It's the end of another year! I am busier than usual during this holiday time because I'm taking an online course from China, and they don't celebrate Christmas or January 1, so I actually class on both these days. In fact, I had a big assignment due on December 31. But regardless of how busy we are, we should make time for some year-end reflection! This year, I have four big learnings:
1: Memento Mori / Cherish Time
I am a big fan of Stoicism, and a core idea in Stoicism is Memento Mori, which means "being mindful of death". I even have a Memento Mori necklace.
When we remember that we can die at any moment, we wouldn't take our time or loved ones for granted. Instead, we would use our time to do what really matters, and we would let our loved ones know that we love them.
At the end of September, my grandmother in China suddenly got injured really badly. She was afraid she might pass away, so she called me and my parents and asked me to come as soon as possible. My parents and I rushed over. Fortunately, she is much better now and is on an improving trend. I ended up spending a couple months with my grandmother, and I really cherished that time with her. I seized opportunities to talk with her, to do stuff with her, or just to sit by her side. As a result, we are much closer, and I have peace of mind knowing that I didn't waste my time with her.
Recently, a friend told me his dad suddenly got critically ill. Looking back, he wished he had spent more quality time with his dad. None of us can guarantee that we or our loved ones will still be here tomorrow, so we should express our love frequently, and if we have conflict, we should try to end each day on good terms.
This year, I also watched a great movie called Soul, which I wrote about here.
A core message in the movie is to cherish the small things in daily life, whether it's a simple meal, or a soft breeze, or a nice song. Happiness is dependent on our attitude, and when we have an attitude of gratitude, when we cherish every moment, we will naturally be happier.
2: Overcoming Anger
As I review my blog topics over this past year, I noticed that I wrote quite a lot on overcoming anger, such as
Getting angry feels terrible afterwards, so I will reflect and maybe write a blog article afterwards. This year, I realized that one of my big anger triggers is being misunderstood and unfairly criticized by my mother specifically. If it's other people, I don't take it too seriously because I don't expect them to understand my situation, nor do I expect them to be humble and careful with their speech. But I think that my mother should understand me, that she should ask me about my situation before criticizing, and that she should know I'm a very logical and careful person.
Ancient philosophers all teach us that the root of our suffering is demands towards outside factors, which are uncontrollable by ourselves. I can't control other people, so when I have demands towards how they should think or behave, and then they don't meet my demands, I get upset. In order to let go of this demand, I need to understand the other person, to see that their behavior is actually very reasonable.
For example, I noticed that pretty much all parents will misunderstand and criticize their children. My mother is already a lot better than most parents, and I am very grateful for that. This year, I realized that just because someone is very close to you and knows you very well, it doesn't mean they should not misunderstand you. People are complex, situations are complex, everything is always changing, and communication gets forgotten, so even with people who should know us well, misunderstandings are bound to happen. Now that I realize this, I shouldn't get so upset or surprised when misunderstandings happen, and I should practice responding to misunderstandings in a calm and caring manner.
When I think from a parent's perspective, I doubt any parent intentionally wants to make their child feel wrongfully criticized. They're not thinking, "Today, I'm going to jump to a conclusion and take the risk of unfairly criticizing my child! Because…why not?" Usually, what happens is they see our behavior, and then they get worried.
If they get too worried, they'll become emotional and irrational, and then start complaining or criticizing. I know firsthand that it's hard to remain rational when we have strong emotions like worry, so I should be more understanding.
There's a common saying in Confucianism that goes,
"When things don't go according to your wishes, reflect on yourself."
In other words, I am responsible for my situation, not other people, so I need to figure out what I did wrong to result in this conflict. There's no way they are 100% at fault. After more reflection on the times I got angry this year, I've noticed two types of situations that lead to me feeling wronged and then angry.
The first type is when small worries accumulate in my mother, and I don't notice. At the beginning, my mother doesn't say anything, but she is slightly worried. Once the accumulation reaches a tipping point, she criticizes and complains a lot, and then I feel wronged because it seems to me like her anger came out of nowhere. So the problem is that I am not sensitive enough to her feelings, and I don't think about how she might interpret certain actions or events that I think are fine. Hence, I need to practice thinking from other people's perspective more.
The second type of situation is when I make what seems to be a logical decision, but there was an unexpected negative outcome due to factors I didn't know about, and then my mom criticizes my judgment. I feel wronged because I think "You shouldn't blame people for not knowing what they didn't know. I already considered all the factors I knew at the time, what more can I do?" But this is rather immature.
Mature people don't argue blame, mature people take responsibility for the situation even if they are not to blame, and they focus on solving the problem rather than arguing who caused or didn't cause the problem.
