One of the most touching and inspirational stories I've seen is that of Juan Mann in Australia. In 2004, after a series of personal setbacks, he was at a party and received a random hug. In his words, he "felt like a king!" Since then, he made it a point to return the favor by going to his local shopping area and offering himself -- he carried a "free hugs" sign and made himself available. What initially started as skeptical looks and overall distrust, soon melted away as the man's authenticity shone through. Over the course of a few years, the earnest effort he started resulted in an online video seen over 70 million times, visits on the Oprah show and top world news telecasts, and the start of a decentralized global movement.
Interestingly, Juan Mann didn't join/start an organization, he didn't strategize, he didn't seek to "maximize impact." He merely offered himself from the position he was in, and opportunities to serve started popping up. As those opportunities came, he tried to step up his giving, going to a point where he was evicted for inviting any and all to his home to share their stories on camera. To me, the point of this story isn't how many people he reached; it was the change that happened in him as a result of his action.
When I was first exposed to the idea of service to people/planet, my immediate reaction was a wish to create the conditions for "amazing service." I was thinking, "Yeah, I'll help people, but I want to do it in a way that really makes a splash." Be it cutting a big check, mobilizing large groups or anything in between, the motto was to go big or go home. Problem was, I wasn't in the position to go big. Not rich, not powerful -- just a regular guy. At this point, the usual response is to force-fit the conditions to occur. Consequently, the thoughts came to build an organization or earn lots of money, then I'd do something for others.
Around that time, I happened to come across ServiceSpace, a loose-knit group that had as one of its three key tenets -- serve with whatever one has. What a revelation. I don't need to be/have/own anything to be a philanthropist. All I need is a shift in perspective and a willingness to offer myself, in whatever capacity I was able.
In the years since then, I have seen dozens of people walk down this path, from filmmakers to healthcare practitioners to cab drivers. In each case, it was amazing to witness what happened immediately after individuals took the leap. It is as though it required taking the first step for the second to appear, and what started as a small act of giving has continued to grow as each person deepens their commitment to service. But that's not all; there have been benefits beyond the personal level. Time and again, I've seen individuals inspired by others taking that first step, and have consequently taken the first step themselves. Like this, an ecosystem of support begins to develop, and you have the makings of a snowball effect.
It all starts with one act of giving by one person, along with a commitment to step it up by giving a little more. No formalities needed, no organization sanctioning. Who knows where it leads, but at the minimum it offers the chance to get started and see what happens. There was an ancient Chinese parable stating the following
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn't change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.
As Juan Mann would say, being the change you wish to see in the world not only creates the ripples in society, but makes each person feel like a king.
Photos from freehugscampaign.org and from Flickr Creative Commons.