By Shoba Sreenivasan, Ph.D. & Linda E. Weinberger, Ph.D.
The Yupik, an indigenous people of Alaska, had the tradition of passing down wisdom from elders to the young. They called these stories “wise words.” The wise words were shared as stories both profound and potent. The Yupik placed value on elder wisdom. We may not always recognize when such valuable wisdom comes from our own mothers, but this Mother’s Day remember that listening is one of the greatest gifts of all.
Here are some wise words from our mothers:
My parents were immigrants from India. Growing up in the 1960s I wanted to be exactly the same as everyone: American. I viewed my mother as someone who did not understand how to be an American. My mother had an accent; my friends’ mothers did not. She wore “strange” clothing—a sari—where other kids’ moms dressed in “normal” dresses.
Consequently, my mother’s stories of her childhood in the 1930s and early 1940s in British-held India were not fascinating to me. They were filled with all sorts of strange relatives: a broadly defined term to reflect even a tangential familial association: for example, my mother’s sister’s husband’s sister’s husband’s grandmother. Many of these people met with tragedy: a capsized boat and an “uncle” who drowned because he did not know how to swim; the Guptis—whoever they were—and their heedless spending habits that lost them their fortune; or, quirky characters like my great-grandmother who didn’t know how to read or write, yet she formed a complex system of savings and loans among a group of female relatives.
Until very recently, I would listen with barely contained impatience. I had heard these stories so many times. Yet, had I? I could readily talk about the Yupik elders and their wise words, but I ignored the elder right in front of me. Now that I’m older, I reflect on my mother’s stories for what they are: life lessons.
— Dr. Shoba Sreenivasan
My parents were both in the Holocaust and lost most of their closest relatives. Despite my mother’s history, she was a positive and joyful person. She spoke of how important her family was to her and how you had to fight for what you wanted.
When I left for college, my mother had a hard time coping with the “empty nest.” A few months after my departure, she sent me a newspaper clipping from an advice column that said, “Healthy birds fly away.” She was telling me that she had accomplished exactly what she was meant to do; she was proud of herself and me.
Whenever I returned home to visit, my mother couldn’t wait to talk about all the latest news regarding the family, and the world in general. Through the years much of what my mother would talk about, she had already told me.
I thought that my listening was a gift I could give her.
The last time I spoke to my mother was two days before she had a massive stroke from which she died three days later. That last contact was during our weekly telephone call. This one lasted more than 90 minutes, where I spent the majority of time listening to her. She died just before her 71st birthday.
Now, I hear her words in my mind and know that they were the gift. My mother’s wisdom was revealed in the way she lived her life: full of optimism. She showed me, and all those who knew her, that despite experiencing unfathomable horrors and losses, a person can demonstrate the will not only to survive, but to live a good life that is hopeful. She instilled in me the perspective that it is much better to consider life as a “glass that is half full” than as a “glass that is half empty.” A small cognitive shift, but a profound one.
In allowing our mothers to speak their wise words into our ears, if we listen, we give them meaning; we allow them to engage in a life reflection, and we acknowledge and use their wisdom.
The Yupik elders said of their giving of wise words, “we talk to you because we love you.”This is the lesson we now know; our mothers spoke to us because they loved us.
—Dr. Linda E. Weinberger
Dr. Shoba Sreenivasan and Dr. Linda E. Weinberger are authors of the new book Psychological Nutrition, which encourages women to live happier and healthier lives by monitoring emotions that are consumed on a daily basis.