‘To make someone else happy, you have to understand that person’s needs, suffering, and desires and not assume you know what will make them happy.’
A few weeks ago I read these words by Thich Nhat Hanh to my students. The quote is part of a longer piece on friendship – shown in the image on the left.
I was very surprised by the reaction to the quotation in class – it was like dynamite! An immediate and heated response came from female members of the class about inappropriate gifts from men. One student recalled a vivid, childhood memory of her parents having a blazing row. The apparent cause of the argument was the Christmas gift from her father to her mother of a BATH RACK (a bathroom accessory now generally obsolete). Class members quickly joined in with similar stories of their own – there was an undercurrent of indignation. The solitary male student in the class, then chipped in with his own story of an impersonal present from a close female relative – showing that the unappreciated gifts scenario can work both ways.
I was inwardly a little dismayed – I hadn’t imagined we’d talk about gifts, let alone get into this potentially sexist territory. I reassured myself with the expectation that the discussion would go differently in the next class. But it didn’t – the topic of unwelcome and unappreciated gifts came up again.
The following day I read the friendship piece in another class. One student responded by saying she’d recently been taking great care to really listen to her friends, instead of being in a hurry to voice her own opinions. This was a very useful contribution to our discussion – if our approach is to truly listen, then many problems will be solved (even perhaps the giving of ‘bad’ gifts!)
However there was no doubt the quotation had touched a nerve. For some time afterwards, I pondered what that might be about and I asked around. I concluded a few things: gifts made between friends, partners, husbands and wives can be imbued with significance beyond the actual present itself. The gifts are seen to demonstrate how much love and understanding is, or isn’t felt by the giver. This puts a lot of pressure on the giver, because choosing presents that will be truly appreciated can be very difficult and time consuming – even when dedicated listening has been employed.
Without wishing to be sexist, I’ve noticed that women generally put more effort into the present choosing task than men. Perhaps this is a cultural phenomenon – who knows? But regarding the undercurrent of indignation in women towards men that was apparent in class, I examined my own feelings carefully in considering these issues. It can be so easy to be dismissive where there’s difference, for example between men and women, and to think that our own views, hobbies, passions, interests are the more valid ones. As Thich Nhat Hahn says, if we want harmony we need to try ‘to understand that person’s needs, suffering and desires.’
I undertook my own personal research project into these issues. I have a male friend who is very interested in cars. Autocar is his bedtime reading and he has three cars – two of them are Lotuses. As a yoga teacher and someone who loves flowers, I have more of an affinity with lotus flowers than Lotus cars. But I decided to try to understand what the Lotus cars mean to my friend. I asked him ‘what does your Lotus mean to you?’ I could see that he really appreciated my question and was pleased to be asked. When I stopped to think about it, I could also see how much pleasure he gets from taking his cars to bits and putting them back together again – in a better way. So although I don’t love cars, I love the aspect of my friend that likes to dismantle and reassemble them. Now that I understand my friend a little better, maybe I will give him a Lotus part as a birthday present – a Koni Front Shock Absorber perhaps!