Ever since my siblings and I were in elementary school, my mother’s pearls have been circulating in our minds. For a while I may have thought there were no new pearls to be shared, but my mom continues to surprise us with hidden gems of wealth, right at the moments we happen to need them. I heard this particular pearl recently when venting my frustrations about difficult people to my mother. I later learned it actually has its origins as a koan, or philosophical query, in Zen Buddhism: “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?” In its original context, it provokes thought about the abstract concept of duality versus non-duality.
Since its inception, however, this koan has evolved to take on varied meanings. It has, for example, become something of a folk saying in many areas of the world, including my mother’s homeland of Kerala, India. In its repurposed form, it can also be said: “One angry person alone does not an argument make—it takes both people to create a fight.” It tells us that, no matter how difficult it might be, it’s smart to choose your battles wisely rather than indiscriminately confront all problematic situations or people. There are some occasions in which it is simply not worth our time or efforts to engage a troublesome person in their difficulty or anger.
That is not to say that we should become doormats and allow people to take advantage of us. Such a fate is a very real possibility for people who stray to the other extreme and indiscriminately avoid all conflict. For people like myself who have tended to lean this way in the past, it’s no fast transition to recognize that my voice is important too. But once Irealized that fact, I gained fulfillment from being direct and honest while still being flexible and gentle. It’s a delicate balance, but one that I think we can all continually strive for.
Taking efforts to avoid a clash may manifest in many ways—on the hospital floors with peers and superiors; in the office with colleagues and bosses; in the classroom with competitive or selfish classmates. It may be biding your time until a family member’s—or our own—frustrations or anger have subsided, and having a productive discussion when both parties are more amenable to it. It may mean swallowing one’s pride and admitting fault to friends (or, more difficult: to less-than-friends). It may mean having an extra ounce of patience for loved ones, even when we feel like our ends are frayed and rapidly unraveling. Taking that extra time to breathe and reflect can prevent us from saying words we don’t mean—words that cannot be unsaid or unfelt. We have all been on the receiving end of words like that. Knowing and remembering what it feels like may in fact be the best motivation for us to substitute kinder words. Our patience and refusal to engage unnecessary conflict may be the best way to defuse a charged situation: “It takes two hands clapping to make a noise.”
My mother is a very simple woman. Though she may be a well-respected physician at Columbia University, you might never know it if you saw her. She dresses simply, she speaks kindly, and she cares endlessly. Her wealth lies not in her tangible possessions—she doesn’t even own a pearl necklace. Her pearls are of wisdom, and it is those pearls that I hope to share with you.