A Lifelong Search for Meaning: Lessons on Virtue, Grit, and Faith
Dr. Paul T. P. Wong’s autobiography is published in weekly installments. Stay updated here.
My Mother— An Epitome of Self-Transcendence
Mother died in 1999, but I have never shed any tears over her death. Even at her funeral, I felt the worst pangs of sorrow and my tears welled up, but I did not cry. I still grieve the loss, but I have never been able to cross the emotional threshold of letting my tears freely flow. I still don’t quite understand why.
Perhaps it is because my sorrow has transformed into something transcendental and spiritual. Or it is because I had lived overseas most of my adult life. However, the most likely explanation is that I have never formed an emotional attachment with her. I cannot remember a single occasion of being hugged by my mother, because she was not a cuddly person and had to manage a household of eight children.
I still recall the awkward experience of struggling inwardly with whether I should go to my mother’s room to say, “Hello” when she was lying sick in bed. I was about 10 years old, but for some strange reason, I was too embarrassed to face the intimate moment of going close to my mother’s bed and expressing my concern about her health. I was afraid that I would not know what to say when I went to her room.
I am still ashamed of my inability to handle intimate emotions and feel bad that I did not show my love when she needed it most. However, I am glad that I was able to make it up through actions rather than words on many other occasions.
A Special Bond with My Mother
For some reason, there was always a special bond between my mother and me. On special occasions, my mother always chose to take me along, rather than bringing my sister or one of my younger brothers.
Our birthdays were only one day apart, so we often celebrated our birthdays at the same time. Maybe she could sense that, of all her children, I was most like her in temperament and character.
I shared both her weaknesses and strengths. Both of us were impatient and intense, and our tendency to stutter got worse whenever we got excited or upset. We also shared the same spirit of kindness and generosity.
Ever since my childhood days, every new year I handed over all my “lucky money” to my mother for the family to use. When we were without a maid, I got up before my mother and finished the laundry with a wooden washboard. During those times, I was still in high school. Even though my hands and my back were hurting, my heart was full of joy, knowing that I was able to relieve mother of part of her daily drudgery.
In spite of our closeness, we were never close at the emotional level. In fact, I was closer to my “Nai Ma” (milk mother), because I still vaguely remember the warmth of sucking on her breast.
There are actually many dimensions to my special relationship with my mother:
- When I was a child, she was a schoolmaster.
- When I was a pre-teen, she was the most attractive woman.
- When I was a teenager, she was a tireless worker.
- When I was a young man, she was a helpless victim of tradition and fate.
- When I was a professor, she was an epitome of self-transcendental virtue.
- Now, when I am an old man, she is a praying angel watching over me.
Mother did not change. I did—or rather, my perceptions of her changed as I have grown older. She was all the above and much more. Her life story is worth telling and retelling because she was a paragon of motherhood according to traditional Chinese culture.
- She had only elementary school education, yet she was a capable transmitter of our family history and cultural values.
- She was stern in teaching her children, yet we all know that she loved each one of us more than her own life.
- She was tormented by Father’s infidelity, yet she forgave him totally and refused to divorce him.
- She never held a paid job, yet she was able to keep the family together through turbulent times and kept all her children on track.
- She suffered a great deal, yet she never wavered in her love for her family and her devotion to her responsibility.
- Her kindness was her greatness; her love for her family was her joy.
One can from this photo that her face shines with warmth and kindness. All her children loved and admired her unconditionally because they all knew how she sacrificed herself for them. It is her selfless love that held the family together.
Was she a fool who wasted her life in an oppressive feudal family, or was she a heroine who saved the family from falling apart? I don’t think that her life was wasted. Years ago, when I conducted the Guided Life Review group for seniors, several women had difficulty answering my question: What were your past achievements? They said that they were just housewives, and had never achieved anything worthwhile. Then I asked them: How about your children? How about your activities in churches or communities? One woman replied with a smile: “I have raised six children and they all turn out to be good people and have good jobs.” Well, that is a remarkable achievement! The real worth or value of a person’s life is not measured by degrees and honors, but by his or her impact on other people.
According to this measure, my mom accomplished a great deal. The most important moral values and virtues I cherish are not from books, but from her teachings and personal example. After all is said and done, the home is still the place where children learn most of their values.
