Following a routine screening last summer, my dad learned that he had cancer. In the months that followed, amid doctors’ appointments and surgery and hushed phone calls and microwavable dinners, I diligently avoided partying — that is, pity partying.
Trying not to grovel in the gravity of my dad’s situation, I kept my emotions inside, not bothering to tell most of my friends or teachers about my family’s predicament. I kept it secret out of fear that speaking out would jinx things, make it feel more real. I needed condolence from my friends, but I didn’t want them to think that I was weak or looking for attention.
To a certain extent, pity, for oneself and from others, is vital for maintaining mental health. True, we can’t all sit around feeling sorry for ourselves, but at times it is necessary to acknowledge and allow ourselves a certain amount of suffering. I tried to be the poster child of strength and resilience, but in doing so, I failed to acknowledge my own emotions and recognize the difficulty of the present situation.
I pictured myself as one in a million in terms of suffering. Treatable cancer seemed trivial when I looked at a newspaper or watched the news: kids starving, people dying, dictators killing. But the seeming insignificance of personal suffering should never act as a roadblock to the expression of pain. Such an attitude led to my near destruction many months later, after the final shockwaves of cancer had subsided. As my dad gradually returned to his healthy physical self, my situation only began to improve when I accepted that the suffering I experienced was legitimate and not trivial.
Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” The one constant in the human experience is suffering. Although our struggles differ, we are alike in our struggling, and the way we bear these struggles distinguishes us. I trivialized my suffering by comparing it to others’. Suffering pervades every life, but identifying this shared misery allows all of us to live more empathetically. Distinct, individual pain can bear the fruits of compassion and mutual understanding.
This phenomenon frequently plays out in the judicial system: The success of an insanity plea in a court of law often correlates to the degree of empathy and understanding the jury feels for the defendant. In a notorious case in 1859, Congressman Daniel Sickles shot and killed District Attorney Philip Barton Key but was acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity, spurred by the knowledge that Key was having an affair with his wife. Talk about a pity plea.
Remember that kid in elementary school who used his grandmother’s cold as an excuse to postpone his spelling assignment? But what about that other kid who pummels kids on the playground because his dad pummels him? It is challenging to navigate to what extent it is acceptable to let our hardships and struggles act as scapegoats for our actions.
A person who constantly conjures excuses for his shortcomings and missteps — no matter how viable such excuses may be — is difficult to tolerate. Conversely, a person who overcomes hardship with resilience and optimism inspires and provides a model for transforming suffering into satisfaction.
Americans love celebrities, and even more so if they rose from a history of poverty or abuse or any other number of challenges. Oprah’s history — marked by poverty and abuse — makes her relatable and inspirational; she appeals to her audience’s underdog sensibilities, the belief that they too can triumph in spite of past troubles.
My dad’s cancer saga intersected with the fall of my senior year of high school. I remember writing about my situation on college applications and thinking that I might as well let my dad’s cancer help get me into college; at least it’ll be good for something.
Unlike Oprah, who uses her troubled past for the betterment of others, I used my struggles to my own advantage to gain pity from admissions officers. I will never know if this factor influenced my acceptance to Berkeley, but I do know that something felt wrong about using cancer to “one-up” other applicants in adversity. Sympathy for oneself and for others is necessary, but wielding sympathy as an asset leaves only emptiness.
A year has passed since my father’s diagnosis, and he is nearly complete in his physical recovery. I am recovering too. But my recovery is made easier knowing that the rest of the world shares in my suffering; we are united by our pain, not divided. We are one in our struggles and our triumphs, no matter how much they vary. As Nietzsche said: “Rejoicing in our joy, not suffering over our suffering, makes someone a friend.”
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