In this article, I’ll share a frightening childhood experience of life in Vietnam following the war. But from it, I learned the value of giving, even when you have little to nothing to give. Many people don’t think they can make an impact because they perceive their contributions to be minimal. I’d like to offer that even a small gesture can greatly affect a person’s life. You don’t have to be a superhero to be a superhero.
Help Any Way You Can (and You Always Can)
If we always helped one another, no one would need luck.
Before we had time to react, the disheveled man had barged into the house. His ghostly face begged us for mercy. My parents and the stranger exchanged a few tense words. And just like that, they sprung into action, ushering this uninvited guest of the night into the back of the house and stuffing him into a basket. They covered him with dirty clothes and told him to stay quiet.
We sat back down to finish dinner. I was mortified. My mom offered enough calming words to stop me from shaking. We pretended that everything was fine and continued on, anxiously waiting for a knock at the door or stampeding footsteps or yelling… anything at all. It hadn’t been that silent in the house in a very long time.
We waited for what seemed an eternity. Finally, my father cautiously crept toward the door, lowered his head and peeked through a crack in the door. The coast seemed clear. Color slowly made its way back to our faces.
It would be another half an hour before they dared to bring the stuffed man out from the basket and back into the light. They exchanged a few soft-spoken words. He ate, showered, replaced his dirty clothes with my dad’s, and stole into the dark of the night, bowing graciously as he snuck out the back – and back into the violent storm from which he had miraculously escaped.
I was too young then to realize what had happened.
My mother later told me that the troubled man was running from either a group of thugs or the communist police for some reason (the specifics escape me – it has been a long time since I’ve thought about this story). Whatever the reason was, my parents acted quickly and without hesitation; they wanted to help in whichever way they could. Being previously persecuted themselves, they knew the dire consequences that would befall the man had they not intervened.
Where I grew up, we didn’t have much. Sometimes, all we had to eat was rice and soy sauce. But that didn’t stop us from helping those who had even less than we did. My mom taught us to help others to our capacity and capability: donate money if you can; if you don’t have money, provide a meal; if you haven’t a meal, donate your time; if you haven’t the time, donate a smile. Do what you can with what you have.
That was what my parents did that night; they helped the best they could with what they had.
Straying from the path
But this was a lesson I would soon forget. Years later, as I’ve established my professional career, I grew increasingly attached to money. And as someone who had such an unhealthy addiction to it, I found every excuse I could to hang onto my money. My go-to excuse was that my small contribution wouldn’t make a dent.
The excuses extended far beyond the monetary aspect. Me volunteering for two hours won’t make a difference. Someone else could help with this much better than I could. That person over there is more talented and more suitable to help than me. If I shared this post on my wall, it’ll ruin my “thing.” Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that I couldn’t personally affect major societal issues because I was just one man – how could I, a nobody, change anything? I handed that responsibilities to superheroes, to billionaires, to thought leaders, to politicians, to anyone besides me.
Realizing the truth
Then one day on a hike up Taquile Island in Peru, I met a little girl selling knick-knacks to tourists. She must have been the same age as me when I left Vietnam. For some reason, seeing her waving the little knitted alpaca keychains brought back all the memories of my childhood, of having nothing, and of that unforgettable night. It took immense willpower for me to not burst into tears right then and there. I wanted to help this little girl so much, but by that segment of that trip, I was depleted of cash. I reached into my pocket and offered whatever I had left – a granola bar I had been dragging around with me for days.
She delighted in it. Her absolute joy with the granola bar broke my heart. This small gesture brightened up her day. I couldn’t believe how much of a difference I must have made in her little world that day.
Making a change
My mom said it best: help others as your capacity and capability allow. You might not be able to donate $50,000 to a charity, but you could give $5 or a hot meal to a family in need. You might think your contribution is minuscule, but a small contribution is infinitely better than nothing at all.
But contributing money isn’t the only way nor is it the best way to help. You can donate your time. Donate your talent. Donate a smile. Donate a silver lining in someone’s cloudy sky. Donate a spark to lead someone out of darkness. Donate your love. You might not realize it, but you have the power to be a superhero in someone’s life.
After that trip in Peru, I started writing about my experiences to help others and I’ve been using that medium to manage an annual book project for charity. Though the fundraised funds have been modest, I truly believe that they do make a difference, however small that might be.
So, I only ask one thing of you: really ask yourself, “How can I help?” You are capable of giving much more than you think.
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