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...TER's Day Thursday: Things I Learned from My Uncles...

Date: Apr 30, 2020

My dad and his 12 siblings grew up in a pretty independent household and produced different personalities – from strict, traditional disciplinarians to fun, but almost too carefree uncles and aunts.

It was a very well defined division that I was told as a kid to stay away from some uncles because “I would grow up the wrong way.”

These are the same uncles that made me sip my first taste of beer when I was in the third grade, and later urged me to have my first bottle in a family gathering while they distracted my dad nearby.

Approaching my 34th year of life, I think I grew up to be a pretty decent human being despite being exposed to these “bad influences” in my life.

You can’t get burned if you never touched fire, and I believe that my dad and his siblings became the people that they are precisely because they learned when they got burned by their mistakes.

As such, I hung out with my uncles, because despite their carefree nature, they are very much concerned about our well-being, and they didn’t want us to fall to the same pits they had to climb out of.

Good or bad, here are some of the lessons I learned from all of them, including my dad:

1. Vices are inevitable.

Getting my first sip of beer in the third grade and getting pushed by my uncles to drink when I was in my first year in high school might seem irresponsible, but hear me out.

Being as exposed as they were growing up (they lived in the heart of the town and had regular mah jong players frequent their house), they understood that habits and vices are almost an inevitable part of one’s life.

Instead of finding our vices in drugs or smoking, they chose to expose us to beer early hoping for either of these two outcomes:

a. We don’t like it and hate it so much that when we get older, we’d think that it wasn’t worthwhile.

b. We liked it, and find it enjoyable, so we’d have this vice instead of the other two.

For the most part, it was a pretty good batting average as there are only a handful of us who picked up smoking (probably less than 10 in 40 kids).

We all grew up to drink though, but I can bet all my fingers that you will have a good time when you join any of our sessions.

2. You can choose your friends, but never your family.

With such a diverse family, it’s natural to have personalities that would clash from time to time. In my lifetime, I’ve seen some of my uncles and/or aunts not talk to each other for extended periods of time because of said differences, but would eventually get together like nothing happened.

Most arguments are of petty causes brought about by ego, but there are some that led to serious issues. However, more than drilling the concept in our minds, they showed through their actions and camaraderie just how thick blood is compared to water.

They are not the most affectionate bunch, and admitting fault in any way almost never happens, but despite those, we learn to get over differences because we are a family.

3. Do anything you want, as long as you can stand by it.

This is one of the most important things my dad always taught me, as his dad taught him.

With such a big family, they had to figure out independence from a very young age. As a result, almost every one of them grew up to be self-made people who enjoyed a degree of success in their chosen fields.

Growing up, my dad never imposed rules on me. He wouldn’t tell me to study or sleep early on a school night, what mattered to him was that I woke up for school and passed my subjects.

In a way, it taught me my limits. I had the freedom to do what I wanted, but considering their own careers with however little that they had, there were high expectations from our generation to achieve or exceed their achievements.

I couldn’t be thoughtlessly irresponsible because though they held a safety net to catch me, they made it very clear that they were letting go after the catch.

With so many considerations before acting, I carry close to no regrets in life, because I know that whatever I did was the best possible action at the time that I did it.

4. There are no problems in life,you create them.

My grandfather imparted this to his children, and I believe it is one of the main reasons why we’re generally happy people.

It’s basically his version of Occam’s Razor – don’t overcomplicate things.

For my grandfather, we create our own problems by worrying about things. If you’re hungry, you eat. 

If you can’t eat, you find a way to eat instead of finding excuses why you’re not eating.

You hate your work? Leave or suck it up. Can’t suck it up but can’t leave? You created your own problem right there.

It seems too simple to be life-changing, but I believe it helped me become a person who never carries burdens.

5. Enjoy the fruits of your labor, but never stop planting seeds.

One of my uncles is seen by his older siblings as someone who is too carefree to be considered as a “role model.” However, he never took it upon himself to be a “role model” and instead treated me and my cousins as he did his close friends.

During one of our sessions, he shared how much of a rollercoaster his life had been. He said that in his youth, he got to earn more than the average person of his age and indulged in things he enjoyed – mostly drinking in bars.

Looking back, he thought he was too generous for his own good, and regretted that he wasn’t able to buy himself insurance or invest in something worthwhile, because eventually, those funds ran dry, and a complicated turn of events pushed him out of employment for an extended period of time.

He shared his cautionary tale during my mid 20’s, because while he enjoyed our company, he wanted us to take the chances that he neglected to take when he was our age.

He didn’t regret being generous though, because at the end of the day, it made him and the people around him happy. 

6. How we are shaped greatly affects our choices in life.

Most of the men in our family had flings apart from their significant others, and they stuck together to keep those flings from their respective partners.

I always wondered why they did it, since my aunts were family when they got married, and during one of our sessions, it was explained to me why it was natural for them.

Of the 13 siblings, not all of them were my grandmother’s kids. However, I grew up not knowing this because of their close bond, and even if it was shocking, I didn’t care to know who were not my grandmother’s children because it really didn’t matter.

That was the culture that they grew up in – being open and accepting of my grandfather’s infidelity. I wasn’t brought up that way, which led me to feel indifferent about how they cover for each other.

