In 2001 I visited Singapore to give a presentation at a Franchising Association Conference. As I left the stage, a lady approached me and presented me with a book she had recently written. Shelley Siu’s book, Barrier Breakers, turned out to be something special. It contained in-depth interviews with 12 remarkable women who had made significant contributions to society in a range of areas.
On the plane home I settled in to read each of the 12 chapters. While they all impressed me, there was one in particular that I couldn’t get out of my mind. It was about a 101-year-old woman called Teresa Hsu, who had lived a remarkable life of service to the poor and needy and was still actively running her Heart-to-Heart Charity. Here’s the opening paragraph of the chapter on her.
“To come into contact with Teresa Hsu is, for me, the closest thing to being with a living saint. There she was, a small frame in loose pants and a plain, white cotton blouse, swinging open her blue door even before I could knock on it.”
As I read the interview and learned of Teresa's philosophy, I became more entranced. Here are a few extracts.
“What is your definition of success?”
“I don’t believe in success. We are not here to make a success of anything, we are here simply to live as human beings to do our duty to our fellow beings.”
“Are you influenced by any religion?”
“I am not hindered by any fixed thoughts. My goal is to live with a peaceful mind and a clear conscience.”
“What has been your lowest point in life?”
“I'm a positive person. If things are not to your liking, adjust them to your best ability. If you cannot adjust it, accept it, and smile. There's no point in being negative. You won't win fighting against it, don't disturb your mind, you want peace.”
“How do you want to be remembered?”
“I wish to be forgotten. I will leave no trace behind. People would say how should we conduct your last rites? I say I'll go to a hill, just dig a hole and crawl in. I don't want to bother anybody.”
I remember reading bits from this chapter out loud, as my wife drove me home from the airport. What had a deep impact on me was this woman’s humble philosophy, just wanting to make a difference, compared to my egotistical approach of trying to impress everyone. I also remember thinking, “Now this is a person I would love to meet.”
As it happened, five years later I received an invitation from some friends in Brisbane to attend a talk to be given by a 106-year woman on “Yoga in daily life”. Yup, it was Teresa Hsu, and it turns out that, as well as being a pioneer in social justice, she was a practitioner of Yoga. I subsequently had the pleasure of helping out as she visited various parts of Queensland giving a series of back to back talks to hundreds of people, a vibrant ball of inspiration, full of stories from over 100 amazing years of living and giving.
On a plane trip to Cairns, several air stewards who had gotten wind of their special passenger started to congregate around her as she munched on some potato chips. “What is the secret to your long life?” one of them asked eagerly. “Eating chips,” she responded. When everyone burst out laughing, she finished her answer with a glint in her eye. “And that!” She was of course referring to the laughter. This was typical of how Teresa Hsu shared her wisdom, taking everyone she spoke with seriously, but never taking herself too seriously.
By the way, Teresa, affectionately dubbed Singapore’s Mother Teresa, lived to the age of 113 and was posthumously inducted into the Singapore Woman’s Hall of Fame. (Not that she would have cared!) If you want a refreshing 5-minute break, that might also help to put things in perspective, you can see Teresa Hsu being interviewed at 113 years of age.
What a privilege to hang out with this humble, inspiring agent of change.
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