There is an ancient Chinese idiom that goes -「忍一時風平浪靜，退一步海闊天空」. It means a little forbearance calms the winds and silences the waves, and by taking a little step back, you will see the vast seas and skies.
It is often an unspoken yet important motto within many Chinese families and communities to keep the peace at all costs. As Chinese people, we do not like confrontation. From a young age, we are taught to keep our heads down, and not speak up lest we stir up trouble for others. A good child is one who stays silent, does not challenge his or her elders and always does what he or she is told.
There is a lot of wisdom in the Chinese saying, but I can’t help but wonder about the other side of the coin. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines peace as “freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions”. In a household or community where one is expected to keep silent and not express their thoughts when there is underlying satisfaction, my question is: Is there true peace in this scenario?
Yes, all may seem peaceful and harmonious on the outset, with no outright disagreements or conflict. However, we ought to remember that humans are programmed to have our own thoughts and a natural longing for free will. With every unspoken thought and unaddressed dissatisfaction, a little storm brews within a person who is forced or feels obligated to stay silent. It grows and grows with time until it can no longer be contained. Before you know it, the smallest rainfall tips the entire ecosystem over the edge, and you end up with colossal, irreparable damage.
I have a friend named Samantha who has lived with her mother-in-law from a very early stage in her marriage to her husband. There was undoubtedly conflict in the complexities of the in-law relationship within the same household. Instead of helping to mediate and resolve these conflicts in a fair and reasonable manner, Samantha’s husband told her she was being overly sensitive and asked her to take a step back and give into her mother-in-law regardless of what was right or wrong. She was expected to avoid confrontation at all costs! Over the years, resentment built up within her, and she gradually lost all ability to make a meaningful connection with her mother-in-law.
Such is one of the sad but very real consequences of suppressing your thoughts and voice in the name of peace. Bitterness is like a poison that spreads in your body until it can no longer be contained. It implodes in various forms of unwanted and often irreversible consequences! These include permanent resentment towards people we call family and loved ones, being involved in a string of unhealthy or even toxic relationships and mental health problems. Long-term psychological stress can even lead to physical illnesses like irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia!
Many of us are people-pleasers. Yet, at what cost? Our mental health. Our physical health. Our inner peace. When you notice the early tell-tale signs like burnout, being tired all the time, being irrationally irritable at little things, or wanting to avoid conversation with someone supposedly important in your life, these are your mind and body’s ways of telling you to pay attention. It is our responsibility to safeguard our wellbeing by recognising the signs and taking action before it is too late.
Please don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating that you pick a fight at every turn and throw a fit any time something does not go your way. There is wisdom in picking your battles. When it matters, we need to be equipped with the tools, courage and support system to engage in confrontation in a constructive manner, to allow for reasonable compromise, to draw healthy boundaries, to be aware when “enough is enough”, and to walk away from unhealthy or toxic relationships.
It is never too late to unlearn the unhelpful ways we do life that stop us from living to our full potential, one small step at a time. A life in which you are kind to yourself is a life worth living!
American author Robert Fulghum said, “Peace is not something you wish for, it is something you make, something you are, something you do, and something you give away.”