I wrote this reflection several months ago when I was working at a health nonprofit serving the Vietnamese community in San Jose, California. Though at first glance it may not relate directly to medicine, a lot of the things I was ruminating on apply to our work as future docs. Plus, this publication is sort of new, so I thought I’d stretch the scope of what is considered “relevant” or “appropriate,” both on in-Training and in medicine in general.
Last week my mother attended the funeral of an acquaintance of hers from college. At the service she learned more about the man who had died, the person he was in life. Polio had left him paralyzed from the neck down and wheelchair-bound from the age of three. After immigrating to the United States at age sixteen, he had access to more advanced treatments and physical therapy. After much perseverance, he gained the use of this arms and learned to play guitar. Making music became one of his greatest passions in life.
He eventually made it to UC Berkeley, where he studied mechanical engineering. He had a vibrant career as an engineer, and he also fathered a son. He is remembered for always, without fail, illuminating the room with an enormous smile, and for always having a joke on hand. When his seventeen-year-old son came up to the podium to give a eulogy at the service, he opened up with a joke.
Where I come from, I am constantly humbled by the quiet heroes around me, the people whose quotidian lives are in fact extraordinary. The other day I was doing some work in the conference room of our office, typing away alongside two co-workers. I heard them laughing and looked up, admiring the scene, when all of a sudden I recalled a story that one of them, the older one, had once shared with my mother — a story that had shocked me as a child. It was the story of how she and her family members had survived their harrowing passage by boat from Vietnam, our shared motherland. Her family had been forced to drink their own urine to stay hydrated while lost at sea. They had been a breath away from death. My mind then wandered to the story of my other co-worker, whose father spent years in a Viet Cong re-education camp after the war, and who lost a brother in her family’s journey to this country.
Something quite the opposite of a chill came over me as I watched my co-workers chat and laugh with each other. A feeling of warmth, like fire, like love. Here they were, here they were. Laughing about their man troubles and discussing health care paperwork — in English, no less — and problem-solving, filing papers, and providing for their families. And living, ordinarily and extraordinarily.
Where I come from, I am living among heroes every single minute of my life. No medals, no media attention, but even the receptionist at my dentist’s office is a survivor and a fighter and a lover.
Even as recently as a year ago, I might have chalked this fact up to being Vietnamese, with the sort of fervent race-pride of poets and activists. Indeed, there is no doubting the spectacular struggle of my particular people. But I think the deepest truth of all is that if you stop in your tracks and look around you, at the woman walking by with her dog, and the high school kids shuffling home with their baggy jeans, and the woman pushing the cart of cans by and all these people around us–there is no guessing what their stories are, what they have survived, how they have grown, how they keep on going, every day. One would never guess it of my co-workers. One couldn’t possibly guess the extraordinary in their ordinary.
I think that’s what Plato meant when he said that now-cliched adage about being kind to everyone you meet “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” An old friend of mine used to roll her eyes at that notion, as though to say, “Yeah, some harder than others.”
It’s true. It would be a slap in a million faces to deny it. Some have fought harder battles than others.
But me, I don’t think it’s about what you’ve been through but how you carry on, how you hold yourself, and how you relate to the pain of others. No matter what you’ve been through, someone has been through worse. The people I admire most are those who keep their faces to the sun, through the tears, no matter causes them sorrow — whether it be abstract and lofty or something terribly corporeal like the violent loss of a loved one. They find this life to be worth living, and they try to carry on. It is in the trying. In clinging to those moments of laughter and light. It’s the most incredible part of our nature, the capacity to reach for gratitude, even through suffering.
I don’t wish pain upon anybody, certainly not the kind that my people have gone through, no matter how instructive we can call it in retrospect. But I do wish that those who have not experienced their own share of pain might strive to empathize, to imagine what it would be like to suffer, and to live their lives according to the values that such awareness would call for.
Be kind — be kind; you can’t even imagine the battles some people are fighting.