A Victim of Traditional Chinese Marriage
Like most women in her generation, she was stuck in servitude and drudgery in the early years of her marriage, having to serve all her in-laws as an unpaid servant. Later, after my grandparents died, when they were finally able to set up their own family, her husband began his sexual escapades. Freed from my grandparents’ watchful eyes, his unbridled libido got him into all kinds of affairs. Trapped in a painful and loveless marriage, she still chose to stay with him, against the advice of all her friends.
In my mother’s days, marriage was not about romance and happiness—it was about contributing to the enhancement and continuation of the husband’s clan. Marriage was arranged by the parents or relatives, often through a matchmaker. In traditional Chinese marriage, the first step was to gather information to ensure that the potential bride came from a family of reputation and social-economic status compatible to that of the groom. The second step was to consult fortunetellers to make sure that the birthdates of the potential couples matched according to the Chinese Zodiac in terms of the eight cyclic characters for year, month, day, and hour of birth. This was an important step to ensure that the marriage would be blessed with good luck and fortune.
The fate of a woman was determined by which family she was married into because she had little or no choice in the matter of marriage. In those days, marrying into a Chinese family was like stepping into a stranger’s world, which demanded total dedication and self-denial in compliance to the all-consuming task of pleasing the husband’s parents and extended family.
Mother was born in 1910, the year of the dog, an animal with such admirable virtues as loyalty, honesty, kindness, and long-suffering. She was married to the Wong family when she was only 17, yet she was already well-trained to fulfill her role in a traditional feudal family.
As prescribed by traditional Chinese culture, the role included serving her parents-in-law and her husband in much the same way as a live-in full-time maid would. Her daily work included cooking, doing the laundry by hand, ironing, and cleaning. Of course, she was also expected to give birth to sons and educate them about the rules and values of the family. Her daily life and her fate were controlled by the head of the family, which was my grandpa. She did not have any privacy, nor had she any time to herself.
According to her account, hers was a very brutal and punishing schedule. At the end of her daily grind, she would be totally exhausted with pains and aches all over her. Worse still, she had to endure the malicious rumors from other members of the extended family, primarily from my Aunt Sun, wife of my Third Uncle. There was an intense rivalry between Mother and Third Auntie, because each time Mother gave birth to a son, Auntie gave birth to a daughter. Finally, Auntie named her seventh daughter “Bring a Brother”! This name seemed to do the trick because, finally, Auntie had a son. The final count: Mother had seven sons and two daughters, while Auntie had four daughters and one son.
The Tragedy of Watching Her First Daughter Die
No matter how many children a mother may have, seeing a child die is always traumatic. The circumstances surrounding my older sister’s death were both tragic and criminal. For some strange reason, Grandpa was dead set against Western medicine. He would not allow any medical doctor trained in the West to step in our door. Of course, his decision was final.
When my older sister was about one year old, she contracted an infectious disease and ran a high fever for many days. According to Mother, a few shots of penicillin might have saved her daughter’s life. Instead, Grandpa first brought in traditional Chinese medicine doctors who prescribed herbal medicine and gave her acupuncture treatment. When that did not work, he brought in Taoist Monks who did their ritualistic dance in front of the little girl to drive away the evil spirit. They also made her drink water mixed with ashes. Eventually, she became delirious and went into convulsions before she died.
Mother could only watch and pray as her daughter’s condition worsened. I could not even imagine the agony and anger she must have felt. Grandpa was criminally responsible for her daughter’s death, and yet she could not even utter the slightest protest. She literally “swallowed bitterness” (吃苦), which is the Chinese expression of suffering without complaint.
I don’t think she ever forgave herself for her daughter’s death, which, in her mind, was preventable. Could she rise up and rebel against an oppressive system without any support? Could she simply get out of the Wong family and return to her own family? She must have thought about these alternatives, but she chose to stay because of the centrality of the family in a Chinese woman’s life. For the same reason, she suffered hardships most of her life. The Chinese translation for enduring hardship is (受罪), which literally means doing hard time or enduring punishment without being guilty.
