A couple weeks ago, I shared a story about a conflict that someone had with her mother-in-law. A key learning from that story was that sometimes, we think we are totally right and the other person is clearly at fault. But if we were more humble and wise, we would see our mistakes. When we see our own mistakes, we would stop feeling resentment and instead feel clarity on how to improve ourselves and prevent the same problem from occurring in the future.
I was recently reminded of that story when a student asked me for some advice regarding some conflict he was having with his home room teacher. He believed that his home room teacher is quite illogical and unreasonable sometimes. I asked him to give some examples of conflicts with that teacher.
He said, "Earlier this morning, she came to remind me to submit a university application by Sunday. I said, 'Yes I know. Here is my plan, which explains what I will do day by day.' The teacher said again, 'OK just make sure you submit it by Sunday.' I said, 'Yes I know, my plan says that I will submit it by Sunday.' She said, 'You should pay attention to your attitude.' I got annoyed because I was simply replying her concern. I don't understand why she reminded me a second time after I showed her my plan.
Another time, we needed to set up some tables and chairs for an activity. We have always done it a certain way, but the home room teacher wanted to do it a different way. I said, 'If you do it that way, it will have this kind of problem. It’s better if we do it the usual way.” But she still insisted on doing it her way without any logical reason, so I got annoyed and raised my voice at her."
These two examples really reminded me of that daughter-in-law who said to her mother-in-law, "Mom, if you have any problems with me, just tell me directly. You don't need to tell others behind my back." If we just look at the content of those words, it seems reasonable. But when we look at the attitude behind those words, we see opposition, annoyance, and arrogance, and therein lies the source of their conflict. This student has the same problem with his home room teacher.
The First Incident
I said, "OK, I can see why you might get upset at your home room teacher. But let's try to jump out of your perspective and see the whole situation more objectively. When your home room teacher reminded you to submit your application on Sunday, what kind of intention did she have? Was it negative, neutral, or positive?"
He said, "Probably positive. She was just trying to remind me to do something I need to do."
I said, "I agree. But you did not see her positive intentions. Instead, you got annoyed at her. Why?"
He wasn't sure.
I continued, "I think it might be because you were overly focused on the matter. She mentioned the application, and right away you said you already know. If you were focused on her kind intention, you would have said 'thank you' first. Try seeing things from her perspective. If you do something nice for others, but the other person treats you disrespectfully in return, how would you feel? Most of us would feel annoyed or upset. That’s just normal human sentiment."
He nodded slowly in agreement.
I then added, "We can go deeper here. At the beginning when she reminded you the first time, you did not feel gratitude. Instead, you felt annoyed. I think you might have unfair prejudice towards her. You often view her actions as illogical or causing trouble. But let me ask you: Do you think anyone purposely tries to be stupid? Do you think anyone purposely tries to be bad? Of course not! We all do the things we do because we believe it is the right thing to do. Besides, your home room teacher is a kind person! There’s no way she is purposely trying to cause trouble or upset you. So why do you have to view her actions as causing trouble?
So the root of your problem is your unfair prejudice towards her. Every time you have a conflict with her, the matter is different. This time it's the university application, next time it's the tables, another time it will be something else."
He nodded and said, "Yes! I feel like there's always new things arising that cause conflict between us!"
I continued, "Exactly. Even though the matter changes each time, the root of the conflict never changes, and that root is your attitude towards her. If you truly respect and appreciate this teacher, you would’ve said something like, 'Thank you teacher. I have already made a plan to make sure I submit it on time. Could you have a look and let me know if it is OK?'
Or even better, you would have taken initiative to report this plan to her before she had to remind you. So basically, she came to you with positive intentions, yet you replied with negative emotions. So the problem actually started with you, not with her. When you encounter a problem, don't blame others, always reflect on yourself.
He said, "Wow I never thought of it that way. How would you think to say, 'Thank you teacher. Here is my plan. Can you check to see if it is OK?' I feel like I can't think of that in the moment."
I replied, "Great question. Like I said earlier, you need to cultivate a respectful attitude. When you truly respect someone, you would naturally know to say this. Have you ever heard of Seven Timely Acts of Love? Those are really important for cultivating respect. Anyway, I'll just give you three to practice with your teacher: Ask for guidance, check your understanding, and report your results. You should do this towards all elders, whether it be parents, teachers, or leaders. For example, after our discussion, you can report your key learnings to that teacher. Then she would feel like you respect and trust her, and she can remind you of these lessons in the future too."
