Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Do unto others quietly as you would like them do unto you


Since I started working again, it has become more difficult to meet the deadlines for this column.

The luxury of having the time to ponder over what to write and then indulge in the writing process itself has diminished considerably.

Besides, I am not much of an intellectual. My previous essays shall bear witness to this. Much of my inspirations are drawn from personal experiences rather than intelligent analysis of current socio-political issues. Therefore, I must confess that being constantly assaulted by new workload on a regular basis, I haven’t had the time to feel inspired lately.

Anyway, a few days ago, I received a pleasant surprise from an old Afghan colleague of mine.

I had spent two years living in Afghanistan back in 2003. During that period of time, I had met some remarkable Afghans. One of them was a young chap named Mohammad Tahir.

Thanks to Facebook, Tahir managed to find me and added me as a friend recently. We had not been in touch for more than five years.

When I looked at his profile photo, I was shocked to see a slightly blurred image of a portly man who used to be a boy who weighed no more than 45kg. (He probably says the same of me.)

Although his eyes were concealed by a pair of sunglasses, I recognised his smile on the photo instantly.

I was not able to tell much of him by looking at his photo except to strike my own conclusion that he is probably living a much better life now. At the same time, I wondered whether it was biologically possible for someone so thin to gain that much weight within five years!

Once I accepted him as a friend, he wasted no time in sending me this message (the sentences have been touched up to provide better clarity):

“Dear Madam Ka Ea Lim. I am really happy to find you in Facebook. Please accept my warm regards. I hope that you are well in your daily routine. I looked for your email address or any other ways to contact you but to no avail. So it is really great to find you now. I want to say something about myself. I am no longer the Tahir who was a child whom you once took care of. I am now a man. I have two children. My daughter is four years old and my son, one and a half. I will never forget you when you gave me the opportunity to work with the UN during the first Presidential election. It was the first step in my life. Except you, all the other Electoral officers were against my recruitment due to my age. I am always grateful to you for this. I am now working as a Language Assistant for an American company.”

When I read this message, I was stunned because I had no idea of the impact I had made in his life.  I didn’t even do anything to deserve this except to demand for the recruitment of what I saw as the most suitable candidate for the role of an electoral public information officer.

Tahir received my support because what others saw as a juvenile and inexperienced boy, I saw a young man with great potential and a secret weapon.


You see, he was a musician who played local traditional music. He was also extremely likable. He had a humble and sunny disposition and what appeared to be a natural ability to feel and care for others deeply.

In the end, nobody regretted the choice that was made. Not only did Tahir impart vital voter registration information through his music, he brought joy and comfort to so many Afghans who had been deprived of music for so many years.

He reminded them the beauty of life and how it felt like for one’s soul to be stirred by the strings of a dombura again.

Tahir also reminded me of the time when we had to fight hard with Taliban sympathisers who refused to allow the local women to participate in anything outside the boundaries of their homes.

Our fight did not go in vain when we saw the women smiled and with their eyes shut as they rocked their bodies forward and backward gently and quietly to the soothing sound of Tahir’s voice.

For many, it might have been a picture of complete bliss and utter happiness but to me, each of the women looked as if Tahir was singing for her alone and the songs written were just for her and no one else.

Women at the concert

This is what I remember most about Tahir. Not of what he owed me or what I had done for him. But I must confess that I do secretly revel in the thought of giving him something and at some level perhaps also helping to change his life.

I have been trying to think of someone who had helped change my life positively without him or her intentionally doing so. In the beginning, no one came to mind but after much probing, I realise that many people have played that role.

What I realise is this.  It is not often when someone whom we know comes along and tells us how indebted they are towards us but it is even rarer for us to acknowledge the act of a stranger; such as the woman who prompts you to her parking space as she is about to leave the mall, the man who hops on his motorbike so that he can guide you back to the main road when you’re lost, the waiter who returns your missing passport and a child who makes you burst into unrestrained laughter as he dances clumsily but yet uninhibitedly in the middle of the mall.

These strangers have helped to create an impact to my life. They continuously remind me of the goodness of this world and the people living in it. Without such random and unintentional acts of kindness or sheer innocence, I would have given up my faith in humanity a long time ago.

One of the most intriguing advices I’ve read from H. Jackson Brown Jr.’s Life Little Instruction Book is to make someone happy without the person knowing it. It sounds like a real challenge because most of the time, not only do we want the person to know it, we want the entire world to see it (such as in my case now that I’ve told the story).

But let me say this, if you manage to do so, it is undeniably one of the most wonderful feelings you can ever get.

And so, I wrote to Tahir:

“I just want to tell you 3 things. You’re a delight to work with. You brought something so beautiful and joyful to so many people. You made a huge impact through your music, positivism and beautiful smile. I will never forget that.”

“You’re who you are today because of you and I wish you all the happiness you deserve.”

Please share with me - what sort of kindness have you shown to others lately?

This article first appeared on The Malaysian Insider under the title, “Do Unto Others Quietly…” today.