Broken Dreams and A Broken Heart
By dint of her diligence, strength of character, and total loyalty, she eventually gained the full acceptance and trust of my grandparents. The fact that she gave birth to so many boys also enhanced her status within the family. Finally, her position was further reinforced when Father became the sole provider for the entire Wong family.
According to her account, she had finally survived the long ordeal; she used the Chinese expression (熬), which means that she survived the boiling water in a slow cooker. She gained more control of her own life and the Wong family when my grandparents declined in health and influence. After both of my grandparents passed away, Father and Third Uncle decided to have their own separate households. Father’s sisters and youngest brother continued to stay with us until they got married. This change made Mother officially in charge of the affairs of Father’s household.
Unfortunately, the increased freedom and status did not bring the expected happiness. In fact, her life became worse and her future looked darker. Finally free from my grandpa’s authoritarian rule, Father wasted no time to reap the rewards of his own success. Having established his reputation as the “Insurance King” in Tianjin, he went to Shanghai and plunged into the new hedonic world of that city. After his return from Shanghai, he was no longer the same person—he had begun a life-long career in philandering.
As his business continued to prosper, he spent less and less time at home. We seldom saw him except during the weekends. He usually came home after the children were already asleep. Mother’s friends often reported to her about sightings of Father with another woman, but mother preferred to live in denial, saying that those women must have been his business contacts.
When Mother finally confronted Father, he simply shrugged off the problem as an inevitable part of doing business. “As long as I come home every night and provide well for the family, there should not be any problem,” he insisted. Success and money messed up his head, my mother concluded. She did not feel safe even in her own home, because he had pressured or seduced our maids to meet his sexual needs while Mother was sleeping.
The conflict between my parents became more frequent and intense. One night, Father did not come home until two in the morning. As soon he stepped into the house, Mother’s pent-up anger exploded. She was so angry that she banged her head against the wall repeatedly, trying to kill herself before his eyes. She eventually recovered from her bruised and bleeding forehead, but I don’t know if her broken heart ever healed.
When we moved to Hong Kong, Father managed to have his mistress shipped there as well. He bought a separate condo for her, and she gave birth to two more sons. We urged mother to file a divorce on grounds of infidelity and emotional abuse, but she steadfastly refused the idea. She did not want to break up the family for our sake. Finally, when Father was financially and physically broken, he stopped seeing his mistress, or else she left him for another man. Old age and physical decline finally succeeded in curing him of his sex addiction, when all my mother’s tears and prayers had failed to change him. In the end, we were pleased that in their old age, they were finally together looking after each other as a married couple, and we could visit them and enjoy the blessings of being a family.
Throughout her long life, my mother’s hopes were dashed again and again by circumstances beyond her control, but she always found new grounds for hope. After she became a Christian because of my witness, her faith provided a strong source of optimism. Whenever there was a crisis in the family or a problem with any one of her children, she would close her door and kneel before her bed, praying for hours. She had made the habit of praying for each one of her children every day. She was a small woman with a towering faith.
The Challenge of Raising Eight Children
All of us children were about one or two years apart. As far as I can recall, my mother was in a permanent state of pregnancy and giving birth. I wondered how she managed to bring us up properly, especially when none of us were “oil-saving lamps,” as the Chinese saying goes.
Of all the children, I might have caused my parents the least problems, but even I did things behind their back in my reckless youthful years, such as experimenting with gunpowder at home or venturing out in a rowing boat in spite of a storm warning. My two oldest brothers gave Mother the most trouble. Their stories will be told in later chapters.
Since we were so close together in age, quarreling and fighting among us siblings were inevitable. Most of the fights were between my two oldest brothers (David and Benedict) and two younger brothers (Constant and Giles). I was very close to my sister and Constant because of our proximity in age. The two youngest brothers (Joshua and Oscar) seemed to get along very well.
Mother devoted a considerable amount of time and energy administering discipline. She was a no-nonsense and strict disciplinarian. Her most frequently used teaching tool was to make us kneel down before a wall so that we could reflect on what we had done wrong. After we had been on our knees for half an hour, she would ask us to tell her whether we had examined ourselves and become aware of what we had done wrong. She tended to then explain the reason for the discipline and teach us moral lessons through stories.
