten the lesson of hard and steady work. you see it in our behavior towards education, our attitudes towards requirements, our ignorance of responsibilities, the manner in which we conduct ourselves in our lives and in the lives of others around us. carelessness, laziness, apathy, aversion to anything that hints of discomfort or effort or sacrifice. these values are all too often the norm.

unfortunately, this means that we then are unable to understand the significance of accolades or achievements. because we don't comprehend the costs involved in acquiring them. we don't realize just what it takes to get them. we don't know what they truly mean.

instead, we just see them. we simply recognize them. we only want them. even as we do not understand them and are not willing to do anything to get them. in other words, we expect but do not earn, we demand but do not deserve. in short, we assume entitlements.

and this is the heart of the problem. because it means we disrespect accomplishments, cheapen their value, insult all the sacrifices required to gain them. and above all, we deny ourselves their real lesson which is the real reward that only comes through the revelations of our experience made through all our work: transcendence. self-development. to be a better person.

eating bitterness.

No comments: