Last week, I attended a funeral with some friends. It was for an eighty year old lady who had been sickly for awhile and had finally succumbed. I did not know her at all. She was a distant relative of one of my friends.
She had traveled half way round the world to my neck of the woods to visit her son and then poor health intervened and prevented her from leaving. She spent the last 3 years of her life unable to return home. Apart from close family, few people here knew her. Those that did, only knew her as a sickly, bedridden woman who was totally dependent on others for her care.
But if some of us who attended the small service had been inclined to feel pity for her, we would be chastised. When we learned more about her, we realised that she had lived a long, love-filled and inspirational life. She had raised five children of which three were adopted and of different race and cultural backgrounds. She also was foster parent to scores of other children over the years. She was also active in her church and as an advocate for children welfare. I shamefully admit that I would never had guessed.
Her ashes are being returned home where there will be another memorial service – one that I believe will be attended by many, many people; lives that she had touched, helped and nurtured by her love.
Yesterday, I ran into an elderly gentleman whom I hadn’t seen for a few years. He was quietly having a meal at a cafe with a friend. He is a small man with a nondescript walking cane and a hearing aid. Soft spoken and not one who naturally draws attention, he would easily have gone unnoticed. Quite invisible to most of the younger patrons of the cafe, I think.
I went over to shake his hand and to greet him. He was happy to spend a few minutes exchanging news and pleasantries. To me and those who know this humble man, he is a giant.
He was responsible for setting up a major government department and ministry when Malaysia was nation building after independence. His achievements garnered international recognition and he was asked to help set up similar ministries and departments in other newly independent nations within the British Commonwealth. He serve the country for decades with great distinction.
He was also active in Christian charity and church work and he continues to do so till today at the age of 101. A giant of a man.
Why am I sharing these two stories? Well, I have been kind of reminded that we tend to make assumptions of people based on first impressions and too often our assumptions are negative and frequently wrong.
I grew up in Asia and am a product of the Confucian philosophy that is part of many Asian societies . We are taught from an early age the importance of respecting our elders and to honor our teachers. So I was surprised when I went to University and one of my revered professors told us lowly first years during orientation week that while he did not know us from Adam, he would always expect that some of us, if not all, would achieve more in our scientific careers than he had. He saw that each of us had potential that remained undiscovered. We were not lowly students but potentially Nobel Prize winners.
(Editor’s note: regular readers will now understand why the Lone Grey Squirrel remains obsessed with the Nobel Prize and why he hasn’t got one yet!)
That professor taught me a valuable lesson about seeing the good and the potential in others. I have always remembered that and tried to do so in my own life.
Indeed, the bible teaches this very thing;
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Philipians 2:3-4)
I am still trying and frequently have to remind myself to see others through my limited mindset but to value them and their potential for greatness, beauty and love. I look but do I really see? You know what I mean?