Mono no aware.
ROCHESTER, New York- I drove the nine or so hours from Maine to Rochester with my two girls to have a week with my sister and to celebrate my birthday with my family. My sister was driving in with her new husband, four kids, and two dogs from Montana. It would be her first visit home in two years. It was an event that I planned around for months — to the extent of not going on a short research trip.
I haven’t seen my sister and her three kids since last summer when we traveled out to Montana to visit them. I want my kids to have more of a relationship with their cousins — family is important — so we set up a rough framework to make yearly visits happen, either in Montana or Rochester.
I’m not sure if that’s going to happen now. My mother asked me not to write about this, so I have to balance her request with the fact that I do a birthday post each year — and it wouldn’t be possible to do the former without a mention of what happened:
Basically, my sister pretty much drove across the country for three days to slay some dragons. I still don’t really get it.
I don’t believe I’ve written much about my parents and childhood on here. To put it simply, I grew up with parents who probably couldn’t have been any better while remaining sentient beings. They basically lived for their kids; all of their free time was my sister and I. They took us to our continuous stream of activities — baseball, ice hockey, softball, cub scouts, band, modeling, gymnastics, guitar lessons. They watched our games. They coached our teams. They played with us and our friends in the backyard. They incessantly practiced with us for whatever we were trying to achieve — whether it was pitching baseballs or serving as human pylons to stickhandle around or helping us pass tests at school. My parents prioritized us over having a social life (they hung out with friends once a year, at most) and I can’t really remember them doing much of anything for themselves besides sometimes go out together on the night of their anniversary — well, if the money was available.
I was flippant with my parents’ time when I was a kid. I just took it for granted that I could use up as much of it as I wanted and that’s just the way the world worked. But now I have my own kids and know that wasn’t really the case. Doing schoolwork with my kids and taking them places takes time — my time that I could be doing something else. I imagine my parents probably had other things that they’d rather have been doing as well — did my dad really want to spend his Sunday mornings getting up at 5 am to take me or my sister to hockey practice? Probably not. But my sister and I was just what they did.
To put it simply, we had the parents all the other kids wanted. For my sister to drive all the way from Montana and have anything to say to my parents other than thank you seemed rather odd to me. Did she forget her entire upbringing? Did I miss something?
Prolonged absence from a place and people does funny things to memory. I admit that I often rose-ify the places I’ve been. I can’t think of a single place that I would say sucks after being away from it for a while. Ask me now if I like India and I’m bound to respond in the affirmative … even though when I’m actually there my take is starkly different. But it is equally easy to remember places as being much worse than they ever were — extracting the bad while forgetting the good, essentially shit-ifying them to oblivion.
I tried to mention to my sister all of the good things my parents had done for her, and she responded with something I will probably never forget:
A single bad word is worth a thousand good deeds.
I sat there sort of dumbfounded for a while. How the f’ck could someone say that? I thought deep about if there was some strand of logic I was missing, but I was acutely aware that there was something in that line that spoke volumes about the times we live in — times where over-sensitivity and offense-taking and apology-mongering have become standard guideposts for social interaction in a culture that celebritizes victimhood. In a culture where the simple uttering of the phrase “that offends me” is a free ticket to a power trip.
Perhaps this is a hopeful sign that over-developed societies have become such good places to live that mere words have been infused with a disproportionate power to do harm. There are still places in the world where people have real shit to get upset about — where someone saying a word that someone else didn’t like wouldn’t register on the list of concerns. First world problem: Someone said something that made me mad 12 years ago.
We seem to be forgetting three of the most important words in any language: Get. Over. It.
This is the phrase that ultimately holds families and communities together. People have never done or said everything that we want them to all of the time. People make us mad. We express our anger. We fight. We separate for a while, cool off, and forget. We join back together. We move on. We get over it.
We get over it because, ultimately, we need each other.
But do we really? I’m really not sure how much many people really rely on each other anymore in over-developed societies. The Indian family who migrates to North America to start a business has to get along because their livelihood depends on it. They can’t severe ties because someone used a phrase that they didn’t like. They have to get over it — the well-being of everybody depends on it.
But a family that is scattered all over the map, who rarely sees each other, who are financially independent from one another … how much do they really need each other? How easily can the bonds which hold them together be broken? What forces are there to push for reconciliation? Why should we have to accept imperfection in the people we surround ourselves with? Why can’t we be islands — reliant on nobody but ourselves?
