Expensive lessons my mother taught me for free (v1)

This has been in my drafts for a long while now. I always waited for the perfect day to write it, but many months have passed, and I haven’t found that day.

Maybe it doesn’t exist.

So I’ll write it now, on an imperfect day. I’m quite exhausted. I think it’s from the second jab of vaccine (that was almost 10 days ago, so is it really the vaccine or something else?). I wish I was in a better head space, more rested, with more free, unscheduled time… but, maybe I’m asking too much.

Maybe this is it – this is how I’ll write: by finding imperfect pockets of time and using an imperfect me.

Ok, no more rambling. Let’s start writing.

This is week two.

Lesson 1: Don’t be careless with your life; once you lose something important, all your achievements will become meaningless

When I was in university, I had a bad habit of working myself to exhaustion in the computer labs to finish an assignment. This would usually mean leaving the labs when it was way past dusk at 11.30pm or later.

I would get in my car, and attempt to drive home. I shouldn’t have – research shows that driving while sleepy is equivalent to drunk driving.

I don’t disagree. 3 out of 5 times, I would be so unfocused that I’d accidentally deform the auto-gate in front of my house by trying to drive into the house before the gate was completely opened.

That would never have happened if I wasn’t drunk driving.

My mom was quite patient with me at first, but eventually became worried about what might happen if I let this habit continue.

So one night, she sat me down and said,

“Lu Wee, I know, you are driven and ambitious. You want to spend all this time become really good at what you do. But don’t forget that there is a price for everything. If you are relentless in your pursuit for ambition, you might lose something important.

For example, if you drove home every night in the tired state you are in, you might be fine on most nights, but there will inevitably be that one night where something disastrous will happen, and you will lose a limb. Or worse, your entire life.

And everything you have done thus far – all your effort – will become meaningless.

Only foolish people chase ambition relentlessly, and lose both ambition and themselves. Wise people find a balance, and get both.”

After my mother told me this, I contemplated it deeply and realised that she was right. I could continue to be foolish, or I could change.

Then onwards, I made it a rule to never drive sleepy, and to always leave a work location before 10pm (or earlier, if I get sleepy), and be in bed by 11pm so I’m ready for the next day.

I’ve kept to this rule about 95% of the time in the last 13 years and it’s the one thing I feel that has helped me find sanity even in the most hectic periods in my life.

Lesson 2: Always keep your promise, even if nobody remembers it

If you want my mother to do something for you, you only have to tell her once. You don’t need to chase her about it. If it is important, she’ll do it for you. No reminder necessary.

The few times she does forget, she’ll apologise and make sure to do it for you.

There was never a moment when my mother sat me down to tell me to do exactly this. She just did it so often that one day, I came to realisation that this was her character. Like breathing, she kept promises without thinking about the action anymore.

I was in secondary school. I took a look myself and realised that I did not embody this character at all. In fact, I often allowed myself to make promises I didn’t intend to keep. Only until I was caught not following through, would I reluctantly carry out the task I myself promised to do in the first place.

I felt ashamed of myself. I vowed to change and make every word I say count, even if nobody cared. It was really hard at first, but almost two decades later, I realise how important this quality is when it comes to maintaining good relationships with people.

Lesson 3: Be charitable, sincerely and quietly

Since I could remember, my mother always donated to charity. But she never talked about in front of anyone, unless they were interested to donate as well.

She donated small and large sums to people in need, and for only one reason: because she thought they needed it. She didn’t do it for a potential blessing she felt she could receive from a God, or karma.

She donated to the Kidney foundation because, “how painful it must be for them to need to go through dialysis every other day.”

She donated to orphanages because, “how sad must it be not to have parents.”

She cooked for friends who couldn’t afford meals. Even if they cursed at her.

She donated when she had a lot, and donated still when she had very little.

She never forced me or my siblings to donate, but encouraged us to help only if we wanted to.

But all her children became very charitable. Not from listening to her lecture us about the need for charity, but because of her actions.

From her actions, we learned that when doing charity, the most important thing is to do it with your heart, sincerely, and do it quietly.

Lesson 4: To teach someone important, first be the best example

When I was around 17 years old, I learned about a book called Di Zi Gui (弟子規). It is a Chinese ancient text detailing rules for children to follow for proper conduct.

Yet, an old monk shared that, while it is a book for teaching children, its best application isn’t to be taught directly to them. It was for the parents to read, learn and embody the lessons in themselves.

Then, as children observe their parents’ actions, they too will learn how to become good people.

And this was exactly what my mother had done throughout her life.

She taught me to keep my promises and to be charitable, not by teaching me about it, but by being the best examples of it.

So whenever I want someone to do something for me, I make sure that I am myself the best example of the behaviour first.

To be continued…

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