Recently I attended a teaching workshop, and we were discussing the importance of teachers cultivating their own character and virtues so that they can be a good role model for students. More specifically, we cultivate our character through our daily interactions with the people closest to us. For most people, that would be our parents or spouse.
One person shared her experience cultivating patience and tolerance towards her mother-in-law. I thought her story was quite admirable, but even more enlightening was my teacher’s commentary afterwards. Coincidentally, today is also Mother’s Day, so it’s quite fitting to share this story today.
Basically, she has been married for over 20 years, and her mother-in-law lives in the house. She’s always tried to have a good relationship with her mother-in-law, but her mother-in-law is very prejudiced towards her and treats her unjustly sometimes.
For example, when her father-in-law passed away, they invited over a monk to help with some Buddhist rituals. Her mother-in-law told her to give a monetary gift to the monk, but since the monk has been a family friend for a long time, he refused the gift. Her mother-in-law kept insisting on giving the gift, and she felt very awkward because the monk already said no. Eventually, she told her mother-in-law, “Since the monk said no a couple times now, how about we wait until later to find another way to give a gift to him?”
Immediately, her mother-in-law gave her a look of contempt and annoyance.
She felt really wronged, and she thought to herself, “We can’t force people to accept a gift, especially a monk whom we are supposed to respect. Why is she upset at me? That’s so unreasonable. Never mind, she’s just unreasonable, but I need to cultivate my own patience and tolerance. After all, there are lots of family members here. If I make an angry outburst, they will think I am a hypocrite who teaches about virtues but cannot walk my talk.”
Then she continued on with the day as if nothing had happened. Later, her family members told her, “You know, we were all watching you the whole time. Wow you have really good patience. If my mother-in-law did that, I’d definitely get angry.”
Another incident happened when she hired a new cleaning lady. This cleaning lady told her, “Do you know that your mother-in-law often gossips about your problems behind your back?” She was shocked, and she asked her old cleaning lady about this. That person said, “Oh yeah, your mother-in-law has been gossiping about your faults to me for a long time.” Later, she ran into a friend at the supermarket, and her friend also told her, “I ran into your mother-in-law at the supermarket before, and she also talked about your problems to me behind your back.”
She was very upset at her mother-in-law for being so rude, but she first calmed herself down, then she went to her mother-in-law and calmly said, “I found out that you talked about my problems to my friends at the supermarket. If you ever have any problems with me, please let me know directly so that I can correct them and be a better daughter-in-law. You don’t need to involve other people.”
Her mother-in-law immediately responded, “What are you talking about? I never talked about your problems to anyone. Your friends are making stuff up.”
She could feel her anger rising, but she stopped herself from arguing. She told herself, “Calm down. My mother-in-law is testing my patience and tolerance. I won’t get angry.”
Later, her mother-in-law became partially paralyzed and could only lie in bed. The daughter-in-law did her best to serve her, but she was still prejudiced towards her and unwilling to relax around her. Despite this, the daughter-in-law persisted in being a good attendant. One time, the mother-in-law pooped on the bed and felt very embarrassed. The daughter-in-law said, “It’s okay, no matter how many times you poop on the bed, I’ll come clean it every time.”
Then, her mother-in-law said, “You have really good patience and tolerance.” From that moment on, she felt that her mother-in-law had finally started to trust her. Soon after, her mother-in-law passed away, and she felt at ease that they managed to sort out their relationship before the end.
She told us this story to encourage us that we cannot just talk about virtues, we need to actually practice them in our daily lives with the people beside us. She has absolutely no resentment towards her mother-in-law; in fact, she is extremely grateful to her. After she finished telling her story, everyone gave her a big round of applause.
My Teacher’s Commentary
My teacher is the workshop coach, and afterwards, my teacher went to talk to this person. He explained to her his view on why what she did was wrong, and she humbly accepted his advice. During the next class, he gave his analysis on the story:
This person is very admirable for cultivating patience and tolerance. In order to improve our moral cultivation, it is very important that we learn from every experience. To learn from every experience is not easy. Think about it, how many things happen every day? If you learn and improve from each thing, how much could we improve in just one day or one week?
