“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy.” ~Meryl Streep
Growing up I spent a lot of time on the Internet browsing websites and looking at images. One image that stuck with me as a child showed an old man lying on a hospital bed, with tubes running into his mouth. In his hand, he held a “no smoking” sign.
As I stared at that image I began to think what it must be like to face the horrible consequences of failing health. I imagined the pain, the regret, and the desperation for a second chance. He wouldn’t get a second chance, though.
I lost myself in that moment, becoming the old man. Embodying his pain, regret, and his desire to warn others as a way to ease his pain. I learned through his experience, instead of my own, not to smoke.
Deconstructing the Lesson
By seeing the old man on his deathbed, we understand his mistake intellectually. However, through empathy, we can learn much more deeply. Through empathy, we create a painful association in our mind, much like classical conditioning, to a behavior.
This experience led me to avoid cigarettes because I associate them with pain, regret, and desperation. The old man used his painful emotions for good: He gave others a chance to learn from his mistakes. Now, I want to share my story, so that others can learn from my mistakes.
In middle school, I dreaded gym class. Not because I hated exercise, but because having the entire class stare at me while I finished the run last was humiliating. Being overweight most my life, this was my reality.
For me, being overweight made me feel that people didn’t want to be seen with me. For me, running was reserved for other people. Being overweight meant low self-esteem, low confidence, and shame; I hated it.
Unlike the old man, I still had time to change.
Each night after dinner, I would grab my mp3 player and go outside for a walk. The mp3 player had songs that stirred up my emotions and gave me motivation.
Focusing on all the pain that comes with being overweight, I drove myself to change. I vividly imagined myself finishing last, over and over. I decided that would never happen ever again.
Night after night, I walked and walked. Finally, I started to ride my bike, and slowly, I started to notice I was losing weight.
Months later, on a walk home, I decided I was going to run back. Running in my free time was not typical for me, as you can imagine, but surprisingly, as I broke into a run, I felt stronger than I had ever before.
The feeling of the air rushing by me was incredible. For the first time in my life, I associated running with pleasure. It felt like I was flying, so I put my arms out like an airplane and smiled.
Deconstructing the Lesson
A lot of people say exercise takes discipline, but I say it takes empathy. In my story I empathized with myself—my future self. I wanted a better quality of life for myself in the future.
I wanted an escape from all the painful emotions of being overweight. I didn’t even know what it was like to feel the air rush by when running. Being in shape showed me that being overweight feels like you are cemented to the ground by comparison.
The purpose of my story is to shed light on being overweight. If you are healthy, don’t take your health for granted; don’t go through what I went through.
I enjoy this quote by Tony Robbins: “Success doesn’t just show up one day. Failure doesn’t just show up one day, it adds up from all the little things. Failure to make the call, failure to check the books, it’s failure to say I’m sorry. It’s failure to push yourself to do something. All those little failures add up and one day something cataclysmic shows up, and you blame that, but it’s because all the little stuff added up.”
We don’t just run once and say, “Alright, I’m fit for life now!” Each day we make the little decisions that add up to our outcomes. I learned that lesson the hard way, but I used my painful emotions to bring positive change.
Sharing Your Painful Experiences
By sharing our stories, we give others a chance to learn from our mistakes instead of letting them learn the same way we did. Viktor Frankl is a great example of this kindness.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl chronicled his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II. He describes how we all have freedom over our minds, and how we can leverage that freedom to decide the meaning of our experiences.
Viktor decided that he would survive the concentration camp to make sure that something like this would never happen ever again. That decision to give his experience an empowering meaning gave him the willpower he needed to survive.
Deconstructing the Lesson
Sharing our painful stories with each other is not being weak; I believe it’s being strong and considerate. I believe that we should not be ashamed to be vulnerable and share our darkest times.
We can choose to use empathy to learn from others and help them, and we can use our painful emotions to help others learn from our mistakes. Both approaches give painful emotions a new usefulness in our lives.
For example, if we find ourselves grieving the loss of a loved one, a breakup, or other unfortunate event, we can decide the meaning of our experience, as Victor Frankl did.
We can change the meaning of losing a loved one from loss, to discovering a new appreciation for all the loved ones we still have. Similarly, we can change the meaning of a break-up from disappointment, to new opportunities and insight.
Just as I imagined the pain of being overweight to bring positive change, imagine the consequences of prolonged grief. If we don’t change the meaning of these tragedies, our life may begin to suffer.
If we re-live the breakup over and over, we may decide to never open up again, for fear of another disappointment. Imagining the pain of living life that way can serve as the impetus for change.
In the same way as I did, we can imagine the emotions our future self may feel if we don’t make a change.
Through these events, we grow in our ability to control our emotions, and to help others who will inevitably face these same challenges.
While we wouldn’t desire these emotions, nor seek them out, we can view them as learning experiences for ourselves, and others. In Man’s Search for Meaning, we learn that through our suffering we may discover our purpose in life.
For Victor Frankl, his purpose is to share his story to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again. For me, I want to share my story to show that our painful emotions can be used for positive change.