First Thoughts

I woke up the other morning thinking of the word ‘avuncular.’ I was curious. It is not my kind of word and I have no idea what it means.

First thoughts can be revealing. They may highlight the internal pressures we are feeling, or uncover an attitude or behaviour that needs changing, or show us what to prioritise.

First thoughts do not always make sense. They may seem obscure or unrelated. It is tempting to dismiss them before they have a chance to explain themselves. Take responsibility for your first thoughts. Be accountable. Write them down.

First thoughts may make you feel uncomfortable, particularly if they are asking you to do something difficult or challenging. They can shatter your ideas about what is important, or they can open a door to new possibilities.

I discovered that avuncular is to be like an uncle who is friendly, helpful, and kind.

Uncle Bert was my father’s older brother. They had a good relationship and shared various interests including a weekly game of Scrabble. Uncle Bert was an important member of our fishing expeditions during the summer holidays. When I knew Uncle Bert he was in the latter part of his life. He was unflappable. Despite poor health, he maintained a positive outlook and was not one to complain. I remember him catching a carpet shark off the surf beach at Lakes Entrance. I cried at his funeral. I appreciated Uncle Bert. He was a fine example of avuncular.

Uncle Mervyn was my mother’s younger brother. He served in the Middle East during World War II. He was also getting on a bit when I knew him. He owned a dairy farm at Port Campbell. The coastline is particularly rugged and during the early years of European settlement, many sailing ships came to grief. Uncle Mervyn was a hard worker. The skin on his hands was tough like leather and there were places where it had cracked. Uncle Mervyn loved his jersey cows and gave them names like Rose or Mabel. In the early days he milked his cows by hand. He put grain and molasses in the stall to keep them calm. He tied their back leg with a rope and hung their tail on a nail. One Sunday afternoon he took us to the church for a Christmas celebration. He sat in the car and went to sleep. He was often tired. Dairy farming meant long days. I respected Uncle Mervyn. He, too, was a fine example of avuncular.

I am grateful I had two uncles who were both role models, men who took an interest in me and showed me how to live.

‘How Do You Live?’ Is the first English translation of the classic Japanese novel for young readers. Author Genzaburo Yoshino’s story of the life of a 15-year-old boy, Copper, (his nickname), who lived during the pre-war era in Japan, captures the essence of ‘avuncular.’

Copper was born and raised in Tokyo. His father was a director at a big bank. After his death, the family moved to a more modest house in the suburbs. Copper’s father wanted the best for his son and had entrusted Copper’s uncle with the task of guiding him.

Copper’s uncle had recently completed a law degree. He brought Copper stability when his life could have unraveled and direction when he could have lost his way.

Copper’s uncle wrote to him in a notebook, providing advice on how to navigate the challenges of life. He encouraged Copper to strive for greatness and to become a fine example of a human being.

He did this in the following way.

 (1) Encouragement:

Adults can be over-bearing, stifling the thoughts and desires of young people. Copper’s uncle recognised this danger. He allowed Copper the freedom to develop his own ideas while expressing his gratitude when Copper willingly shared what was on his mind. Only then did he suggest how they could be expanded and applied more broadly. 

For example, Copper had been looking out his window at the streets of Tokyo. It was a gloomy day, and the buildings were caught up in a haze of rain. Copper had a sense of how small he was, ‘a single molecule in the wide-wide world.’

Copper’s uncle took this thought and expanded on it. Life had taught him that ‘seed thoughts often have a deeper meaning.’

He explained that as children we often think we are the centre of the universe, that everything happens for our benefit. Some people grow up holding on to this idea that they are privileged, that they are owed a good life. Self-interest dominates their way of thinking, and they end up seeing only that which betters their own circumstances.

Copper’s uncle suggested,

“When people judge their own affairs with only themselves at the centre, they end up unable to know the true nature of society. The larger truth never reveals itself to them.”

Copper’s uncle encouraged him to be humble and not to entertain inflated ideas about his importance. He reminded Copper that life will determine the part he has to play.

 (2) Praise:

Copper’s uncle understood how praise empowers people and encourages them to even greater pursuits. He knew praise to be motivational, ‘lighting a fire to our desire.’

Uragawa was in Copper’s class at school. He was not particularly good at schoolwork and fell asleep in class. He was teased by his classmates, and they played tricks on him. He did not complain. He believed it might encourage the ‘bullies,’ but there was sadness in his eyes.

Uragawa, it was said, had ‘the air of a country bumpkin and the smell of poverty’ and he paid for being different. His classmates were children of well-known businessmen, officials, college professors, doctors, lawyers and so forth. Uragawa’s family sold tofu and lived above the shop. Their accommodation was basic but serviceable, their life, challenging but predictable.

When Uragawa was absent from school for a week Copper thought he might be unwell or found the school environment unpalatable. Copper knew Uragawa’s address and visited him on the weekend. He was warmly received by Uragawa’s mother. She explained that Uragawa had been helping with the tofu business as one of the other workers was sick. Copper was relieved. As he looked about, he could not help but be amazed at the enterprise of the family. When he saw Uragawa frying the tofu he was surprised, impressed by his skill and dexterity. What Copper witnessed was ‘impoverished greatness,’ and he understood, perhaps for the first time, ‘the poor are important to society.’

When Copper’s uncle heard of his visit, he praised Copper for his concern for Uragawa’s welfare and his preparedness to learn from others. He also commended him for reaching out to Uragawa, showing him respect and offering him friendship. He reminded Copper,

“Someone with true confidence in their value as a human being should be able to live unaffected, even if their circumstances shift a bit this way or that.”

 (3) Correction:

Copper had a small group of friends including Uragawa, Kitami and Mizutani. When Kitami was accused by the older, senior students of lacking respect it was clear he would be scolded and punished. As tensions rose, Uragawa and Mizutani came to his aid, defending him while placing themselves at risk. Copper, on the other hand, stood apart, frozen to the spot, unable to speak.

The bell for class diffused the situation for the time being but Copper was left to rue his inaction. He was embarrassed, ashamed, and alone. Over the coming weeks his guilt deepened, and he descended into a dark place where even his mother could not reach him. His sense of shame weighed heavily, and his health deteriorated.

Copper was aware that he was falling, and tentatively reached out to his uncle. Copper’s uncle remained silent, waiting, knowing Copper would eventually tell him what had happened. Copper’s confession was comprehensive. He left nothing unsaid. He had behaved badly. Copper’s uncle did not dismiss the matter, nor did he diminish the seriousness of the situation. He pointed out that Copper had jeopardised his friendship by his ‘betrayal.’

It is said that correction without confession can be heavy handed. Copper’s uncle avoided this pitfall. He encouraged Copper to think about how much his friends meant to him. He suggested that Copper write a letter explaining truthfully what had happened and how disappointed he was that he had failed his friends. Copper accepted his uncle’s advice and wrote the letter knowing that there were no guarantees. His friends may not forgive him. Nonetheless, it was worth the risk.

Copper’s uncle wisely concluded,

“It is hard to admit our mistakes. But in the pain of our mistakes there is also human greatness.”

I am rather taken with the idea of avuncular, to aspire to friendliness, kindliness, and helpfulness. It speaks of a leisurely wisdom, devoid of point scoring.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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