So I wrote recently about not having any brilliant ideas for something pithy or profound to put on my mum’s tombstone, but having been home for a visit and had some chats about her with my niece, I suddenly thought: I know what I’d have put on her tombstone if I could get away with it. I’d have put this phrase: she meant well.
My mother was full of good intentions. She was always wanting to give me things – but always getting it wrong about what I might actually want, so much so that at some stage we agreed that she wouldn’t buy me presents any more, because it was such a waste: instead, whenever I came to visit she’d get a whole load of stuff out of her wardrobe, things that she bought as non-specific presents to give to whoever they might be relevant to, and she’d ask me to look and see if there was anything there that I could use.
Interestingly, one thing that she gave me which I really like and I’ve got hanging on the wall is something she didn’t expect me to want to keep: she gave it to me last year and said I should take it and give it to the next jumble sale! But it’s something she made, something creative, a picture she made out of pieces of material from old dresses of hers – so it means something to me not just because she made it, and not just because I like the picture, but also because of the sentimental value of seeing bits of my mum’s old dresses, clothes that I remember her wearing, which remind me of her.
So you see, she really never knew what I’d like :)
And it wasn’t just with me – it was the same with my brother. She kept trying to give him things that he didn’t want, without asking – just pushing and being surprised when he wouldn’t take them.
But she meant well, I know she did.
The thing is, you can mean well but still annoy people – if you don’t bother to find out what their needs and wants are. That stuff about “do as you would be done by” is good only if you take it in the general sense of “if you want to be treated with love and respect then show others love and respect” but not if you take it to the level of specific detail: for example, I like chocolate, but I know my husband well enough to know that giving him chocolate as a present is not a good idea; not to mention my lactose-intolerant niece, who wouldn’t be all that pleased to get milk chocolate as a gift. Or another example: you might be an extrovert who really thrives on having lots of company, but an introvert wouldn’t appreciate your invasion of their solitude when they’re having some essential recharging time. You might think you’re doing them a great favour by saving them from loneliness, whilst they’re thinking: oh no, I thought I could squeeze in a bit of time on my own before the party…
Good intentions are not enough. If you want to actually be a blessing to other people, you need to find out what they need and want. That means taking the time to ask, and to listen, and to take on board their reply, not shaking your head in disbelief and going: why on earth would you want that…