A mature person would also be able to affirm himself rather than seeking affirmation from others. If I were more mature, I would think, "It's OK, I know I made the best decision using what I knew at the time. If others doubt my judgment, that's normal because they can't read my mind, and they don't know my reasons for making that decision. I don't need others' affirmations to have a good conscience." Then I would be able to remain calm, which would influence my mother to calm down too.
If I argue blame, I seem emotional, which then makes my mother worry even more about my judgment, so she criticizes more. Therefore, I need to improve my maturity, to take responsibility for things that aren't directly my fault, and to remain calm when facing unexpected problems.
3: Relationship Intelligence
Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin said,
“Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that a key—maybe the key—to a happy life is strong relationships.”
But oftentimes, relationships are complicated, messy, and troublesome. That's why it's so important that we continuously improve our relationship intelligence.
The worst is when we have good intentions, but we end up creating conflict. Isn't that just so unfair? But we shouldn't blame others for not seeing our good intentions, we should blame ourselves for lacking sensitivity and relationship intelligence. We are all human, so we will all make mistakes. The important thing is that we learn and improve from each mistake.
This year, I learned that before doing what we think is a favor for someone, we should check if they actually want it. And before asking others to do something that we think is good for them, we should consider their ability and time first. I wrote more about this topic here: Don’t let your good intentions trouble others.
Another situation is giving advice. No one is perfect, and when we see other people's problems, we will probably want to advise them. This year, I even had a fellow teacher ask me for advice. Unfortunately, my advice caused some conflict. Later, I learned that when giving advice, it's really important to be humble and not pushy. If we believe that we are definitely right, that they are definitely wrong, then when we give the advice, we will seem arrogant. No one likes an arrogant person, so they might resist our advice not because the advice is bad, but because they don't like our arrogant manner.
In order to be more humble when giving advice, we should remember that we can't understand all the minute details of their situation because every person's situation is extremely complex. If we cannot understand all the minute details, then we really can't be so confident that our advice will be very helpful. Moreover, there are plenty of better people out there with better advice than I could give, so I shouldn't feel like my advice is excellent, it's simply the best advice that I can give. I wrote more on this topic here: Don't be so sure of yourself.
Some other blog articles from this year related to relationship intelligence include
4: Decision Making
Aside from happy relationships, the ability to make good decisions is another extremely important key to a good life. As billionaire investor Ray Dalio said,
"The quality of your life ultimately depends on the quality of your decisions."
This year, I compiled six principles for making effective decisions, which I wrote about here. Out of these six, the one that I think about the most is this one:
"Do not just consider the present action, but also consider its side effects. Do not just consider immediate effects, but also consider the long-term effects. Do not just consider the effects on one person, but also consider the effects on the greater whole."
Another realization I had is that what might seem like a small decision in the moment can end up having big consequences, so it's important to be cautious and thoughtful even with seemingly small decisions. That means considering side effects, long-term effects, and effects on other people.
For example, after arriving at my grandmother's place, I grew some itchy spots on my leg. I think it might be an allergic reaction to food, but I don't know which food, so I need to be very cautious about what I eat. When relatives come over and offer me foods that I usually don't eat, I can feel tempted and even pressured to eat some, but I need to be wise.
If I eat them for the sake of being polite, then although I might have created short-term benefit (they are happy I ate it), I might create bigger long-term harm (I grow more itchy spots, I am uncomfortable all day, and my productivity goes down), and it might trouble others (my family members get worried, they have to find medicine for me, and the food giver feels guilty for unintentionally harming me). In the past, I wouldn't even think of these things. I'd probably just eat it…Now that I've learned this principle, I can be much wiser and more thoughtful in decisions.
To be clear, this doesn't mean I don't eat any at all. One of my key learnings from 2022 is to follow The Middle Way, which teaches us to avoid extremes and to find the appropriate amount or balance.
I can eat a small bit to be polite, and then wait and see if my body has a reaction. If there is a reaction, it won't be too much since I ate such a small amount, and I'll know not to eat it next time. If there isn't a reaction, then I can eat more next time, though I shouldn't increase the dosage too much. Following the Middle Way is another aspect of wisdom. From this example, we can see that even small decisions require deep wisdom.
My mentor often says,
"Are you truly living life, or are you just letting life slip by?"
For me, I think one indicator that I am consciously living my life is that I keep learning and improving, and I definitely had that in 2023. On a day to day basis, there's going to be progression and regression, but I hope that my overall change at the end of each year is an improvement. 2024 is a leap year, so let's all leap to new bounds this year!
Weekly Wisdom #270