I realized that our life choices are shaped by our environment, and not everyone was brought up the same way that I was. It helped me have a better appreciation for the diverse personalities in my life.

I've imposed my morals on people as if I am infallible, but I know now that what I know to be naturally right might not be as easy to do when one grew up in a radically different environment. 

7. Cheating may be caused by the unlikeliest reasons.

When I had a chance, I asked one of my uncles why he cheated on his wife.

I expected something about unhappiness, growing distant, losing physical contact, or something like that. But I got a totally different answer:

“Because I had the power.”

In more modern terms, it was basically a flex.

He didn’t have to, he could have chosen not to, but he did, because he can. Going back to the previous point, he grew up in a culture where infidelity is not that big of a deal, and so when he had the chance, he did it himself.

I've seen how cheating affects both parties, and I dread the idea of my wife experiencing it. Understanding the causes of cheating might help me navigate away from it, and it was enlightening to know that the real world does not always adhere to clichés. 

8. People are more than their titles and social status.

My dad and my uncles treat everyone with respect, and those who have reached a management position won the hearts of their subordinates precisely because they are treated as people rather than underlings.

They are equal-opportunity bosses who don’t look at which school you came from or your previous work experience. If you believed that you can handle the job and subsequently prove it, you had a chance to work your way up.

My dad promoted people who would otherwise be found unqualified by other bosses, and in return, they showed everyone else in management that my dad did the right thing. 

My dad and his brothers are so well-loved by their respective subordinates that we were treated like royalty when we are first introduced to them.

It helped me gain the confidence to converse with just about any type of personality. It taught me not to be intimidated by rich business owners and never look down on a street vendor or a utility man or the waiter at the bar.

Names, titles, and social status don’t really matter when you’re talking to people, because like my dad said, we all breathe the same air and our farts all smell bad.  

9. It’s never too late to make things right. 

In Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, he posits that ideally, one should be both feared and loved, but admits that it is difficult to achieve, and that if one needs to make a choice between the two, he should be feared rather than loved.

One of my uncles best illustrated this idea in his lifetime as a father. He was the type of guy who would make you feel like you killed a person if you leaned on his car and chose to be feared in order to establish his dominance.

However, at some point, he became such a teddy bear that almost nobody believed he was actually trying to make a change for his kids.  

When before, my cousins would cower in fear when their dad got home from work, they eventually looked forward to hugging him when he comes to the door, and I believe they still do to this day.

We sometimes tease him for trying to make up for his past a little too much already, and while he’s dangerously close to being on the negative spectrum of the “loved” part (i.e. subjects take the liberty to do what they please) at times, I believe he is much closer to the ideal than where he was earlier in our lives.

It showed me that it doesn’t matter what your situation is or how old you are, the key to achieving a goal is to start working towards it.  

10. Never stop playing.

One of my uncles was known for his unlucky streak in gambling.

He bet on card games, horse races, and whatever he can bet on, but he wasn’t always lucky. They even told me a story that he once walked all the way from Sta. Ana Racetrack back to their home in San Juan because he lost all his money on the track and didn’t have money to go back home.

Win or lose he always kept a smile on his face, and would shout his classic line “whattalayp!” (“what a life!”) whenever he lost.

He always believed that he would win somehow, and while it didn’t always end up winning, he happily accepted his fate and looked forward to another chance the next day.

One day, that chance didn’t come for him because he was abruptly taken away from us.

I knew him as a person that put his family above everything else despite his habit of gambling (he’s gambling so that he could give more than what he can for his family anyway), and someone who always believed that things will turn out for the best if you persevere (which explains why he keeps gambling).

He understood that playing means there will be winners and losers, and that no matter how high the stakes, it’s still just a game.

Some people can take games too seriously that they forget that it’s just a game – win or lose, we’re still going to live another day, and play another game.

In life, no matter how far down we think we are, we just have to believe that our time will come.

It may not be tomorrow, it may not be soon, but you’ve got to persevere because we can’t win if we stop playing.

11. Embrace your flaws, and the world can’t harm you.

My aunts and uncles are probably the some of the most irritating people you could be around with if you take life and body image too seriously.

Once, one of my uncles loudly chanted “Defense!... Defense!” to encourage his visitor who was playing my cousin…in chess.

When I was a kid, they would laugh at my face while I cried and later on, my sharp chin would be their favorite thing to make fun of.

I remembered getting hurt, feeling ugly, and felt really insecure about my whole personality.

However, when I came to an all-boys school in high school, I realized that the words bullies might use to hurt me are the same things that I’ve been teased with all my life, and so nothing got to me.

I was a skinny nerd and a new kid in a harsh high school environment, but somehow, I blended in with any crowd I chose to be part of.

No matter how harsh my family seemed to be when they made fun of me, it somehow helped me not to think too highly of myself, and made me embrace the flaws that I couldn’t do anything about.

Ultimately, it became the armor I needed to face all the cruel people of the world.

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I know I learned a lot more from them, but these are some of the first ones that come to mind.

Maybe I’m overthinking their actions, but nonetheless, I’m thankful to have grown up under their guidance, directly or indirectly, and I can only hope that I would be able to pass on their best lessons to my growing boy.