Several months ago I received an e-mail from Chou Chin-Haur, founder of the Chou Ta-Kuan Cultural and Educational Foundation in Taiwan. He told me I had been selected as one of 12 people around the world to receive the “Fervent Love of Life” award and that they would fly me and a companion to Taipei for eight days.
Of course I did some research about this group and found that it was one of the largest and most respected in Taiwan and was established after the death of Chou’s 10-year-old son from cancer.
From the time of this child’s diagnosis at age 7, he began writing poetry about hope, gratitude and love. Even after he knew he was dying, he wrote poetry about love for the world. His poems are so compelling that high school students throughout Taiwan study them.
All this made me wonder about a culture that so deeply honored love and compassion that a foundation would be created to teach these virtues.
I arrived in Taipei, a city of 23 million people, on a Monday at 5 a.m. to be greeted at the airport by Chou himself. What struck me most on the way from the airport was that I didn’t hear any horns. In a city as crowded as New York, people accommodated one another. I later learned that there is a law against blowing horns too often.
Because this foundation and this award are prestigious and because my book Letters to Sam sold well in Taiwan, many in the news media were eager to interview me. Of course some asked about adversity and resilience, but all ultimately focused on love and compassion.
The following day, a large news conference was held with all of the recipients. Each of us had endured great adversity and devoted our lives to the greater good. And every speaker talked of the healing power of love.
Many times when I give a speech, I use the metaphor of a dilated heart as an experience we all have when we feel selfless love. This is the kind of love we experience when we see our child for the first time or feel deep gratitude for a sunset, a lover or life itself. I had become aware of having these feelings when my interpreter told me that someone from a radio station wanted to interview me.
I arrived to find a beautiful young woman with a warm smile waving to me from her wheelchair. She told me that she had first read Letters to Sam while recovering in the hospital shortly after her father died. Her eyes welled up with tears as she said that she felt as if her father were talking to her through the pages. She wanted to meet the man who felt like her “living father.” With this, we both held each other and cried.
I found out that she was the same age as my daughter Debbie and I was the same age as her father. Her name was Amily Wu and she has been in a wheelchair for five years as a result of an undiagnosed nerve disorder.
She told me of her anguish when she was first paralyzed and how her father comforted her. And although he rarely hugged her, she felt the same kind of loving warmth when we embraced.
As we chatted after the interview, she told me about a moment right before her father died when she took his hand and held it on her face. It was almost exactly what happened shortly before my father’s death when he took my hand and kissed my thumb – the only place I have sensation.
After Amily and I hugged goodbye, she took my hand and told me that I looked tired and should rest. The voice of a loving daughter. I believe in love at first sight, but familial love?
The week was filled with many memorable events, including a visit to a homeless shelter where hundreds of men and women sang “Amazing Grace” as they waited in line with their rice bowls.
At lunch the day before we left the hosts brought in a famous calligrapher to paint a banner for each of us. When I was presented mine, I was told it said: “Kindness.”
And although they characterized me that way, that was my experience of the people I met. They were kind.
Last summer, I had a talk with my grandson Sam about autism; I was curious about what he understood about the disorder. I asked if he felt different from the other kids, and he said he did. But when I asked him how, he thought for awhile and said, “Pop, I think I am more kind.”
So I return from a culture that celebrates kindness. And now with my calligraphy framed, I promise to spend more time with my grandson and devote more energy to practicing the boundless lessons of kindness.