From Awkward to Awesome Compassion

My sister died of a brain tumor in 1998, and my brother died in a car crash in 2006.  This past summer, my other brother had hearing and balance problems, and has learned he also has a tumor growing in his ear canal.  His prognosis is pretty good–the tumor is easier to remove than my sister’s tumor was, and he won’t need radiation or chemotherapy, but the doctor told him he will likely lose all hearing in his left ear, and following surgery will need to learn how to walk again due because your inner ear controls balance.  Recently he posted the following message on Facebook.  I liked it so much I asked him if I could share it.

My friend Sara sent me this, and I identify with it a lot. I don’t think my tumor happened for some reason. I don’t think my brother and sister died for some grand purpose. I don’t need a reason for adversity to happen.

The thing is, I’m really thankful for my tumor in this really weird, really strange way. It’s taught me a lot about the compassion of others, and how compassionate I should be if I meet someone who’s going through a rough time. (It’s also helped me not feel my emotions as acutely as I once did, which has been extremely helpful in allowing me to get work done.)

I also see limited upside in my siblings death because at an early age I learned nothing is permanent, nothing lasts forever. You could die today, or next week, or in 100 years. So don’t wait to die. Live.

So to be clear, those major adversities in my life may have happened for a reason. The reason might have been the ones I outlined. But realistically, it doesn’t matter. I’m not privy to god’s (or whatever construct you believe in) master plan of the universe. And the fact is: I don’t actually need to be. Religion is great for some people to help them deal with problems, but for me religion is about making me a better person now, not explaining the mysteries of the universe.

Here’s the only thing I know for certain: Adversity is.

It’s not good, not bad, not purposeful, not meaningless. It just exists. And instead of trying to reconcile it into some mental framework accept that really what’s happening just is happening.

You get to control your reaction and preparation, and that’s it.

I choose to react positively because that’s probably a big part of my personality, which I think is genetic. But for a lot of people they might not choose that. And that’s ok. One of my besties has a way heavier burden health wise, and as a result, he sees the world more pessimistically. And that’s fine. It doesn’t make him a bad person, or anything. It’s his survival mechanism, and mixes with his personality the way it does.

The thing I really need, and I’m assuming by extension, other people, is not for you to bestow meaning while I’m going through adversity. I’ve already found that, and others will likely find that on their own, or not. Dropping a “heaven exists! You’ll see them again someday,” or a “things happen for a reason” their way isn’t going to help very much. I realize the sentiment you’re trying to send and i hope others appreciate your attempt at connecting, however awkward it may come across to the recipient.

People going through rough times need connection, need to feel safe, and confident in their abilities. Focus on giving people connection (drop bys, emails, phone calls, going out of your way to say hi to someone in a non-regular environment), helping them feel safe by VOLUNTEERING (not “i’m here if you need me”, but actively like stepping up and just doing something for them) because that’ll mean the world. They know if everything went to hell, you’d be there to help, and that makes them feel safe. And help them feel confident in their abilities by asking actively “can i help you with x”, where x might be watching the kids so they can clean the house themselves, or doing some free consulting work so they can fulfill their regular job, or trying to introduce them to people in your industry so you can help them find a job, or something.

A great example of how simple this can be is my neighbor Brent. Yesterday he said to me in passing “hey i put your name in the temple.” That means he thought about me at some other time of day and did some action that was meaningful to him. (Also to me, because I’m Mormon and that means something to me, but that’s beside the point.) My neighbor Dustin mowed my lawn once, and fixed my car once, before we even knew about the tumor.

So to be clear, if you don’t know what to say, just go ahead and be awkward. Show you love. That is great. Being awkward at expression compassion is still 100% better than not expressing it. But maybe this post can help you go to the next level of awesome compassion when you meet someone who’s going through a tough time.

I’ve been learning a lot. And to be honest my tumor isn’t even that serious. I mean yeah, it’s brain surgery, but it’s extremely likely I’ll be back to 100% by either the end of the year this year, or early next year.

But if not, I’ll still be as awesome as possible. And that’s all I can really hope for. And the good news is I have an awesome support system around me that is SHOWING UP and helping out. Not everyone has that. My family / church / YC fam are really helping out. So to them I say thanks, and to whomever you know, go be compassionate. smile emoticon

Despite all my seeming expertise in brain tumors and sibling deaths, I still am at a loss as to respond to my brother’s situation.  I do feel awkward compassion.  I want to say something profound, but I also don’t want to say the silly platitudes like “things happen for a reason.”  Like him, I still haven’t come to grips with the loss of a brother and sister.  Yes, I probably mourn with those that mourn better, but I’d rather have them back healthy and still suck at compassion.  We live about an hour and a half away from each other, so it’s hard for me to go mow his lawn or something like that.  We will get together at Thanksgiving, and I am encouraged that he is so cool that “if you don’t know what to say, just go ahead and be awkward.”  That describes me.

Sometimes awesome compassion is hard.  I used to take my sister to radiation therapy every day for 6 weeks (which led to her later hearing loss.)  It was awesome compassion, and I developed special bond with her during that trying time.  It was easy for me to take her–we lived close and I know that it really helped her family.  I treasure those 6 weeks of helping, and it was the best I could do during those trying 21 months after she was diagnosed.  I also took her young children (now grown adults) to see Star Wars when it was re-released.  That was a fun memory.  But the other 20 months or so was mostly awkward compassion.  Most of the time I just felt helpless.  It’s nice that I have awesome siblings that recognize awkward compassion and love me anyway.


2 comments on “From Awkward to Awesome Compassion

  1. Thank you for sharing that. When my best friend died from melanoma last year, playing golf together and remembering the good times of our life and the lives of others were most comforting. His Catholic faith and my Mormon faith were part of the good and often really funny events of our shared experiences.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I have no other thoughts than agreeing with your brother. While I could still improve, I’ve gotten better at not trying to “fix” or “soothe”, but rather to simply, proactively – awkwardly (love that) – just be there for others.

    I was 22 when my parents passed away. The only thing that people said that I really remember where those who simply said, “I don’t know what to say. I’m just so sorry.”

    If you don’t know what to say, admit it. Say it.

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