“You should write those down.”
We recently moved to Hartsville, South Carolina, and I was talking with a woman I met at a reception. She was impressed by one of my mother’s common sayings.
My mother had many gifts, and one of them was condensing wisdom into memorable phrases. My father sometimes called her “The Queen of The Aphorisms.” Here are a few of Mom’s sayings I remember.
“That’s a fact. We don’t have to argue about it, we can look it up.”
Sometimes these spirited discussions at our family dinner table would veer close to fisticuffs. That happened when my sister and I took opposite views of what the truth was. That’s when Mom stepped in with her bit of wisdom and we sprang into action to find the facts.
First, we marched to our little reference library, including a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica and yearly updates. If we didn’t find the answer there, we called the reference desk at the New York Public Library.
Looking up facts is important. You can’t make good fact-based decisions with bad facts.
“If you can’t find the time to do it right, how will you find the time to do it over?”
I was always in a hurry to get things done. My mother believed you should do everything as well as you could. That meant taking the time to do it right.
I still often prioritize finishing fast over doing good work. When that happens, I hear my mother’s voice in my head. Then I slow down, take a deep breath, and pay attention.
“There is no misbehavior, there is only behavior.”
I was a disruptive kid in elementary school, I also asked a lot of questions that sometimes made my teachers uncomfortable. Then the teachers called mom down to school for a conference. Teachers liked to talk about “misbehaving.” Mother didn’t believe there was any such thing. She refused to use the word “misbehavior.”
Mom believed people do things for a reason. She also believed if you understood that reason, you’d make wise choices about what to do to change the situation. She thought “misbehavior” was a label that offered no insight into the why of things.
“Punishment” was another word my mother never used. Instead, she always talked about “consequences.” She thought consequences should be the natural result of behavior. She never punished me, instead, she delivered the consequences of my actions.
“Punishment” is something one person does to another person. “Consequences” are things you bring on yourself.
“Remember who you are.”
I heard that phrase every night when I headed out to be with my friends. Mom wasn’t asking me to do something mystical. She was reminding me that my behavior reflected on others. She wanted me to remember that I was someone in a web of relationships that included my family and everybody who knew me. Who I was to them depended on how I acted.
What you say and what you do determines who you are to others. Act like the person you want to be.
“What good can we make of this?”
I saved the best for last. “What good can we make of this?” was my mother’s standard response to anything difficult. She asked it any time things didn’t go the way she wanted. That included her cancer diagnosis.
Mom was diagnosed with lymphoma in the late 1960s. Her doctor prescribed chemotherapy, which was new and almost experimental. Mom decided that the way to make good on the cancer diagnosis was to keep a diary of how the chemotherapy affected her.
She started a chemotherapy diary. Every day, she wrote how she felt, what she ate, and what she did. Every few months, she sent the diary to her doctor.
I learned a lot from my mother’s sayings, and many of them have stayed with me. The most powerful is the question “What good can we make of this?” I urge you to ask it a lot. Don’t just ask it when things go bad. Ask it every day. Ask it about every encounter.