Three recent encounters left me musing about the importance of empathy and emotional well-being in the lives of those we love and touch.
We all meet proud parents. Parents whose joy in their children shines like an aura. In my travels, I crossed paths with such a parent recently. As we talked, stories emerged about a beloved son, a bright and articulate elementary student. I enjoyed soaking in the reflected parental love.
Then the parent surprised me. The son’s commitment and passion for a final school project was found wanting. Compared to his peers, he did not take the project seriously. Work would soon begin to derail a habit of procrastination.
Other characteristics emerged — the child’s past tendency to self-isolate, to be hard on himself. I struggled for words, trying to suggest that emotional health is a worthwhile goal of parenting. The exchange left me queasy. Why do academics take priority over a child’s emotional well-being? Our culture speaks fluently the language of accomplishment, but often stutters about values of self-acceptance and emotional wellbeing.
A new fluency would help us all.
Grad makes meaning of tragedy
Accomplished and questing young college students are among the great joys of life. Last month, I met Brandon Hadi, newly graduated from the University of Washington. In 2015, Brandon had experienced the death of a close friend by suicide. Caught unawares, Brandon felt swamped by the guilt that flows in suicide’s aftermath. Why hadn’t his friend reached out?
This past year, as a senior, Brandon worked to make meaning of this tragedy. He and others developed the API Mental Health & Wellness Summit, a first-ever event for Asian and Pacific Islander students at UW.
His friend’s suicide rocked Brandon’s view of his own life, too. Is medicine still the career he wants? And if compassion is the core of healing, why had he not sensed more empathy among those physicians he shadowed? Instead, he observed a hands-off attitude. “They refer out, refer out,” he said, flicking his fingers in dismissal. “Just like everyone else, they carry the stigma against the mentally ill.”
We spoke of his hopes that a second summit would ensue in 2017, of the reality that Asian-Pacific-Islander students often face deeper familial expectation than do Anglo students. Might the summit become an annual student tradition? Brandon said he hopes so.
He spoke, too, of searching for a career that will better fit the adult he wants to become. Two concepts emerged: Caring for and enjoying his family and friends are Brandon’s highest values. And decreasing the stigma around mental illness is now his passion. In March, Brandon was named to the Husky 100, recognition of those UW students who make the most of their time on campus.
The hammer is empathy
This may sound unlikely at first blush. But picture your toolbox brim full with tools that you may use to respond to a friend in emotional distress. A real hammer is widely used, from prying nails to hanging pictures, to fixing a fence. So, empathy becomes the virtual hammer, because it’s what we should reach for first in an emotional or suicidal crisis.
This analogy comes from the Student Support Network six-week training program, which just completed its tenth year at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.