In the wake of recent tragedies on college campuses — a young woman taking her life at the University of Pennsylvania and a shooter at Purdue taking the life of another — it is easy to feel grief and distrust settle in your being. How can these young people, young like us, fail to find alternative releases for their feelings so that they become overwhelmed to this heart-sickening degree? After hearing news like this, you might begin to look at the world through more skeptical eyes, and then a hardening gradually takes place in the heart.
Yet we cannot allow our hearts to harden, especially in these times of sadness and despair. We cannot allow a wall to build in our chests, for those walls will only keep us from the one thing that can truly heal the deep cultural wounds expressed and perpetuated through these tragedies. Instead, we need to do what might feel counterintuitive. We need to turn wholeheartedly to love.
When in high school, I suffered a great deal from debilitating anxiety. It hit me like a wall. My life as I knew it, painted as perfect on the outside, was crumbling. My foundation of self gave way, and I no longer felt at ease in my body — nor on this planet for that matter.
I struggled with the big existential questions. Why am I here? Am I lovable? Who even am I? I felt that I had truly lost myself. On most days an anxious fear gripped my reality, and I wasn’t sure if I could continue to live this way. When would the pain stop? Would it ever?
I’m blessed with a family that granted me the gift of safety and vulnerability. I could expose my struggle and seek the help I needed. This was a challenge at school, a space that did not possess the same qualities of acceptance. But at home, I was able to begin the ongoing process of deep healing I needed. I was able to be me, in whatever expression of me took form that day.
Through my experience of suffering, I realized that we can never make assumptions about individuals, regardless of how “together” they may appear on the outside. As we all know, suffering can linger behind a laugh or a smile. So it is our duty to be receptive to the suffering of our Stanford peers, and to create a sense of safety so that suffering no longer has to be veiled.
How can we do this? The answer is to cultivate compassion in all walks of life.
In Latin, the original root word of “compassion” literally translates to “suffering with.” Yet the idea of suffering with someone does not necessarily create in us resolve. The true definition of compassion does not only entail suffering with an individual, which might be more appropriately coined empathy: rather, it suggests possessing a quality of love, understanding and hope while feeling for another. By compassionately helping with another’s suffering, you are not drained, but left feeling stronger; you are not handing over oil for the lamp, but rather, you are giving enduring light.
Compassion involves forethought. It involves being in tune with one another’s feelings and suffering by giving all those that we interact with “the gift of sight.” As Jeff Brown wrote, “If there is any need that is perpetually unmet on this planet, it is the need to feel seen.”
Ultimately, we all seek “to feel seen in our humanity, in our vulnerability, in our beautiful imperfection.” I would like to think that both of these tragedies would not have happened if only those individuals had been seen, had been heard, had been understood, and had been extended compassion. “When we are held safe in that, a key turns inside of our hearts, freeing us from our isolation, transforming our inner world.”
I care about Stanford deeply. I believe we are a collection of kind but very busy individuals. It is so vastly important that we make sure to take the time in our busy lives to truly see each other: to ask questions, to listen and to be compassionate towards ourselves and others.
Even when the sun is shining and the palm trees are swaying in a gentle breeze, you should be able to have a bad day and feel safe in sharing it. Grow your communities. Extend a smile or a kind word. Put away your phone and make eye contact as you walk to class. Make an effort to connect. And in the wake of this tragic news, do all that you can to soften your heart towards everybody you find. Love is the only thing that truly heals. To complete the Brown quote, to love is to say “ ‘I see you’ — perhaps the most important words we can utter to another.”
Annie Anton, Class of 2014
Please sign Stanford’s Compassion Charter. Commit to Stanford’s goal of being a compassionate institution. To find out more details about the charter and sign, please visit http://compassionatestanford.
Annie Anton is an undergraduate majoring in Psychology. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org