Unwinding our Values: to Gaman and Grind

Is our nonprofit value of "suffer for the cause" really healthy for us at the end of the day?

Author’s note: This article was written in November 2020 when I was transitioning out of my role as an executive director. While there have been some revisions to the article, it will still reflect an uncertain time during the pandemic and high stress time for myself personally. Look out for a follow up article on what has changed in the months since!

Do you remember this scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Here’s your courtesy spoiler warning (but if it’s been over 20 years, is it really a spoiler?) skip to the second paragraph if you don’t want to know the ending to the book or film. If you haven't read the book or watch the film, check the Wikipedia synopsis here for context. During this scene Harry is helplessly hunched over his godfather, Sirius Black, trying to protect him from several dementors circling overhead. They are rescued by Harry’s future self, who casts the Patronus charm, scattering and sending the dementors away. This scene may seem completely disconnected from the title of this article but, bear with me on this one.

I identify as a mono-ethnic Japanese American, yonsei, millennial. I grew up in the Chicago-suburbs, I attended a Japanese American church, and in college I began volunteering in the Japanese American community as a next generation leader. I sought opportunities to work in the Japanese American community and spent nearly 10 years doing so. All this is to say, I was grown in my youth and young adulthood by the Japanese American community and subsequently internalized a lot Japanese American values. I’ve always kept myself busy, but particularly in my last decade of professional and personal work, I’ve noticed an interesting intersection between the Japanese Zen Buddhist value of gaman, meaning “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity” and American capitalism, which equates productivity with worthiness.

For me, this has shown up in a number of ways that has both served me and built a toxic view of my self worth being inherently tied with how much I was producing. I first noticed this intersection during an organizational meeting in which the number of hours the staff spent working on certain projects was being discussed. As one of the staff, I shared how we necessarily worked long hours in order to run our organization’s week-long event. What came next was an understanding, “Yes, I totally understand, we should absolutely take into account how hard the staff are working,” followed by a chuckle and, “well come to think of it, I often work 50-60 hour weeks as well.” Then another member of the meeting shared that they too regularly work long hours, then another. Suddenly, the tone of the room shifted from a tone of empathy for the intense workload of the staff, to a normalization of over working as a standard expectation and I would go as far to say an air of pridefulness associated with working very long hours tirelessly.

While interrogating this intersection, I noticed it showing up in my internal narrative and affirmed externally in the form of positively reinforcing unsustainable work or volunteer practices, humble bragging, and a thinly veiled shaming of those perceived to be less busy. Speaking from my own narrative, early in my career I found myself thinking or uttering the phrase, “must be nice,” when friends who had less demanding work schedules were able to find joy in stillness and relaxation after work. I’m sure it was in fact very nice, to leave your work at the door. To mentally check out for the weekend or multiple days at a time. But I had to rationalize my decision to work late nights and over the weekend by finding a sense of accomplishment associated with the amount of work I could do. This is furthermore affirmed by the concepts of traditional American capitalism and the notion of hard work resulting in prosperity.

During the summer of 2020, I’d find my Friday evenings consumed with thinking about how to most efficiently use my time over the weekend. It would start with planning my weekend trip to Little Tokyo to pick up dinner from my favorite restaurants. From there I would swing by the office to pick up mail or drop off equipment. I’d make a run to our storage unit on the way to make sure I had enough boxes to pack and ship products. Then, I’d get home and stream a show while preparing shipping labels and packing orders to make it to the Post Office before it closed. I conceptualized this as relaxing while accomplishing mindless tasks that would make my week easier, but I was also normalizing working every day of the week and feeling pride in all that I could get done.

While my work ethic has granted me leadership opportunities, I’ve also seen the ways in which this attitude has been detrimental to my physical and emotional wellbeing. Starting around 2019, I noticed that occasionally, my body would become physically ill, and prevent me from doing anything else. My partner has called it my body’s way of “hard resetting,” where after a period of stress and anxiety, I would be forced into rest for a day or two at a time before I could resume my normal routines. The first time this happened, I found myself emotionally burnt out, frustrated, and feeling guilty that I had “wasted time” being sick. After the second or third time though, I knew something had to change. There was no way to continue putting this much pressure on myself to be productive all the time. 

So, I began the most intentional wellness journey I’ve been on yet, that included finding and starting therapy with a new therapist, which has been one of the best choices I could have made for myself. In the following months I started giving myself permission to be present when I was away from work and to not feel guilty for “not doing anything” over the weekend. The idea of rest as a completely necessary, yet often undervalued, component of productivity became an integral aspect of my work philosophy, that I am still striving to find better balance around.

I share all this with a level of insecurity and a vulnerability I’m unused to but I’m doing so because I believe that the first step in undoing a harmful system is to name when tools that one served us, in this case to gaman and grind, are starting to harm the community and the individuals that reside within it. As I thought about this longer I found myself at the tip of an iceberg, finding new layers I want to explore about how our values serve and harm us, and how Great Recession of 2008 and now the recession as a result of COVID-19 has shaped the emerging Millennial and Gen-Z Nikkei community. So now, I’d like to invite you into this conversation. Have you ever found yourself at this particular intersection? Have you noticed any other long upheld Japanese or American values beginning to affect you negatively? How have you internalized this? I’d love to meet for tea over Zoom and hear more about how our values as a community are evolving. You may reach me at stephanie.nitahara@gmail.com or @snitahara on Instagram. I hope to continue this conversation with you, especially if you’ve made it this far in this article!

So why start with this scene about Harry Potter? I often think about the unspoken expectations or value systems that we inherit and navigate as Japanese and Japanese American people operating in a community together. When I feel the pressure of a value that no longer serves me, it feels like a dementor trying to suck away my energy until I am left burnt out and in some more extreme instances, actually helpless. But like Harry, I’ve practiced and found it within myself to build a Patronus shield of sorts, starting by naming and identifying the issues for what they are and leaning on my support network for help and reassurance, like when Lupin gave Harry a piece of chocolate. I hope that through discussion, I can continue to unwind traditional Japanese and American values from my own value system, recognize the way they’ve served me, and let go of the ones that are harming me, transforming my work ethic from one of unending endurance to one of sustained thriving.

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