I felt a light tap on my shoulder.

“Hey! What’s up, man?”

I was startled. I must have been caught in a trance in my own world – La Passion rhythmically painting a fantastical escape before my eyes.

Abruptly pulling the headphones off my ears, I turned to see who had invaded this peaceful kingdom.

Déjà vu. Wasn’t I disturbed at this same spot on the same walk to Chemistry class 3 months ago? And by the same person? The same person whom I hadn’t seen since that faithful day?

The words “you son-of-a-bitch” nearly puked out my mouth, but his unnaturally cheerful smile caused a verbal malfunction; those beautiful words performed a rejected takeoff and came to a screeching halt at the tip of my tongue.

“Hey! You son-of-a-gun! How’s it going?” Good save.

“Yeah, I’m good,” he said softly. “Hey, wanted to just let you know I really appreciate your advice last time we talked. You really inspired me.”

I had no idea what he was talking about of course.

He went on to explain that in our previous meeting, he lamented his struggle to understand the college materials because his English was weak. It was my story of triumph the summer I immigrated to the US (in which I spent 3 solid months going to the library daily to get out of ESL classes) that motivated him to focus.

Since our last conversation, he had fully invested his time and his grasp of the English language improved dramatically. He attributed his success to my story that day.

Before I could process what he was saying, he waved good-bye, said his last “thanks” and sped off. I never heard from him again.

This might have been what George Bush meant when he said “shock and awe.”

The Power to Change a Life

I learned two lessons from that encounter.

The first was the power each one of us has to positively impact the lives of others. I seriously had no idea the story I casually told influenced my friend that profoundly. I used to think that changing lives was the responsibility of persons of high influence – political leaders, sports stars, thought leaders, and etc.

Who am I but a singular man? Who am I to think I could change anyone’s life? How could my tiny contribution have any effect?

I went about my business with those misleading thoughts, leading me to shirk my responsibility to help when I could have done so. When others were raising money or awareness for a cause, I would reliably discount the impact my $20 or 5 minutes would make, and so I would decline.

My friend taught me a valuable lesson that day: no matter who you are, how much money you have, or your status in life, you have the power to positively change someone’s life.

The personal impact you can make is not proportional to the magnitude of the gesture. Sometimes, a short story of your life could lift someone’s spirit. A hug or a kind remark could save a broken soul. And sometimes, $5 could buy more than a simple meal – it could provide opportunities that lead to real change.

Don’t discount you and the overwhelming power you have to make a difference in someone’s life.

The Power to Destroy a Life

What if, on that first meeting, I had told my friend to give up? What if I shared a debilitating story of failure and discouraged him beyond repair?

As much as each of us has the power to positively influence another life, we too possess the ability to cause harm. In a heated moment, we can unravel years of relationships we have nurtured. Sometimes, we do so without ever having the intention.

It can be especially hard for someone like me who uses humor as the de facto method of communication. For that, I have learned to read the situation and to tone down as necessary. It takes practice.

“Measure twice and cut once” can be applied generally. Take the time to think and deliberate your thoughts internally before talking, particularly when you do not know the emotional environment you are in.

When in a heated situation, walk away and cool down before reengaging – you might find that what originally enraged you could dissipate with a little time and space.

Again, don’t discount you and the overwhelming power you have to ruin someone’s day, week, or life.