Traditional societies are structured very differently. Members have roles that they must fulfill in order for life to function smoothly. The complementary though strict division of labor on sex lines, multi-generational households for child rearing and support of the elderly, the pooling of resources for investments, the sharing of wealth, housing, and possessions … Individuals needed the group and the group required all individuals to do their part — to leave the group meant death or, at the very least, misery.
That’s not really the case in over-developed societies. Men and women do the same work. Wives are no longer dependent on husbands for income; husbands no longer depend on their wives to run households. Grandparents have better things to do than take care of their grand kids. Working age adults can’t be bothered caring for their parents as they throw them into nursing homes. Everything is everyone’s responsibility. We all think we can go it alone …
… and our relationships have become incredibly fragile. One little crack — one little word — can set the bonds crumbling. Relationships have become obstacles courses where even the most diplomatic of us are eventually going to slip off and fall off at some point. It’s inevitable. We build relationships and break them, move through people as readily as smartphones. We always think we’re upgrading, leaving the bad for the better, but the end result is usually the same.
We may have become confused about what bad really is. Perhaps we’re spoiled.
One bad word is worth a thousand good deeds.
I’m now 38 years old and I’m probably too old to be whining about my birthday party. My sister didn’t show up. I told her the night before that I didn’t support what she was doing — that I thought she was wrong — and she was out of there. That was that. When she left New York to return to Montana she didn’t even bother to say goodbye. Not even a text …
I didn’t see that coming.
This had a strange effect on me. Nobody has ever really done anything like that to me before. I can’t even remember the last time I had a conflict with someone who wasn’t my wife and lasted longer that five minutes. Oddly, it heightened my awareness of the value of the people around me and how quickly and unexpectedly things can change. While we take them for granted, our relationships are not forever. People will get mad and move away, people will change, and people will die. Thinking that our world today will always be is little more than a self-preservatory hiccup of perception. Mono no aware.
I do a post on my birthday each year to kind of look back on the year that just went by and to gauge my trajectory. This past year was an unusual one. I supported my wife as she went to school. I had to quit a lot of jobs and give up on much that I’d worked for. But I also wanted a new beginning. I was taking on too much and needed to find a new way. My error of judgement — where I thought that I could work full-time while taking care of my kids in Prague — turned out to be one of the best things I’d ever done. I stagnated myself, I stopped moving forward, and I spent a year just looking around, cultivating new skills but not really delivering much of anything. I just played with my kids.
Next year should be different.
Another birthday post from 2008
This is something that I wrote on my birthday ten years ago:
I am now angling towards the mid section of living. I am now on top of the wave that I will ride to my ending shore — and I like where everything is going.
But I must I note here for any further temporal references: this was the first birthday that I did not wake up jumping excited for.
I think this must indicate that I am all grown up, or some other such nonsense.
28 is the same as 27 is the same as 29 and on and on until you croak…
I write a travelogue entry each year on my birthday as sort of a yearly status report. For my last two birthdays, I wrote about the exciting prospects of becoming a MAN, of feeling at ease in the traveling life, and of finding the initial glimmers of what I am looking for.
For this birthday, I must record the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome in my left wrist.
I suppose I am now on the inside track of becoming a MAN: aches, pains, wife, kid, I now have it all.
Perhaps this is not the fruition of the romance of aging that I saw coming last year:
“Through growing up and getting “old,” I have learned how to smile,” I wrote.
Perhaps this year I am leaning towards the mantra that my father sings every year on his birthday:
“Getting old sucks.”
I am on the inside of this journey now — I know what I doing, where I am going. I have grown use to my own surprises. The roof has now been laid upon the hut, and I moved right in.
I grumble, but, as is so often the case, my grumblings are for the purpose of shining light on a phenomenon that I am satisfied with.
Birthdays are signposts of achievement for travelers — as travel is ultimately about one thing: the acquisition of knowledge in relation to time and space.
This is what I looked like then:
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
June 13, 2019, 9:44 pm
Can’t believe nobody has commented on this.
September 13, 2019, 8:50 am
You should post a birthday pic of yourself, with your bday post every year.
And you were wrong about it at 28… One’s perspectives keeps changing with age.
September 13, 2019, 10:48 am
Missed this when you published it. Life can indeed be complicated. Hope you have been able to sort things out with your sister. Doesn’t always happen–know that first hand. But life is really better when you can.
June 3, 2020, 2:46 pm
One good deed is worth a thousand bad words.