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Empathy is the best legacy

This was a piece of writing I wrote in September 2017, as an entry for a writing competition. I’d like to share it here on my blog.

People question why I care so much. I question why they don’t.

When I was 15 years old, a close friend of mine told me, “You’re too nice.” I didn’t know how to feel, how to respond. I felt offended, hurt. I felt as though my character was being attacked. And well, I also felt embarrassed that she’d thrown that comment at me, right in the middle of a sports lesson in front of our friends.

I also felt confusion.

Absolute and utter confusion.

What was wrong with being nice? Is there a limit to how much you can care? Who sets this limit?

Since when did being “too nice” become an insult? And why? What sort of world are we living in when “caring too much” has negative connotations?

I didn’t grow up with privilege of any sort.  As a child, I was told stories of war-torn Vietnam and how difficult life was back home. I heard stories about running to escape the communists. Waking up late at night, getting onto a boat in the hopes for a better life. I remember my parents trying desperately to do what they could for us, even when I was too afraid to tell them what was happening to me.

I remember very vividly, too vividly, of being aggressively pushed onto my own bed, in my own room, doing things I didn’t want to do. I would close my eyes so I wouldn’t have to look as it happened, as my innocence was taken away, bit by bit each time. I remember thinking to myself, as if to soothe my own emotional and physical pain, “I’ll be okay and it’ll be done soon”. But no amount of words, no self-talk, could rid me of the crushing pain I felt after he was “done”, shooing me off like a stray dog who’d become too attached.

For years, as I was hurt from behind, from top, from that room to the next, silenced with the finger and with threats, I never stopped caring and believing that the world is still a beautiful place.

I had been stripped bare, both in the physical and emotional sense, and all I had left … all that was left to remind me that I didn’t just exist to be used, that I didn’t deserve the pain inflicted on me, that I wasn’t a child who had the ability to consent …

Was my ability to care.

I cared when I walked up to my teacher’s desk, dipped my hand into my school dress pocket and found whatever pocket money I could for the Project Compassion donation box.

I cared when my schoolteacher asked for volunteers for the 40 Hour Famine and I immediately raised my hand up into the air. I was laughed at for caring so much, mocked for taking part when nobody else would. But I continued to hold my head up high – I raised over $200 as a 14 year old.

I cared when I visited my Auntie and Uncle, always happily folding the washing that was scattered across the couch. I never asked, always offered. It made me feel good to do good for others.

Caring was the only thing I had left. The only part of me that didn’t feel dirty, or ashamed, or guilty.

When I was 17 years old, it was time to fill in my University course preferences and there was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be. I told myself that all I wanted to do was help others, so I filled in ‘Psychology’.

I was a hopeful teenager, an incredibly hopeful one. I had grand plans about “changing the world” and making the world a better place. As an adult now, I sometimes wonder whether I was chasing dreams out of my reach.

I was born in Australia. I have lived here all my life. I have lay on the beach enjoying the sun, dipped my toes in the water and enjoyed the cool breeze flowing through my hair.

I have walked past strangers with a bright smile on my face, cheeringly calling out “Good morning!” as we both go on our morning stroll.

I have beamed on the inside at being called “mate”, “darling” or “sweetie” by people I’d never met before – because that’s the beauty of living in a place like Australia.

I consider Australia my country, the only home I’ve ever known – and I’m proud to call myself Australian.

But at times, I find myself questioning how some things have changed.

I now feel the shift in the extent to which people care.

One year ago, my husband and I, together with our children, had just eaten dinner at a lovely Chinese restaurant close to our home.

We kindly asked the waiters to fit the leftovers into a takeaway box. Hubby planned to bring this combination of rice, noodles, meat and vegetables into work the next day.

We left the restaurant and walked through the sliding door to the outside of the building, when I spotted a figure lying on the ground. He was a young man, in his early 20s, I assumed, lying uncomfortably under a blanket. I told my husband to take our girls to the car first. “I’ll be there in a second,” I said.

I handed him what little change I had, apologised for not having more, then proceeded to ask for his name. He told me his name and smiled, looking pleased to be in the presence of someone who cared.

I told him, “Don’t give up hope. Keep believing that things will get better.”

I then told him about some youth services I knew of and recommended he make contact. At the time, I was studying Youth Work and I felt drawn to this man, I knew I couldn’t just walk away.

