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Is it my responsibility to know what you want?

I've been very busy over the past couple of weeks, and one day, my mother suddenly got very upset at me, complaining that she hasn't had any time to talk to me properly over the past couple of weeks.

I told her,

"But we set 5PM as our talk time every day. Why didn't you say something sooner? Why did you hold in your worries for so long? If you had told me earlier, I would've stopped what I was doing to talk to you. You have to tell me what you're thinking. I can't read your mind!"

I told this to one of my friends, and she told me,

"Actually, I'm guilty of that too. Sometimes, I say one thing like 'Oh it's fine', but actually I'm not happy inside. Yes, your mom could have been more clear in her communication. But you could have been more loving too. Isn't love all about sensing the other person's unspoken needs?"

What is Real Love?

I remember a teacher said,

"If you wait until your parents tell you that they're thirsty to get them a cup of water, then you are already not filial."

(filial means being a loving child towards your parents).

At the time, I thought this kind of standard is unfair. In western society, we grow up learning that the onus is on us to tell others what we want, and the onus is on others to tell us what they want. But as I reflected more on this, I realized that this kind of relationship is not real love. It is transactional, like business. In business, I tell you what I want, and you have to give it to me if you want my money.

But real love is not transactional. Real love is like when new parents use all their attention to sense what their infant needs.

It would be ridiculous if the parents demanded the infant to clearly speak what he needs. So indeed, real love is sensing what others need and then taking initiative to give it to them before they ask. It should also involving sensing what makes the other person unhappy and then taking initiative to get rid of that before they need to ask.

“Whatever my parents like, I will do my best to provide. Whatever my parents dislike, I will do my best to rid.”

We can apply real love to other relationships too. In a good marriage, we see both people taking initiative to help each other without being asked. In a good teacher-to-student relationship, the teacher senses what is best for the student and takes initiative to provide that. In return, the student naturally respects and admires the teacher. In a good business-client relationship, the business takes initiative to sense what the customer needs and then provides it to them. In return, the customer naturally becomes loyal and supportive towards the business.

So let's return to the original question: Is it my responsibility to know what you want? Well, if I truly love and care about someone, then I should take initiative to sense what they need and give it to them. Even if I guess wrong, they can sense and appreciate my good intentions. If I just want a transactional relationship, then I don't need to do that.

Exemplar: Huang Xiang’s Love For His Father

During the Han Dynasty in ancient China, there lived a 9-year-old boy named Huang Xiang. His mother died when he was young, and his father was sad and had to work hard to raise him alone.

In the evenings, his father often read books at his desk. In the summer, it was very hot and hard to fall asleep at night. Wanting to make his father comfortable, Huang Xiang would sneak into his father’s bedroom, then fan the sheets so that they would be cool to the touch. Then he would invite his father to sleep.

In the winter, it was very cold. During this time, he would sneak into his father’s room and warm the sheets with his own body heat. Then he would invite his father to sleep.

This went on for a long time, and the father thought the bed was magical. One day, he learned that it was his son doing this for him the whole time, and he felt extremely touched and gratified to have such a loving and filial son.

From the story above, we can see that Huang Xiang really sensed his father’s emotions of sadness and tiredness at the beginning. Then he took initiative to make his father more comfortable and happy. Moreover, he kept his actions a secret, which shows his sincerity. He was not looking for praise. His only intention was to add happiness and reduce sadness for his father.

Obstacles to Real Love

What are common obstacles to real love? The two biggest obstacles that we have to overcome are busyness and selfishness.

When we are busy, as I was over these past couple of weeks, our mind is not present. We hear the person's words, but our mind is thinking about other things, so we cannot sense the other person's emotions or needs.

When we are selfish, all our energy is focused on what WE want and how WE feel rather than what THEY need and how THEY feel. For example, when my mother told me I need to be less busy, I thought of all the things I wanted to do, not about how she was worried about me. My self-centeredness prevented me from being truly loving and sensing her good intentions for me.

Therefore, if we want to be truly loving people to those that we care about, we need to guard against busyness and selfishness. Only then can we have a truly loving heart. Since our parents gave us this kind of real love when we were infants, it is only fitting that we try to return real love back to them.

Although I regret my mistake of not being loving enough to my mother, regret is not enough. I need to have a solution to prevent the same mistake in the future. So in the future, I should remind myself that no matter how busy I am, I ought to prioritize quality time with family. It goes against human sentiment to neglect parents (who we owe the most gratitude to) yet treat others well (e.g., friends, colleagues, in-laws, etc.).


Who are the really important people in your life? The next time you talk to them, try to be fully present with them and sense their needs, then take initiative to give it to them without them having to ask.


Weekly Wisdom Newsletter #190

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