At times my travel memories make me sad. There are places I want to re-visit, new places I’d like to explore, and so many foreign friends who I miss and want to see again. More travel isn’t impossible, but at this point it’s unlikely given the constraints of health and finances.
That’s why my correspondence with pen pals and faraway friends is so precious to me. That correspondence helps keep me connected with other people. It reminds me that I’m alive, that helping other people is as valuable for me as it is for them. Volunteer work earns no cash, but it fills the wallets in my heart and mind.
Although I’ve sought volunteer work all my adult life, the volunteer opportunities that engage me now came – or so it seemed – out of nowhere, reminding me that God, not Jean, is overseeing my journey through life. One of those jobs is coordinating my church’s correspondence with the Asian kids we sponsor through an organization called Agape Asia. When I took on the job, I didn’t expect to become anyone’s pen pal, but circumstances put a young Chinese student named Xiao Song in my path, and our correspondence is truly a blessing.
I wrote about Song (Xiao is his family name; Song is his given name) in Happy & Full, an August 2, 2020 article for the OUTsideINworks.com blog in which I addressed his fear of failure and how he can hardly breathe under the pressure of studying for and passing the entrance examination to medical school. When I read his letter asking for my advice, I easily understood his feelings because I happen to be another person driven to succeed no matter what, so it was easy for me to reply with empathy, to reassure and support him.
In the first paragraph of that article, I wrote, “Sometimes I think if more people made an effort to personally connect with people in other countries, we would learn more about each other and in the process, learn how to make the world a better place.”
I’m not sure I can claim to have cultivated even one square inch of a better world, but I want to tell you about Song because I believe this story shows how even a few kind, heartfelt words can make a difference in this troubled world. Here is Song’s reply to my letter of reassurance:
Thank you very much for your careful answer to my problem. After reading your reply to me, I feel much better now and I feel much less pressure in my heart.
I feel that I have always regarded every step in my plan as too important. It is undeniable that every step and every decision in our life will have a certain impact on us. However, as long as we can take our life seriously and try our best to complete our plans, it doesn't matter if we have a few unfinished plans occasionally, because among thousands of plans these plans are almost negligible.
I told myself that I must finish something when I was young, which is also the expectation of people around me. How many scores must I have in Chinese? How many scores must I have in English? How many scores must I have in Math? I must go to high school. I must go to a good university. My life has too many "must's." Now in retrospect, you should only do just as well as you can. There's no need to force yourself.
I admire your courage to change your job. In my opinion, changing a job may be a tremendous thing. My plan now is to be a doctor in the future and I never thought that I would be engaged in another career. Maybe I'm afraid of failure. I don't dare take my future as a bet to face the unknown risks. To some extent, I'm a little weak.
Best wishes for you! Your friend, Xiao Song
Song’s words made me cry, not just because he said my letter had helped him feel better but because they touched the invisible strings that tie us together, over the 12,00 miles (by air) and many time zones between us. His letter reminded me that those strings may be invisible but are strong nonetheless as they reach across geography, cultures, customs, languages, and the decades’ difference in our ages.
In some ways, Song is not a foreigner, not a citizen of a country too many Americans revile, not a burden on Agape Asia and its supporters. So, who is Xiao Song? He is a good person working hard to make his dreams come true, and like his 67-year-old American pen pal, his life has “too many musts.” Like me, he’s afraid of failure, a little weak, and very human. And he cares about me and wishes me well, just as I care about him and wish him well. That, to me, is a connection that makes the world a better place, at absolutely no cost to me. In fact, it’s priceless.
I know many busy people who feel pulled in a million directions, burdened with work and family and responsibilities and too little time. As the saying goes, I have been there and done that, more times than I can count. Please, don’t ever underestimate the power of one kind word or gesture. Prayer is important, but I firmly believe it’s not the only thing God wants us to do. As my mother was fond of saying, put your money where your mouth is. If you have time to pray, you have time to connect with someone who needs your help and love. You have time to transform one square inch of the world. So cultivate the connections that can hold us all together even in dark, confusing times like these.