As we spoke to each other, I noticed another man walking past, laughing. He didn’t dismiss this man – he acknowledged and laughed. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

As I waved him goodbye, something just didn’t feel right. I wanted to do more.

When I walked back to the car, my husband, my sweet husband, handed me his takeaway box. He said, “Give this to him.”

I asked him, “Are you sure?”

He replied, “Of course. He needs it more than me.”

So, I handed the man lying on the ground under a blanket, the combination of rice, noodles, meat and vegetables. I said, “My husband wants you to have this.” The young man looked unsure, he didn’t want to accept it. I reassured him it was more than okay. He thanked me, his heart filled with relief and gratitude.

My husband was indeed right. This young man did need it more than him.

When I got back into the car, I told my girls what my husband and I had done for this man. I explained that no matter what problems they are having in their life, it is always important to care about other people. It was a lesson our children still remember to this day.

There are 26,000 young people between 12 – 25 with nowhere to sleep every night in Australia. 70% of them have left home due to domestic violence, abuse or family breakdown.

All it takes is losing your job, just like this young man did. Losing your home. Losing your family. Losing your friends. Losing years of what you’ve worked long and hard for. Losing patience, dignity and hope all in one sweep.

All it can take is being raped every day as a 6 years old, a young boy witnessing their father smack their mother against the wall, or a teenager’s parents arguing so loud that the police are called.

All it can take is being told over and over that you’re going to amount to nothing and that you might as well top yourself.

All it can take is one moment in time or several, for you to be ready to give up on life and on yourself.

All it takes is this disadvantage to put you at a disadvantage at home, at school, amongst your peers, in society, in your own head.

Enough disadvantage to pave the path of the rest of your life. To possibly lead to a person becoming one of the 1 million Australian adults who have depression or one of the 2 million who have anxiety a year.

As a mother, a typical school morning with my daughters involves rushing around, watching the clock and hoping we’ll get to school on time, laughing over a silly joke or a silly face, trying to get lunches sorted.

These school mornings are typical for me. Not for all.

So, it’s no wonder I’ve chosen Youth Work as my career choice. It’s no wonder that the kids that I connected with, most, during my work placements, were the most vulnerable, the most at-risk, the ones whose trauma was so heartbreaking that I never allowed myself to hug them until they showed signs they were ready.

In a similar way to how my high school friend suggested I was too nice, I have had many well-intentioned people ask, “Why Youth Work?” “Aren’t you scared of getting stabbed?” “Why would you want to work with kids with drug addictions?”

These questions often frustrate me. I want to sigh and get angry. I want to know why these questions are even questions at all.

But I don’t get angry. I always try, always, to help people understand.

I say, “Yes, it’s a challenging line of work but it is incredibly rewarding to see these kids turn their lives around. It is the best feeling ever.”

People so often want to categorise each other. To put labels on everything. She’s a “Mummy blogger!” He’s a “fitness freak”. They’re “emo kids”. We want so desperately to understand people, that we might actually be misunderstanding them in the process.

People are not categories. Human beings should not be placed into a box.

“She’s the depressed one. Always cries at the drop of a hat.”

“She’s always anxious. She overworries about everything when it comes to her kids.”

When you define people based on the problems in their life, on the very issues that they are trying to work through – you’ve already made up your mind about them.

They are no longer a young person with a drug addiction, they are a drug addict.

And as adults, we know that words are powerful. Not just the words you read in the newspaper or in a book, not just the words you hear being slung between political candidates. But the words you can’t forget your partner yelling when you both had a heated argument.

Or the words you were called as a child.
Or the words you heard when you were informed that your much loved pet died, or your relative passed after a long battle with cancer.

Or the words used in the reporting of those injured or passed in the reporting of 9/11.

Or when you discovered the number was 26. 26 Australians who lost their lives in the Boxing Day tsunami.

Words do matter.

We have every right to feel angry. Angry that our neighbour’s house was broken into by a 15 year old boy. We might even say, “I don’t care what problems he’s having at home!” We can feel angry that the same kids we see every day are always looting during school hours and acting recklessly. We can feel angry wondering where the parents are and what’s being done to rectify their behaviour. We can feel angry that second, third, fourth, fifth chances are being given to a person, yet we don’t see the chances being taken.

But let’s not stop caring. Let’s not stop empathising. Let’s not forget that pain is different for everyone. That no two people, two experiences are the same.

Let’s not forget that there is a difference between excusing and understanding behaviour. Empathy and understanding go hand in hand together.