Physical punishment was used only in cases of repeated offense or severe transgression, such as fist fighting or talking back to our parents. She would whip our palms or rear-ends with a feathered duster. I received this punishment only a couple of times; it was painful but effective. It helped us remember not to repeat the same offense again.
During debriefing, honoring the family and showing filial piety were among her favorite topics. She was well-versed in Confucian teaching on the centrality of the family as the basis for a stable society. The royal road to personal happiness was to maintain a harmonious and healthy family. The best way to honor the family was to develop a good character and achieve academic success. She often reminded us that we came from a long lineage of scholars and officials, and many of our ancestors were members of the Hanlin Academy, the most prestigious academic institute in imperial China.
However, as a child, I was most impressed by her story of a “headless” general, one of our legendary ancestors. According to Mother, this general was framed by evil officials and subsequently beheaded by the emperor. Later, the emperor discovered his innocence and restored his honor by establishing a statue as a lasting testimony to his contributions. The moral lesson I learned was that it was better to die with honor than live with disgrace.
I have no way to authenticate the historical accuracy of my mother’s stories about my ancestors, but her stories created in me a sense of certitude and confidence that I came from good stock and would do well no matter how bad my circumstances. Her stories also planted in me the idea that I should not do anything that would bring disgrace and shame to the family.
Her Life and Her Final Triumph
For most of my mom’s married life, she was all alone in her struggle. However, she did not give in, she did not give up, and she simply confronted her hard fate much the same way as Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to ceaselessly pushing a rock to the top of a mountain only to see it roll back down to the plain.
According to Albert Camus, this futile toil did not crush Sisyphus with despair and agony. Instead, Sisyphus said “yes” to life and to his harsh fate and committed himself to creating a sense of joy. Camus (1955/1991) thus concluded, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (p. 123).
I often wonder: How did Mother keep her positive attitude, with all the negativity around her and all the unfair demands on her? Each morning, as she faced the mountains of tasks awaiting her, what went through her mind? How did she view her life? How did she manage to keep on going heroically?
I suspected that she knew something Camus might not have known. We must imagine my mother happy, not because she was taking a defiant stance against the gods and struggling to gain a sense of personal dignity and authenticity. On the contrary, her secret of victory was that she was able to take herself out of the equation and totally devote herself to something bigger—her children and her children’s children. She had something that Sisyphus did not have. She had hope and purpose. By faith, she could foresee the breaking of a new dawn after a long and terrifying long night. She could foresee that all her hard work and self-sacrifice would translate to many happy and successful little Wongs. She was not disappointed.
Paradoxically, her final triumph did not come from self-actualization; it came through self-transcendence. It was the virtue of the willingness to sacrifice herself for something bigger than her and something really worthwhile. In her case, that something sacred and significant was her family. She lived for her family: This was her mission and her life task.
Her world was the Wong family and her future was her husband and children. There was hope as long as the family remained. Her suffering was for a higher calling, and her sacrifice was for a noble cause greater than herself. At a deeper level, her passion for the family arose from her passion for the mystical, collective life.
In her old age, her greatest joy was visits from her children and grandchildren. The next photo shows how happy she was surrounded by her son and grandsons. We visited her as a family every Christmas holiday until she died.
She even tried to teach my wife how to cook Chinese food. In the end, she accepted the fact that my wife did not have any idea about Chinese cooking, but she was very pleased that my wife knew how to take good care of her children.
Now that I have discovered the vital role of self-transcendence in living a meaningful and fulfilling life from my academic research, I appreciate all the more what my mother was doing in her own intuitive way.
My brothers used to tease her about the way she walked. They called her a “tank” because she maintained her body straight and upright with two hands holding her handbag and only moved her legs in small but quick steps. Her very posture indicates that she was unafraid and open to whatever life might have thrown at her.
Her last twenty years were probably her best, with her husband beside her along with all her children and grandchildren. In spite of all her suffering, I must imagine her happy. Her kind of happiness can only be experienced by those who willingly suffer and sacrifice for others. My insights into the positive psychology of self-transcendence must have been learned at my mother’s feet.
Camus, A. (1991). The myth of Sisyphus and other essays (1st Vintage International ed.) (J. O’Brien, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books. (Original work published 1955)