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The Challenge of Real Change

This blog is slightly longer than usual. Think of it as compensation for not writing in so long. Things are pretty intense here at the moment, with unrelenting sunshine and heat, virus troubles, interpersonal relations, and ever-present work.

The title of this blog comes from a sign seen recently on a roller coaster in Japan. Due to the coronavirus, it was deemed too dangerous for people to scream aloud, opening their possibly germ-ridden mouths and emitting droplets; so the riders were exhorted to “kokoro no naka de sakebu”. This seems to me to be an excellent description of the necessity to participate in Japanese society by keeping your true feelings inside.

In Japan we have words for “wearing the mask” (tatemae) and “real feelings” (honne). The first is the tape-recorded politeness, the smooth and cultivated refusal to rock the boat, to promote all-important harmony; the second, usually referring to negative or socially unacceptable feelings, is What You Really Think. Thus, you might say politely to a neighbor, “It’s so nice of you to bring me these dried fish” (tatemae), while inside you are thinking, or perhaps saying later to your family, “Dried fish! Ugh! That’s all we need. They were probably just trying to get rid of it” (honne). I remember my mother-in-law coaching me when I was going to visit a neighbor and making sure I knew which polite words to use. I guess she didn’t feel she needed to coach me in my “true feelings”.

One doesn’t mix the two, especially in a polite exchange. Once a relative brought over some food she had cooked, handing it over with the accepted polite phrase, “This is not delicious at all, but please accept it.” (Part of tatemae is to disparage anything related to yourself.) I was in a bad mood that day, so I answered with my honne. “Well, if it isn’t delicious, please take it home again.” Logic sometimes isn’t very compassionate. Fortunately for me, my comment went right over her head. It’s likely she didn’t even hear it, because it was so different from the tatemae comment she expected.

I spent a lot of time during my first years in a Japanese family learning how to pretend. If my real feelings did happen to come out, they were automatically pigeonholed as unacceptable honne – “Oh, Rebecca-san’s angry again.” The truth of what I was saying was lost in their emotional reaction to my tone of voice or “bad face”. Eventually I learned to “walk the talk” and I am now pretty good at saying things I don’t mean, accompanied by what I still think of as a simpering little smile. This is an essential skill in Japanese society, especially for women. Group harmony takes precedence over individual expression. Foreigners who live in Japan have felt the frustration of trying to speak what they regard as their truth, only to be brushed aside as a person who can’t control their emotions. Does speaking “the truth” always lead to chaos and disharmony? Well, quite often. It usually shakes people up. Could this be one reason why Japanese society is so slow to change? Very weighty subject for another time.

Now I am in a situation where pretending is not going to be enough. I must go in and actually retool my true feelings. So what is that kind of change going to look like, and what will it mean for my own psychological and social health?

Most of you know, from previous blogs, that over the past four months, my son and his family – two more whole generations – are making changes to our main house so that they can live here with us. To know that large sections of my house, which I have lived in for 20 years practically undisturbed, suddenly belong to someone else; to knock on the door of my own kitchen and politely ask to be admitted; to have to remove all my belongings and those of several previous generations from certain parts of the house and sort and toss, pare down our operation; to make room for the completely different thinking of four other people – these are big changes that pretending just won’t encompass.

The family is not an appropriate arena for tatemae, in any case. If I go that road – if I pretend and simper my way through these changes – what lies ahead is a complete lack of communication between the generations. Because tatemae is not, essentially, a tool of communication: it is a tool of placation, similar to a dog rolling over and showing its belly. It’s meant to show others that you can contribute to the harmony of the whole by controlling your feelings. Of course, it has its place – but not with people you have to deal with every moment of every day.

On the other hand, I cannot say What I Really Think, in other words make negative comments. (They know what I think anyway, it’s no secret. I’ve never been successful at hiding my feelings.) Honne, in the form of sarcasm or outright hostility, can also cause communication to grind to a halt. My father was a very emotional man who allowed his honne to come out all the time, and it was terrifying. Hurtful language, shouting, kicking doors. I instinctively knew this was PTSD left over from his war experiences, and was also his defense against what he experienced as an untenable family situation. I grew to feel sorry for him, but that didn’t make my nightmares about him grow any less. I don’t want to be the stuff of nightmares to my children, or worse, my grandchildren.

So, if I don’t want to do either tatemae or honne, what are my options? Let’s analyze this.

Say I have a bad feeling about some recent household change. One example would be my new family members’ hatred and revulsion for various critters that appear in their part of the house. To deal with this, they have called in an exterminator and sprayed insecticide, which kills everything, bad, good and neutral, under their rooms. This spraying is abhorrent to me because I have consciously tried to forge a good relationship with all these creatures over the years. But what about my 10-year-old granddaughter’s feelings at finding a centipede on her pillow when she is about to go to bed? It scares her so much that she is afraid to go to the toilet alone. Are my feelings about critters more important than hers? I was afraid of these things too, when I first came. It took me years to cultivate my present relationship with them. Given her upbringing and previous environment, expecting her to change her feelings to suit mine is unrealistic.

So what can I do? I can make a conscious effort to let go of my bad feelings about the situation. I can say to myself, that part of the house is no longer my province, which is the truth. I must let the family set things up as they wish, which includes spraying so that my granddaughter can sleep at night. The property is large, I can find innumerable critters outside. I can help my grandchildren to gradually improve their relationships with these critters, too, in fact I am already doing so. (They think I am Hercules because I am not afraid of wasps, bees, etc.)

Getting older and figuring out how to live as an elderly person entails a lot of letting go. There are things we can no longer do, such as squeeze into a swimsuit, or trot up a flight of stairs. If we are not to spend our whole lives “screaming inside our heart”, we have to let them go. It’s now the turn of my children and grandchildren to spread their wings and find a life that they can live comfortably and productively.

This truth, that I am in fact getting older, and it’s now someone else’s turn, helps me to find a way to change. It may seem as if my life is getting smaller – physically, the area of the house that is available to me is smaller – but the dimensions of my head and heart are things I can decide on. How large will they grow? That seems to me to be connected to how much I can let go of, how much I can change. It does seem as though people have two choices as they get older – they can either shrink (out of fear) or expand (toward wisdom). Expansion means pushing the envelope, which takes courage.

Maybe I won’t have to “scream inside my heart.” Or anywhere else. Maybe, like many other activities, screaming is over for me. Is acceptance the last lesson of a life? Perhaps, if it entails real, true change, not just pretending with a simper or crashing around in negativity. Does acceptance mean relinquishing everything I have held dear? I don’t think so. I can keep my own principles, but I need to acknowledge that my family members may have other priorities, and give them the right to practice these, because I love them. And that way lies a larger heart, and eventually, wisdom. This is what I have chosen to believe.

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