Let’s not forget that trauma is indeed very complex and the road to recovery is far from smooth sailing.

Let’s not forget that it took me 20 years to speak up.

Let’s not forget, despite living a happy and fulfilled life with my husband and our kids, it still doesn’t change the darkness that I kept trapped inside of me every day.

It does not change the fact that it would’ve been so easy for me to pop a pill or two into my mouth and be gone the next day. It does not change the fact that I could’ve easily gone down the destructive path of drug addiction, self-harming, suicide and become another tragic statistic.

I live with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress-Disorder as a result of a child sexual abuse. I get very severe anxiety in my hands and in my fingers when a simple change to my day happens. I can’t enjoy a strong cup of coffee because it makes me too jittery. I talk extremely fast sometimes to keep up with the thoughts running through my head.

But I am not my mental illness. It took the empathy of others to help me see that and truly understand that.

If it weren’t for the empathy of the wonderful people in my life, who insisted we catch up for coffee, who baked me biscuits to cheer me up, who cooked dinner for my family because I couldn’t bare the thought of breathing, much less, cooking, who listened to me cry over and over again – if it weren’t for these people showing me empathy at a time when I needed it the most, I would cease to exist today.

I am alive but there are parts of me that are barely holding on. I still question why my husband loves me. I don’t consider myself strikingly beautiful. I have extra weight around my stomach, on my arms, on my thighs. I talk a lot and laugh at my own jokes. My anxiety is glaringly obvious when things don’t go as planned.

But even as I ask him, insecurities and all, I know what his answer will be. It’s the same answer it has been for the past 11 years, since we first got together.

“It’s because you care so much,” he says to me. “People these days just don’t care that much. It’s why I fell in love with you so fast.”

If we stop caring because others don’t, we don’t make the world a better place and the world just stays the same.

If we start believing in the ‘perfectionist fallacy’, we become pawns in a game, unable and unwilling to make any difference or impact at all.

If we start believing that the hurt of our past is reason to hate others, to hate life … then anyone who has hurt us, wins.

I was abused by someone I trusted. To this day, this abuse of trust lives on through my incessant counting when I’m crossing off items on my to-do list.

It lives on when my girls go to a public toilet and I always stay close by.

It lives on when I wonder if I’m striking the right balance between encouraging independence in my children and keeping them safe.

But, this abuse of trust hasn’t dampened my ability to care. To empathise. To feel the pain of others. Not at all.

Friends have suggested to me that if it weren’t for the pain I endured, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

I respectfully beg to differ.

I made a choice many years ago, to choose to be kind, to care, to live with empathy. I chose not to let threats, bribes, coercion, secrets to be all there is to me and to my life. I chose not to live with hate, with fear, with darkness. I chose strength, love and connection.

I have chosen to always take the time to listen when a people is feeling suicidal, even if it takes hours before they are no longer at immediate risk. I have chosen to look deeply into other people’s eyes and really see the person they are inside. To look beyond the tip of the iceberg.

By choosing empathy, you are choosing connection. You are reminding others that they are not alone in this world. That they are not their mistakes. That you can help them by being a part of the solution.

Choose not to simply walk past a person lying on the street. Choose not to paint people of the same culture with the same brush. Choose to believe in people.

Choose to feel whatever emotion you want to feel, but never forget that others around you probably feel the same too.

Choose to really care when you see another Australian and ask, “how are you?”

Choose to care what the response to that answer is.

Let empathy be the best legacy that you leave behind.

Thuy Le (formerly known as Thuy Yau) is a freelance writer and Youth Work graduate living in Perth, Australia. She loves to share her own personal experiences about overcoming adversity, as she believes that human beings are more capable than they realise. She writes to make a positive difference in the world and to inspire others to learn from themselves and their own experiences. Her writing has been discussed on radio, won writing contests, appeared on The Huffington Post UK and major Australian sites such as, SMH, Kidspot and Essential Kids. She has just completed her first book – a memoir - and is on the search for a publisher.

4 thoughts on “Empathy is the best legacy

  1. This is an immensely powerful piece of writing in its message and its honesty. We need more people like you to influence the course of events in the world, for indeed they most surely will, from the grass roots upwards.

    1. Aww what a sweet message! Thank you. Yes, we need to continue to live with empathy – as hate will only continue to destroy us and each other. This is so very relevant now with the horrific events in New Zealand. Much love to you xox

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