'Tis the season to be thankful


I felt the prick of tears two minutes into the video.

A priest attached to a Catholic mission in Kenya was in town recently and my godmother had invited him to talk to a group of us about the work he and other volunteers have been doing to help some poor communities in Africa.

In one of the clips he showed us, a boy who looks no older than 10 is refusing to drink his bowl of milk.

Food is scarce in the arid region where he lives and the volunteers make it a point to feed the children each morning before school starts, so they can focus. Sometimes, it is the only meal they get for the day.

Someone tells the teacher the boy wants to pour the milk into a plastic bottle he has hidden under his shirt. Why, the teacher asks.

Turns out he wants to save the milk for his sister back home. The teacher tells him to finish what is in his bowl, then takes his bottle, fills it to the brim and passes it back to him.


My heart ached for the boy, his sister and, above all, for his selflessness.

Last Saturday, tears again stung my eyes as I sat watching something else.

This time, I was at my daughter's kindergarten graduation concert, marvelling at how quickly the six years have whizzed by. The baby of our family is set to enter Primary 1 next year.

As I watched her and her friends perform with pride the gymnastic formations and dance routines they had toiled at for months, my heart brimmed with gratitude.

There they were with their bright eyes, big smiles and strong limbs. Happy and healthy, they want for nothing - at least not in creature comforts - unlike their peers in many parts of the world.

How blessed we are, I thought for the umpteenth time.

Just a day earlier, I had texted some Indonesian friends to ask how they were holding up, as the rally against Jakarta's first ethnic Chinese governor turned violent.

One said he and his friends were "praying for our city".

Another friend, who shuttles between Singapore and Jakarta for work, observed wryly: "In Singapore, a robbery in Holland Village is like big news."

Indeed. People here take our peace and religious freedom for granted, I noted.

This time of the year usually finds me in a mellow and sometimes schmaltzy mood.

In the United States, November marks the start of the holiday season and culminates in Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of the month.

We might not celebrate Thanksgiving here, but November is the calendar's sweet spot for me too.

The year is winding down, Christmas decorations are going up. The stress of exams and so-so grades are behind us, while six glorious school-free weeks lie ahead, ripe with promise.

This is a time for reflection, a window of calm and bliss after a hectic school or work year and before the start of the festive whirl.

It is also a reminder to not let the impending merry-go-round of present-swopping blind us to the gifts we already have.

In this lull before the storm, I take stock of the months that have flown by and can't help but give thanks for all things big and small that I have been blessed with: new work projects, trusty old friends, a nation and family at peace and yet another day to spend with my two kids.

I feel compelled to do something, to pay it forward. Clearly, I'm not alone. Many others have already sprung into action.

All around me, people are starting or spreading the word on charity projects to help the poor, underprivileged or marginalised.

My son's school has been collecting old school shoes that are still serviceable for needy kids in Cambodia.

A mum from his class chat group forwarded an appeal for winter clothing and other hand-me-downs for children from Laotian mountain tribes. Then she went a step further by offering to pick up the items from those who have problems delivering them to the collection centre.

Even my kids have been prompted to design greeting cards to raise money for a local cause they have yet to decide on.

As American writer William Arthur Ward put it: "Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it."

After some deliberation, a few friends and I have finally sorted out our small act of charity. We will source for stationery and other basic school supplies to make up goodie bags, which we will ship to children in a poor community in the Philippines we were told about.

Traditionalists have long lamented that Christmas has been stripped of its spiritual significance. Instead, it seems to serve largely as a cash cow for retailers and an excuse for merrymakers to indulge.

Still, I remain a sucker for the holiday season, even if the cheer is manufactured and stained by crass commercialism.

The way I see it, this is the one time of the year when people are obliged, even forced, to think about making others happy, whether they are loved ones or strangers in need.

If an African boy who appears to have little thinks nothing of giving up the one rare meal he gets, surely those of us who are blessed with much have more to offer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline ''Tis the season to be thankful'. Subscribe