The Things You Do

Lessons Learnt From a Stubbed Toe

Dear Xander,

If change is the only constant in life, then the human capacity for learning is the one constant that will not only reinforce change, but allow us to embrace it. And the lessons we can learn can stem from the simplest and least expected situations.

When you managed to stub your toe last Tuesday, your experience created not one but three lessons, learnt by not one but three different individuals.

It happened at your grandmother’s house, after school and just before I came to pick you up. You were bawling — hard — in front of your dinner bowl by the time I arrived, and your grandmother felt absolutely helpless (even though you were shoveling rice into your mouth in between sobs; I guess nothing can stop you when you’re hungry, even a stubbed toe.

“I don’t know how to pacify him,” your grandmother said helplessly.

“Let me see,” I replied, and sat down in front of you. When you saw me, you howled harder than before.

“Okay, Xan. Let me see where you’re hurt.” You stuck your left foot into my face. There was blood, so that pretty much voided your mother’s standard “no blood, no problem” response.

“He was jumping on and off the steps and stubbed his toe on his last landing,” your grandmother said to me in Hokkien. I nodded.

“Does it hurt?” I asked you.

“(Sob) Yes… (sob, sob),” you said.

“I see. Don’t worry, Daddy will fix it right up.” You continued to cry, so I continued, “Xan, when you were jumping up and down before you hurt yourself, do you remember if you were having fun?”

Your crying went down a notch as you contemplated the question over the pain you were experiencing. Then you nodded, “Yes (sob).”

“Okay, do you remember if you were happy?” I asked.

You replied, “Yes.” And you stopped crying, almost instantaneously.

“Good. That’s really what matters, isn’t it? That you had fun, and more importantly, that you were happy,” I said. You continued with your dinner, this time with no more tears marinating your rice.

Your grandmother, who didn’t understand English, was absolutely amazed. “What did you say to him?” she asked. I told her I got you to remember he was happy, so he’d forget to be sad.

Your grandmother learnt something that day.


As we drove home, I asked if you still wanted to ride your scooter (that was in the boot of the car), considering the pain from your stubbed toe.

You thought for a moment. “Mmm… yes. My toe is not so pain any more.”

“You sure?” I asked.

“Yes. It’s not painful any more,” you chirped.

“Okay.” I wasn’t sure you’d be able to, but I wanted to see how you were going to pull it off.

I parked the car, and offloaded the scooter. Then you mounted and started pushing off with your injured foot — slowly, and with a look of hopeful concentration on your face. I knew then that you took my words to heart, that as long as you were happy and having fun, you won’t let any pain stop you.

I saw that you learnt something that day.


As you slowly rolled yourself closer to our lift lobby, you dismounted and started pushing your scooter. “That’s enough for now,” you said to no one in particular. I could tell you were making an effort not to emphasise that you were injured, because you were visibly trying to walk as normally as possible, albeit a lot slower than you normally would, and with a very slight limp.

Looking back on last Tuesday, I realised it only took a stubbed toe, a few words and the joy you found in riding your scooter for you to understand something I’ve taken my whole life to try and understand — to never let pain get in the way of your happiness, and always be happy such that you feel no pain.

I learnt something that day.

With happiness,



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