The kindness of people and ‘the freedom to fail’

East Lake Golf Course (Atlanta, Georgia) September 2016

The day Rory McIlroy took home the PGA Tour Championship title and some $1.53 million in prize money at the FedExCup in Atlanta, Georgia last September, I took home a much bigger prize — the memory of this father and son team selling drinks at the East Lake Golf Course.

The noonday heat must have gotten to me. Walking around the golf course, following the crowd, visiting booths, and trudging up another half mile or so to the lunch venue on the hilly side of the fairways and back to the media tent right in front of this stall left me completely exhausted.

I ended up slumping on a golf cart parked right beside the stall. I must have looked like I was about to expire, and the older man asked if I want a drink or anything. I smiled weakly and said no. I just want to sit down, my legs were about to collapse.

After a few minutes or so, he walked up to me and handed me a bottle of ice cold water. I thanked him profusely. Knowing that he was attending to many customers, it took me by surprise that he took the time to walk up to me and offer the drink instead of waiting for me to come to the stall. He was right up to the bat: I needed water.

An hour later when I had recovered my breath, I walked up to the stall to pay. He adamantly refused. That was when I realized that he did it out of the goodness of his heart and not to make a sale. I thanked him again over and over. I actually wanted to hug him, but I’m not sure if that would be culturally appropriate, so I just stood there transfixed under the heat of the noonday sun.

How many times had I survived, thrived in this business on the back of the kindness of strangers? I’ve lost track of the count, but each time it happens, it still moves mountains in me and will continue so.

On my first trip to the United States, nearly a decade ago, they booked my transfer flight to San Diego less than an hour after my arrival in San Francisco. After I exited immigration and collected my luggage at the carousel, there wasn’t much time left to move to the domestic terminal for the next flight and I came at a time when the airport was jam-packed with arriving passengers. I was losing hope every second. I stopped at an intersection to figure out which way I should be heading and an officer, who looked every inch a white American, approached me and asked to see my boarding pass and passport.

“Sa kanan, bilis, takbo, maiiwanan ka ng eroplano,” (Turn right, run, fast, you’ll miss the flight),” he commanded in perfect, flawless Tagalog. I started to push my trolley and run, not sure if I heard correctly. Then he ran after me, took the trolley and ran as fast as he could, me following helplessly gasping for breath. We made it to the gate.

Salamat (Thank you),” I said as I shook his hand. “Walang problema (No problem), have a safe flight,” he said, smiling before walking away. I still remember that man’s face today because he is the bigger, burlier version of Redford White.

Kindness and generosity often come totally unexpected because they are very rare in the dog-eat-dog world we’ve gotten accustomed to, but every one of those moments runs on a parallel story line — some people can easily see through other people and do not hesitate to reach out because they’ve been there once — they’ve loved and lost, they’ve cowered in fear, they’ve failed miserably, but they’ve also succeeded in so many epic ways that they find it in themselves to share a piece of their own humanity.

At the end of yet another working trip in Singapore — another year, another press coverage — I checked out and hailed a cab from the hotel to take me to Changi Airport , a leisurely ride that I thought would give me some minutes to close my eyes and catch some sleep before the three-hour flight back home.

Alas, the cab driver was a little chatty, an elderly, chirpy gentleman that you wouldn’t have the heart to ignore. So we chatted. His kids, my kids. His job, my job. Many other things. Then he got a box stashed somewhere near the driver’s seat and passed it on to me at the back.

“Those were my children’s toys when they were little. Get one for your youngest, Madame,” he said. I was speechless. I rummaged through the collection and picked an orange monkey stuff toy, tears starting to well up in my chest. “Thank you, thank you,” I said. “How generous of you.”

Back home, my boy, as usual greeted me jumping up and down. Past hugs and kisses, I gave him the toy monkey and explained that it’s very special because I didn’t buy it from the store but a very nice man I met gave it to me because I have a young son.

“Wow, Benjie Banana,” he said, eyes lighting up like Christmas.

Last weekend, I was listening to Mark Zuckerber’g commencement address at Harvard University. The 33-year-old Facebook CEO, a Harvard dropout, was a picture of confidence and bravado, and understandably so. But it was also poignant and very human in so many ways — he shared how he met his wife, the first lecture he attended in class, the first person who ever spoke to him, why he refused to sell his small company in its early days and turned down a chance to earn a cool million dollars.

But this struck me the most: “The greatest successes come from the freedom to fail…And we’re all gonna make mistakes so we need a society that is less focused on locking us up and stigmatizing us when we do.”

This is where the rain of tears started to pour.

Seventeen years ago, when most computers still run on DOS and the Internet was very new here in the Philippines, I made a very bold, very naive decision to try technology writing. Jumping to the digital arm of the newspaper I was working for, I also started writing for the technology section. I was hopeful. I was Zuckerberg’s age then, and raring to conquer a new world, to form, as he says, “a new social contract.”

The next few years were a whirlwind of learnings, faux pas, and experiences I could never have imagined. And when I look back and read my pieces in those early days, I wince. I really wince. It was an experiment of the highest order that my first tech editor has enabled. He gave me a very huge elbow room — as wide as the oceans, as expansive as the skies — to be stupid, to be free, to explore the unknown, to be right sometimes, and to be wrong on several occasions. He gave me enough ropes to hang myself with, and as the cliche goes, those were the wings I needed to fly.

I am crying as I write this piece because he didn’t live long enough to see where that act of generosity has led and how it has touched many other lives. I’ll pay it forward, Tony. I’ll pay it forward.

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” — Albert Camus
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