In a recent conversation with my uncle, I expressed my happiness that he and his wife left Cuba 25 years ago, enabling closer family ties. At the time, my feelings were grounded in reminiscent joy with an outer demeanor of amusement bordering on facetiousness. Yeah, like, I’m really happy that y’all left that place. Really. And this is sincerely true. My siblings and I grew up without them and our cousins, meeting them for the first time in our 20s, and since then it seems like a family hole has been filled.
They took much longer than my parents to leave Cuba for good. When my mother and father left in the early 1960s, uncle and aunt were already married with two children, complicating their deliberations. The more rigid life with dependents pointed to the decision to stay in communist Cuba. My parents, with equally difficult consideration, left as an engaged couple, and even then they left separately: my father to Puerto Rico on a student visa, and my mother to Madrid to establish Spanish residency. My mother and uncle didn’t see each other for 25 years, their relationship converted into a series of exchanged letters, photos and occasional phone calls.
In response to my remark about family, happiness, and being together, my uncle replied Déjame explicarte algo (“Let me explain something”), then he shared his take on the difference between the intelligent and the brilliant:
La gente inteligente hacen caso a aproximadamente 50%, pero la gente brillante saben cuales partes creer. Nosotros fuimos inteligente, pero mi hermana fue brillante.
“Intelligent people choose to pay attention to about half of what they’re told. Brilliant people, though, know what parts to believe. I was intelligent, but my sister was brilliant.”
These pearls of wisdom are so…my uncle. He loves to boil things down to one or two core ideas, then tell it like it is. My mother and her brother, with no other siblings and their lifelong, close relationship, have spent their entire adulthoods irreparably intertwined in the Cuban political state. Established in 1958-59, Fidel Castro and rebels took over the government and the former dictator Batista absconded into history. My mother left in 1962; her brother, 1993. Over those 30 years, there was just one single visit. Her relationship to Cuba is in the distant past, but permanently ingrained in heartache. His connection is more recent, and yet seems neutral – perhaps he is a bit more removed because of his age of exit, but also because he lived in what Cuba became decades after the revolution.
As my cousins grew up in Cuba, my two siblings and I were in America, our lives in Texas separated by the Gulf of Mexico and a little more Caribbean water. After obtaining U.S. asylum in 1993, my uncle’s adult children (and families) followed over the next few years: one to Spain, the other to Chile (because the Cuban officials keep tabs). Now, all including my aunt and uncle are settled in or near Madrid, prosperous and free. As for my mother and siblings: also prosperous and free, but with more real estate.
To be clear, my uncle’s decision to not leave Cuba in the early 60s wasn’t wrong or right. My mother’s decision to leave wasn’t wrong or right. For each of them, these were the best decisions, reasonably made at the time under life-transforming political circumstances. My uncle’s insightful quip made me think about risk, and how easy it is to settle into a mode of living, then wonder later if a major change would just be too much. Many of us choose to “stay put” for reasons much less critical than major political upheaval, where either prospect — leaving or staying—is unquestionably risky. Given this context, back in relatively comfortable America, all those excuses for staying on the couch quickly lose their verve. It’s too hard. What about job security? Sounds scary. Let me stick with what I know.
Let’s do this one thing: as individuals, let’s be brilliant, and save the intelligent choices for true emergencies. As someone who desperately needs this herself, I invite my fellow humans to take more risks, bigger bites out of life, deeper sips from the fountain.
Because otherwise, what else is life?
My mother and uncle took gigantic risks to get away from the communist regime of their island homeland. What does it take for people to want to leave a Caribbean country, with beaches and mountains, sugar cane and flamboyas, but most importantly, the only place they know, the place they call “home”?
And although I love the wisdom about brilliance and intelligence, I must respectfully disagree with my uncle. My mother may have been “brilliant” for leaving shortly after the revolution-turned-communism writing on the wall, but he was equally brilliant for moving at 55 years old, his collective family unit having expanded from four to six. He and his wife, their two adult children and spouses trusted and supported each other—quietly—during the planning and eventual exodus over several years. This is nothing short of inspirational, and yet, they simply did what they had to do. This core group “just did it”, defying the inertia of a settled life with few resources, empty grocery stores and a tiny smidgen of hope for the future. That very hope is the thing driving the change, quickly expanding to fill the space of newfound freedom.
To my parents: thank you for your brilliance, the educated guess of foresight, and dreaming on behalf of yourselves and your future children.
To my son: use intelligence, but be brilliant. You don’t just want to be “good enough” to be comfortable; you want to be good. Truly good—the best you can be—is life at its finest. Take it, and drink deeply. The cup of excellence expands to all who want to live in that space.
To myself: don’t sell yourself short of brilliance because you’re comfortable. Intelligence is staying in one space for fear of venturing out into a different, risky, less secure life. Brilliance is doing the thing and grabbing that dream, security reaffirming itself through greater happiness.
To everyone else: we all could better recognize that people don’t just leave everything they know by flipping a coin. These major life moves are about ganas, a word with no direct translation that means the combination of yearning, desire, like the life force that drives us towards modified actions, goals or intentions. Remembering that self-reflection and motion towards endeavors de ganas bring rewards to our surroundings as well as ourselves, perhaps we can personally find a more compassionate space, better able to improve the world by becoming just a little bit more brilliant, one human at a time.
Maria Gelabert, Ph.D.
Science and Mindfulness