Penance, Happiness, Language and Poison Oak

It has recently occurred to me that in order to achieve happiness, the opposite is first required.

How can we know happiness when we have never experienced pain or sorrow? As I look around, I see people with a very high standard of living, which the Kings of the past could only have dreamed. I see people who should be happy or even content, slogging through life continually reaching for that elusive state of joy.

Perhaps we have reached the apex of diminishing returns in that we have acquired so much yet the more we acquire the amount of happiness that accompanies it seems to continually recede?

Perhaps the secret is not to continually strive to acquire more, to continually consume, but instead seek the opposite for a short while?

This thought occurred to me the past week as I am currently suffering from a torment that only the devil could have conceived.

I have gotten ahead of myself. Let me return to the events that have lead up to this discovery.

Recently, I have acquired a bit of land which needed some care. Part of this land is actually a forest which was overrun by untended nature. My desire was to trim it back quite a bit and make it a beautiful place in which to take walks, plant vegetables and herbs and learn about the wildlife which call it home.

So, last weekend I set about clearing a relatively small patch which was covered in various plant life and dead underbrush. My goal was to terrace part of the hillside in which I could plant pumpkins and a variety of herbs. I cleared away the dead vegetation, pulled out planks and construction debris which I found buried and with these materials was able to make the land presentable.

After the work was done and a thorough shower, I sat down on my couch and found a relaxation that I had not encountered in a very long time. This was not unlike the feeling after a good workout at the gym but as I had used each and every muscle for the past five hours, the amount of satisfaction and peacefulness was intensified.

It then occurred to me that perhaps what I was experiencing is one of the lessons the Puritans and other religious folk were trying to express by their steadfastness for hard work. For them, work was a way to praise God not only as a way to account for their sins but also become more in tune with their creator.

Perhaps as a side benefit, the feeling one receives after a hard days work, real manual work, is one of complete tranquility and peace. This is exactly what I was experiencing.

For too long, I had languished in the city, with every modern convenience at my disposal I had not done any hard labor for a very long time. Yet, even though life was very easy, I had not felt as good as I felt after five hours clearing brush.

As I was pondering the lives of the Puritans I also recalled an interesting linguistic fact. That is the word Penitentiary comes from the word penance. For those in their society who had done wrong, they were required to spend some time in a penitentiary to commit penance. That is to say, take a time out and reflect on what they had done. Take the distraction of the world away from them and let them reflect.

Further, a bit of hard work was required which could have been to help them experience the euphoria of peacefulness after the work was done and perhaps be more in-tune with God?

Now, as those times are long gone, we still maintain the tradition of the ‘penitentiary’ but the hard work has been taken out. In fact, the hard work (manual) labor has been taken out of the lives of even those not in the penitentiary. As I had languished in the city I found myself less happy than I should have been which no amount of new purchases or night time divertissements could restore.

So, I had found a bit of happiness, but I did not realize what lesson was in store for me.

Two days later I found my arms and legs completely covered in poison oak. The itching, the constant oozing which stuck to my clothes put me in complete agony.  I couldn’t sleep because of the itching, then when I did sleep I found my clothes stuck to my body which required another shower at around 1:00am.

I put the caladryl on it but then the ooze would mix and it would run down a bit further creating a new infection.

There I was, in the middle of the night trying to employ mind tricks to simply get through the torment.

I then realized that all I wanted in the world was for this affliction to go away and I would be in ecstasy.

Now being the middle of the night with silence and darkness all around, one tends to have different thoughts.  I realized that should I survive this horrible period I will be extremely happy to simply not have poison oak.  I do not have to buy anything or seek out any temporary pleasure.  I will be happy to simply not have this horrible malady anymore.

Imagine, all I have to do is remind myself that I no longer have to wipe any ooze, nor bear the awful constant itching and I will be grateful!

Perhaps this is a lesson, perhaps I was pre-determined to suffer a relatively minor (yet awful) marathon of agony to remind myself that we should appreciate simply being alive a bit more.  We should take a minute to be thankful that we are alive, can have experiences and appreciate this beautiful home we call Earth.

I would imagine those with worse conditions such as cancer are in tune with this way of thinking.  It is not uncommon for those that have come out survivors to be able to appreciate life quite a bit more than those who have never experienced the fear of life being taken away from them.