He looked a bit reluctant, so I said, "Maybe you feel like your trust level towards her is not there yet. But she is a good person. She truly wants the best for you, and she has lots of life experience. Besides, the important thing is, you need to cultivate YOUR respect and humility. Let me ask you: Do you want to receive advice and guidance from wise elders?"
He said, "Of course."
I said, "OK, so if a wise elder sees the way you treat your home room teacher, would he want to give you advice? You need to learn from Emperor Tang. No matter who gives him criticism, he always accepts it without argument.
One time, someone criticized Emperor Tang unfairly. Afterwards, a minister said to him, 'Your highness, that person's criticism was completely wrong! Why didn't you argue back?' Emperor Tang said, 'If I had argued with him, then he would feel bad. After he leaves, he would tell people that he tried to advise the Emperor, but the Emperor argued with him. In that case, who would dare to advise me in the future?'
If you can be like Emperor Tang, then wise elders would definitely take initiative to give you advice."
He looked surprised but convinced.
The Second Incident
I decided to move on to the next incident. "Let's talk about your other incident regarding the table and chairs. You thought that your home room teacher was illogical for raising wanting to arrange the tables and chairs in a new way. But did you check with her why she wanted to do it that way?"
He said, "Yes. But her reason didn't make sense. She thinks it is a good idea, but if we actually do it, she'll realize the problem. I tried to explain it to her but she didn't listen. I understand you said I should respect her, but what if her idea is wrong?"
I said, "That is a very valid concern. Our elders are not sages. They have faults and problems too. Some are serious, some are minor. If they want to do immoral things like killing, stealing, cheating, or lying, then of course we need to stop them. But if it is something minor, then we can gently advise them. If they are still insistent, we should yield and let them have what they want. Otherwise, it will make them very annoyed and upset, and we don't want them to be upset. We can wait until they are in a better mood to try advising them again. In your case of arranging the tables and chairs, is that a major issue or a minor one?"
He said, "I guess it is pretty minor."
I said, "Exactly. So you are wrong for being so stubborn about it. I used to have conflict with my mother, but later I made a rule for myself: Harmony is more important than logic. Harmony is king. So when my mother asked me to do something that I felt was illogical, and she couldn't persuade me, I still did it anyway. These are all minor things. Maintaining harmony is a major thing."
He asked, "But why are you able to prioritize harmony when their idea is illogical? Don't you feel a little bit reluctant?"
I said, "Yes, at the beginning, I had to force myself. But over time, it gets easier. Ultimately, it goes back to cultivating our gratitude and respect towards the other person. In the case of my mother, I remind myself that without my mother, I would not be here today. Our parents go through so much hardship, trouble, and worry for us. If I make her upset, then that is like stabbing a loved one in the back.
In the case of your home room teacher, can you feel how hard she works for all of you students? She is not that young, and her health is not excellent, but she still works so hard for all of you. Without her, would you have this study environment? Can you feel that she really wants you to have a bright future, and that’s why she worries sometimes? Are we deserving of this kind of love? Do we repay their love with respect? If not, then shouldn’t we be ashamed of ourselves?
When we deeply appreciate the other person, we would not argue about every little thing, we’d let them have what they want because we want them to be happy. Maybe arranging the tables her way might be a bit inconvenient, but the way you made her feel is the important thing. You can do it her way first, then ask her again afterwards. Maybe once she realizes her method is not that great, she will change. But even if she doesn’t change, it’s fine because it’s a small matter, and making her happy is much more important. When she feels that you have a respectful attitude towards her, your relationship will naturally get better. So the root of everything goes back to your attitude.”
By this point, we had chatted for nearly two hours, and I could feel that his mentality towards himself and his home room teacher had started to change. He felt less confused and helpless in his conflicts with her, and he had some ideas for how to improve.
The problem that this student had is also a problem I am working on, and I think it is a problem most of us have. Hence, my intention for sharing this story is to help myself and others avoid this problem. It's easy for us to see other people's problems, but it's much harder for us to be aware of our problems. That's why when we have conflicts with others, it is often helpful to get advice from a wise, neutral third party.
In this case, I was able to help this student because that story of the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law was fresh in my head, and I didn't have any partiality towards the student or that home room teacher. But just because I am able to give this advice doesn't mean I can practice it consistently, so this is also a reminder for me to walk my talk and not be a hypocrite.
Let us all work towards this goal: When things don't go according to our wishes, don't blame others, don't blame circumstances, find our own problems and improve ourselves.
Weekly Wisdom #239