In Mandarin Chinese, there is a maxim “Eat bitter” or “Eating bitterness”. The pin yin romanization is Chī Kǔ. Basically this phrase refers to enduring hardship, or enduring something that is less than pleasant or desirable in either good humor or acceptance. People who “eat bitter” will continue on with life despite difficulties. They should stay focused on challenges, and persist. To Chinese, being able to effectively “eat bitter” is a type of virtue, and mostly expected.
I remember when I first learned the maxim “eat bitter” at university I immediately understood what that meant. As a person with a mental illness, prone to depression, anxiety, and mixed episodes I had felt forced to tolerate all kinds of pain, fear and frustration from as young as 14 years old. Even when I was supposedly stable, life brought rough challenges that pushed me to the limit. “Eating bitterness” is obviously something everyone (with illness or not) has to do at some points in their life, but looking back I felt I had more than my share of it.
In America, the idea of “eating bitterness” is not nearly as strongly practiced as in Asia. Many Americans feel free to complain, cry, and act out when in misery or distress, especially in front of people they feel closest to or even people they have nothing to lose from. But in cases where you can be punished, shamed or disrespected, “eating bitterness” is indeed also expected in many countries at times.
Sometime people (in some cases a parent or parents) can be intolerant of their children’s distress calls. Instead of supporting their child, they react with punishment or disregard. Spouses are also known to react in similar ways. Unless the distressed person has someone to turn to the negative painful feelings can build up.
I think “eating bitterness” must be some kind of special talent that some people develop. Putting hardships behind them and not internalizing them excessively. Though I have been able to do that to a certain degree, I’ve had frustrations and other types of pain build and build without an immediate release. No, sometimes I couldn’t just let something disappear from within, or “roll off my shoulder”. Often times when anger built up too much it would build so much that it would burst out in the form of tirades, emotional explosions. Or it would slowly trigger severe mental strife or mood episodes. Other times it would feel like two fists tightening inside my stomach, pushing and rolling around. I’d feel it physically, as well as psychologically in terribly negative ways.
My guess is that people who are very talented at “eating bitterness” tolerate the bitter in a sense like how people tolerate the heat of hot chili peppers. The longer and more frequently you eat them, the less the agony experienced. They grow immune or accustomed to the pain, until the pain is not so obvious. Yes, I’ve had that effect, too, but not always.
Have you mastered ways of tolerating “bitter” in your life? If so, how?