I believe in empathy.
Part of empathy is understanding that every life we meet goes beyond the small part we see. One day, seven years ago, my family and I learned this life lesson together while on a family walk. To everyone outside, it looked like we were on an idyllic family stroll. In truth, we were walking to the hospital where we would learn whether I could survive my brain cancer. Just like the people who saw us, we too had no idea about the invisible struggles anyone else on the sidewalk faced. This experience has helped us have empathy for others.
Before that, when I was wronged, my knee-jerk reaction was judgment. But now, I’m learning to have patience and to imagine what the other person might be going through, from roommate conflicts to a lost internship. This new perspective saves everyone involved unnecessary grief and bitterness, leaving room for happier things. Many behaviors change from condemnable to understandable with additional information. For example, a misdeed could have extenuating circumstances. A cold heart could trace back to betrayal or loss. This perspective enables us to help others rather than criticize them.
Far more often, though, signs that not all is well are subtler and could easily go unnoticed. It helps that I’m curious (tactfully, I hope) and check in whenever something sounds off. Mom and I have an inside joke. When one of us takes a deep breath or sighs, we reflexively ask if anything is wrong. Often nothing is wrong, but this is how we support one another. The troubles people experience can range from a rough week to a life-shaping tragedy. No matter where they fall, compassion is free to give, and I think it’s always worth offering.
Because I try to be compassionate, friends have felt comfortable sharing their burdens with me. Several friends whom I’d least expect are the ones who have gone years or even decades quietly suffering from traumatic scars. For example, after having been silent for decades, one of my older friends confided in me that he lived alone because he was scarred by childhood sexual abuse. I am sure all of us have friends with buried troubles like this.
Thinking and living this way has been one of the many great life lessons I learned through my own ordeal with cancer. Appreciating the fact that there’s so much more to every life has helped me stay positive. It has relieved me from the burden of resentment. And most importantly, it has helped me understand and build relationships with others. I am encouraged by being able to help others, and in the process form strong and lasting bonds. Although my own scars from cancer still ache at times, I wouldn’t trade away all the lessons I’ve learned.
I want to share this life-shaping lesson. Having grown back all my hair after chemotherapy, I recently shaved it off. Not only will I donate it to others going through similar struggles, but shaving also revealed my brain surgery scars. I hope this will be a visual reminder that there’s more to every life than meets the eye.
I believe in empathy.
Brett Green is a graduate student at Penn State studying physics.