Sunny Side Up: Ordinary people can do extraordinary things

  • Living
  • Saturday, 30 Jun 2018

It only takes a moment of looking around to realise there’s always someone who needs us. — Filepic

What makes a person someone of value? How do we judge others in terms of their importance and status? Most people have heard of Donald Trump – but how many know the name Maximilian Kolbe?

My earliest memory of “judging a book by its cover” was when I was seven years old. Browsing a car showroom with my mum and dad, I spotted an old man approaching one of the salesmen. He wore what looked to me like old farmer’s clothes along with a woollen hat that had seen better days.

He began to look at the new Mitsubishi Shogun jeep, which cost the equivalent of RM200,000 now.

The old man asked about various changes that could be made to the vehicle, and I remember wondering why he was wasting the salesman’s time. About 10 minutes later, the old man signed for the new Shogun. Moments later, the branch manager came out to greet the man, and suddenly he was being treated much differently by the showroom staff who had judged this particular “book” the second it walked in.

I remember thinking to myself that he didn’t look like the kind of person who could buy such expensive cars. To my mind, people who bought new cars wore pinstriped suits and were well-groomed. When I asked my mum about the man later that evening, she said, “Never judge a person by how they look or what titles they have – it’s often the people who look ordinary who are capable of the extraordinary”.

A few years later, I was doing a school project on World War II, and had chosen the Holocaust, in which six million people had been killed, as my subject. Having read a few books by then on one of humanity’s darkest periods, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that these atrocities actually took place. Some of the real-life accounts read like something out of a Stephen King horror novel.

In my research, I came across one of the most courageous people I had ever read about. Maximilian Kolbe was a priest from Poland who, at the breakout of WWII, refused to sign the Nazis’ “Deutsche Volksliste” (German People’s List) acknowledging his German ancestry, which would have granted him similar rights to German citizens.

In 1941, after two years of hiding around 2,000 Jews and publishing anti-Nazi literature from his monastery, Father Kolbe and four others were arrested by the Nazis and taken to prison.

In May that year, he was transferred to the notorious Auschwitz camp, which saw the worst of the Nazi atrocities carried out until 1945.

Father Kolbe was an ordinary man whose faith and courage inspired an extraordinary act. In August 1941, when a prisoner escaped from the camp, 10 men were selected by Nazi guards to be starved to death in a cell as retaliation. One of the selected men was grief-stricken, shouting, “My wife! My children! I will never see them again!”

At this moment, Father Kolbe stepped forward and said to the guard, “I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.”

His request was granted and, after two weeks in the starvation cell, Father Kolbe was the only one of four remaining men who was fully conscious. In the end, he and the other three men were murdered with an injection of acid to make room for new prisoners.

Franciszek Gajowniczek – the man whose life Father Kolbe saved – died in 1995 at the age of 93. Once recalling his near-death experience he said, “For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian. By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant.

“But now, on reflection, I understood that a man like him could not have done otherwise. Perhaps he thought that as a priest his place was beside the condemned men to help them keep hope. In fact, he was with them to the last.”

Father Kolbe became my first spiritual role model. The first lesson his incredible story taught me – building on what my mum had advised – was that a person’s status or value isn’t found in what they wear, how much money they have, or what kind of status they enjoy. As the Buddha mentions in his teachings, a person’s value is determined by their deeds rather than by their good fortune.

The stories of Father Kolbe and the old man buying the expensive car might be worlds apart in terms of their consequences and legacy. For me, they each provided valuable lessons on how we should see and treat other people.

The ragged-trousered man made sure I never judged anyone so quickly again, and Father Kolbe drove home the message that it’s not what we take from the world that gives our lives meaning and purpose, but rather what we give back in service to others.

I’m sure I could never have the same courage as the Polish priest who gave up his life for another, but his example tells us that we become valuable when we offer ourselves to others in need whenever possible. Indeed, it only takes a moment of looking around ourselves to realise it’s always possible to be there for someone who needs us.

Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail

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