Your own kindling: finding happiness within ourselves

The following piece is a response to Ajit Vakharia’s April 2 piece “Embracing Compassion against Mortality.”

In his article, Ajit told the story of his late brother and of the torch Ajit now carries: how, in his brother’s words, “My happiness depends on the happiness of those around me.”

This is a compassionate ideal, but it’s far more dangerous than it sounds. Ajit notes that “happiness cannot be found within one’s own bubble,” but I must disagree.

I sympathize with Ajit’s intentions and I respect Ajit not only for his courage, but also as someone who lived in the same freshman dorm as him. But just as Ajit felt a need to share, I, too, feel a similar need. I also want to pass on what I’ve learned.

Chiefly, we must learn that happiness is a gesture from within, not an external outcome, and that before we can effectively show compassion to others, we must show compassion to ourselves. I reject the notion that “Our confidence in our own individuality is not just unproductive. It is counterproductive” because for me, it has always been the other way around.

This story begins in my childhood, when I first began navigating the idea-laden hurricane that was television, and the takeaway was to put your friends first. Your friends are everything. In other words, “my happiness depends on the happiness of those around me.” For the first 19 years of my life, this principle was something that I internalized.

Sparing the details, I ended up unhappy after my freshman year, without any sense of self-validation — a feeling that persisted till this year. To illustrate, I would spend hours at my desk, starting at nothing, ruminating on the fact that no matter what I did for others, I was unhappy. I would be kind, singing compliments like they were my lifeline, smiling at every opportunity and pretending it was genuine. At that point, I was willing to give all my time to others without realizing how feeble my efforts must have been when I myself had little to give. Compassion and happiness are related, but ultimately different, states of being. The expression of compassion to others alone is simply not enough to lead towards happiness.

There were two things that allowed me to exit the depths of my struggle. The first one was a lesson from a friend. He had noted that over the summer, he learned how to eat alone — to enjoy his own company. And he was happier for it.

The second was when I started going to CAPS. My psychiatrist explained to me that it was not fair for me to base my own happiness off the happiness of others. The constant rocking and unsteadiness and the loss of agency over my feelings were unfair. Unfair. And with this word, I was able to let this self-destructive need to make others happy at all costs go.

When I decided that the only person that would validate myself would be myself, everything began to fall into place. I met people who loved me for who I am, not for what I’d done for them. I believe this understanding underlay my successful counseling evaluation at The Bridge, and I have been staffing there since last quarter. After shedding the need for others to embrace me, I finally felt wanted.

It’s within this framework and from this background that I respond to Ajit. I don’t believe that my confidence in my own individuality is counterproductive. I share the anecdote we use at The Bridge: You have to help yourself before you can help others. On an airplane, you must secure your own oxygen mask before assisting another. In other words, you have to show compassion to yourself before you can spread it. A candle can only light another if its own flame is burning bright. How else could the sun bring warmth to others unless its own core did not burn millions of degrees hotter?

With that, I want to note that Ajit is right. We need more compassion. Selfishness is the enemy, apathy is anathema and we could be doing more to share our warmth. I’d be in a worse place without compassion. But as with all things, we must balance our compassion for ourselves and our compassion for others. We must work to a point when we can forge our own happiness, enjoy our own company and eat lunch alone. Ultimately, the only things we have control over are our decisions, not the emotions or reactions of others. If we cede our own emotions to other people, we lose a further degree of agency over ourselves. If we lose the ability to maintain our own flames, we can no longer kindle the fire of others. It may not be easy, but we have to respect ourselves just as much as we respect everyone else, and in this way, we may set the whole world alight.


Mark Flores ‘16 is a sophomore at Stanford. Contact him at markf16 “at” stanford.edu.