Thankfully, my case of poison oak is no where near cancer but it did serve as a reminder that I will be thankful to have a healthy body once again.  However, being human we are soon to forget and slip back into a mode of complacency where our minds continually tell us we should be happier and in doing so never gets us there.

Maybe I should plant a sprig of the oak in my office as a reminder?  I think not, perhaps a picture of it would be safer.

Now, on to language as promised by the title.  After I found both my arms sleeved in oozing blisters, I hopped on Google to get some answers.

I found that the ‘poison’ in poison oak is an oil called “urushiol.”  Then, being the language enthusiast I am, I realized that it sounded an awful lot like a Japanese word.  If I translate back from Japanese it would sound like this “Urushioru.”

So, I was curious to see if there was a Kanji character (the Japanese/Chinese symbol) associated with it.

Unfortunately, the word was the exact same spelled in Katakana.

Urushioru = ウルシオール

If you don’t know Japanese let me give you a quick explanation of how their writing works.  They have four ‘alphabets’ which are not really alphabets but is how they put sounds down on paper.

1. Katakana – This is for foreign words which are an approximation of how the foreign word sounds to Japanese ears.  They are simply trying to say the word as it sounds to them.  The above word “Urushiol” is in Katakana

2. Hiragana – This is the “alphabet” for Japanese origin words

3. Romaji – You can also write words with the Latin (just like English…with a few variations) alphabet.  However, you call it Romaji because it is the “Romanized Alphabet.  Ro-ma-ji (ローマ字)

4.  Kanji – 漢字.  This is the Chinese symbols the Japanese imported.

Combine all four and you get Japanese.  And look at that, as I looked up Kanji, Google offered a concise definition of all four.

“|漢字 are the Chinese characters that are used in the modern Japanese logographic writing system along with hiragana (ひらがな, 平仮名), katakana (カタカナ, 片仮名), Indo Arabic numerals, and the occasional use of the Latin alphabet (known as the Romanization of Japanese, or “Rōmaji”). …”

So, for ‘Urushiol’ which is pronounced in English as you-ROO-shee-ol becomes oo-ru-shi-aw-ru (trying to spell it as an English speaker would understand it and you write it in Katakana.

But, my investigation didn’t stop there.  I was certain that this was a Japanese word, which somewhere along the line became an English word which the Japanese then adopted as a foreign word.

So, I just took the first part “urushi” which was definitely Japanese and found my Kanji character.

漆 = Urushi

Then I dissected the Kanji into it’s parts so I could derive the ancient meaning of the word.

1.  On the left is the Radical for water.  I cannot write it here because the computer won’t let me write just a radical.

2. 木 = Tree.  This is on the top right hand portion

3.  人 = Person.  This is in the middle of the right hand side

4.  水 – Water.  This is the regular Kanji for water.

So basically, tree water gets on a man.  This must be the ancient meaning.  However, it is not obvious for the beginner because if we look up this Kanji (漆) it means: lacquer, varnish, or seven in Japanese.  But if we examine more closely it is also used with other Kanji to mean lacquer poisoning.

But what is lacquer?

Lacquer – a black resinous substance obtained from certain trees and used as a natural varnish.

Therefore, I have found something very interesting regarding the Japanese language, Kanji and English.

The beginning of the word is “urushi” which has a Kanji character associated with it which in its original meaning is “tree water” but is only currently used for lacquer.  Isn’t it a coincidence that the word “urushiol” in Japanese ウルシオール has the exact same pronunciation as the Kanji for lacquer?

It could be just a coincidence or perhaps I have discovered a linguistic fun fact.

In closing, I mentioned that my case of poison oak could be a pre-ordained lesson to teach me the meaning of happiness.  Or perhaps the universe wanted to teach me a language lesson?

Or it could be that I’m just a doofus who should have known better than to go play in the woods without knowing what poison oak was.

Life is a grand mystery.

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! (^.^)/


  1. Thanks Jonas. For all the times I check Wikipedia you would think I would have checked Urushiol. Glad to be right and glad that all the rashes are just about gone. That was terrible.
    If you ever get the urge to go play in the woods make sure you cover up! lol

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