Earlier this month I had the tremendous fortune to experience a bit of magic, true magic. It was a moment of absolute beauty, a moment where the human spirit shined in remarkable ways. I witnessed an act of pure generosity and selflessness; an act that can teach many of us a powerful lesson.
This moment carried such power and gravity that I have been struggling with writing the story with appropriate care and reverence.
A Saturday morning early in May, I participated in an event designed to help service members of our armed forces prepare themselves and their families for a one year deployment to Afghanistan. A variety of speakers attend discussing myriad topics…everything from health insurance options available to support services for spouses and children to ways to stay in contact despite distance and spotty means of communication. My role was to provide a presentation on how to prepare financially and provide insight into financial challenges service members and families may encounter.
The morning began as usual for a military event with a tremendous amount of PowerPoint driven presentations. Many dry, mechanical presentations covering important topics, but without much flair to keep the group of 200 engaged. These men and women sit through countless PowerPoint presentations and are often clearly not fully present.
These morning presentations finished with the Master of Ceremonies (MC) releasing the group to lunch and added a short, almost throwaway, comment asking those families with children at the provided daycare to bring their children back after lunch.
The Afternoon (With A Bit Of Magic)
I had drawn the short straw and was scheduled to speak immediately after lunch. I had a plan to make sure I got the group to wake up and pay attention, and thought about doing some jumping jacks at the front of the room to really surprise everyone.
As I returned from lunch and began to prepare myself to speak, the MC pulled me aside and asked me to hold tight for a few minutes. She made it clear that there was going to be something very special prior to my presentation.
And then it happened…magic.
The MC brought a young girl and her father to the front of the room. The MC explained that this 12 year old girl had been saving money from babysitting for nearly two years; an amount in excess of $200. Then we learned that this young lady had made a decision about that money that blew me, and I’d guess most of the room, away.
She had decided to use the entire amount of money she had earned over a two year period to purchase Build-a-Bear and Beanie Baby stuffed animals to give to the children of these deploying soldiers.
I will write it again…she gave EVERY PENNY she had earned over TWO YEARS to do something special for these children who were about to lose their mother or father for over a year! And not only that, but she had also spent time to hand-making several blankets that she was also giving to these children!
What selflessness and generosity. What a powerful and remarkable example of the beauty of the human spirit! The positive emotion in the room was palpable. The buzz of gratitude and sheer astonishment continued the entire time the children came to the front of the room to pick one of the items.
It truly was a moment of magic.
I Learned So Much
This magical moment taught me so many lessons that I feel compelled to share with you.
The most important lesson is the following challenge this moment created:
- Why, when I clearly recognized the power of this bit of selflessness, have I not done anything similar?
This girl impacted so many lives in a very profound manner. The youngest of those children may not remember this moment, but I am certain the parents will. And I will, and the other presenters will. We were in awe of her act.
And yet, as I went home that evening I thought to myself that I could never do something like that. I have too many obligations to meet and not enough money to be able to offer a meaningful amount. I wouldn’t be able to impact lives the way she had.
There is clearly a dysfunctional money script occurring to make me think this way. I know intuitively that I could free up money to do something meaningful, but I need to learn how to recognize I can impact others and impact my own happiness tremendously by this kind of action far more than if I used the same amount of money on “stuff.”
Had I been quick enough to think of it, I would have asked the group I was presenting to how many had done something similar. I suspect it would have been a relatively small number. Yet, just about everyone in that room recognized the power and impact by giving up a small amount of money.
Why does this disconnect occur? Why do we recognize the tremendous value we can offer, value that is well in excess of the money given up and yet we struggle to make the decision to follow this girl’s example?
The Power of Experiences
The next lesson learned (or in this case reinforced) is that using money on experiences is far more powerful than using money on stuff.
That young girl could have used those $200+ dollars that she had worked very hard to earn and purchased an iPod or something similar. She would likely have gotten a lot of use and enjoyment out of it for a few years, before it became obsolete. She might have even loved whatever she purchased.
But, I know that the way she used that money instead will remain with her the rest of her life. This experience, using her hard earned money to bring something a little thoughtful and positive to children about to experience genuine trauma, also remain a moment of happiness and joy and pride for this girl. The value that $200 dollars brought to her will be far greater than the value something tangible would have brought.
And she was able to extend that value and experience to the rest of us in the room. 200 people have gained a memory of something special, something magical and something that challenges our own self-interest.
That $200 bought a tremendous amount of value and happiness and goodwill and positive energy.
Finally, I have been asking myself what it takes to raise a child to display this incredible selflessness and humility and concern for others. I reflect on my own childhood and recognize that there is no chance I would have done anything like that.
In fact, I lived in Heidelberg, Germany in a U.S. Army community when I was about 12 years old during Desert Storm. I can distinctly recall taking the bus to middle school with an armed soldier on board, then arriving to school with soldiers on the roof of the school to protect us from potential terrorist attacks.
And my reaction was to be frustrated because I had to show an ID card when I got on the bus. I didn’t have any appreciation for the sacrifice these men and their families were making. I viewed them as a nuisance, as interrupting my regular life. And I was not alone. Other kids felt the same way, kids whose own parents were being deployed to Iraq.
And yet, here is this girl in Northeast Wisconsin giving so much when she had really nothing directly at stake. Here she is choosing to give this gift to people she doesn’t know and wanting no recognition for it. She simply did it because she was compelled to and didn’t allow all the nonsense we learn to stop her from following that conviction.
And now I wonder, how do I teach my children to think this way? Can I lead by example by really challenging my current natural reaction to worry about what I might miss out on by using the money on others? Would that help lead my children down a similar road as this 12 year old girl had travelled?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know I’m going to try to find it.
So Here It Is
This was a moment of magic, no question. A moment everyone in the room recognized as truly special and had a deep emotional reaction. We understood the power; we knew the impact this had on the children and the parents. And we knew the joy and lasting happiness this would bring into this young lady’s life.
So why, really WHY, didn’t each of us leave that room and decide to do something similar? Why did that inspiring moment not spur us to try to achieve something similar when the cost truly is quite low? How are we able to look upon this magic and all the value it brings into the world and then say “but not me.”
Imagine what the world my look like if instead each of us said:
By Nathan Gehring, CFP®
Special to FPA