If we truly learned from a past problem, then that problem should not occur again. Yes, she is admirable in cultivating patience and tolerance, but we can go deeper here. Why was her mother-in-law upset at her? Is her mother-in-law truly unreasonable or truly trying to make her life difficult on purpose?
First, let’s talk about the incident with the monk. Old people are kind of like children. If you don’t give them what they want, they get upset very quickly. In this case, the mother-in-law really wanted to make an offering to the monk. That’s her respect towards the monk. Can you feel her deep desire? Did you let her feel that you understood her wish? No, so of course she got upset at you.
It’s much harder for old people to be flexible in their thinking, so we should not demand our elders to listen to us; rather, we should listen to our elders. Moreover, you owe more gratitude to your mother-in-law than the monk, so you should respect your Mother-in-Law’s wishes first. Furthermore, the monk should know about how children need to respect elders, so if you simply explained to him that your mother-in-law is old and really really wants to make this offering, he would probably understand. You should be trying to persuade the monk, not your mother-in-law.
Next, let’s talk about the gossiping incident. This teacher said, “I found out that you talked about my problems to my friends at the supermarket. If you ever have any problems with me, please let me know directly…You don’t need to involve other people.”
On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with what she said. But can you feel why your mother-in-law got angry? If you cannot find the reason, how can you prevent the same problem from occurring in the future? You think she just has problems, but you didn’t consider the possibility that perhaps the problem is yourself.
You directly accused your mother-in-law of gossiping behind your back, and then you ordered her to just talk to you directly in the future. You are basically attacking her ego and making her feel disrespected, so of course she will get upset and deny it.
We need to be more soft, caring, and tactful with our speech. For example, I might say, “Dear mother, I am trying to improve myself, but I know I still have lots of problems. If you ever see problems with me, I would really appreciate it if you can tell me.” Moreover, I would ask multiple times, each time with a real smile. Eventually, the mother-in-law would know that I am sincere about wanting her advice, and that I am not opposing her in any way.
Those are my thoughts for everyone to consider. In summary, we shouldn’t put the blame on others and think, “They are just unreasonable like that. They are testing my patience.” We need to find the real reason for their anger, and that usually is the way we treated them. We should try to learn from every experience, and that means we need to reflect on the reason for the problem AND how we can prevent the same problem from occurring again.
I’m a pretty straightforward person as well, so this story definitely resonated with me. Like that person, I need to learn to be more polite and soft in my speech sometimes. Confucius said,
“If one does not learn etiquette, they cannot establish themselves in the world.”
(Original Text: 不學禮，無以立)
Indeed, no matter how talented someone is, if that person is impolite, then he would make many enemies without even realizing it. I have had this experience, and both sides feel wronged. In a previous blog post, I shared an experience where I felt like I was helping them but they were not appreciating it; meanwhile, they felt like I was being arrogant.
Etiquette is all about respect. When we treat others politely, we raise their status and lower our own. If that person really respected her mother-in-law and viewed her as above herself, she wouldn’t say things like “Just tell me directly,” especially not with an annoyed tone of voice. Towards elders of higher status, we naturally ask for advice in a polite and respectful manner.
I also learned the importance of learning from a wise teacher. When I listened to that person share her story, I thought what she did was right. But when the teacher analyzed her story and explained her faults, I realized that I didn’t think critically enough.
I think this quote by Mencius is a great summary：
“If you treat others lovingly but others do not return your love, reflect on your love. If you manage others but others don’t listen, reflect on your wisdom. If you treat others politely but others do not return your respect, reflect on your respect. When your actions do not achieve your intended results, reflect on yourself.”
(Original Text: 愛人不親反其仁，治人不治反其智，禮人不答反其敬。行有不得者，皆反求諸己。)