Happy Days Are Here Again
By Freya Patel
In this personal statement, I reflect on how suffering alters the way we see the people around us, and how that phenomenon ended up playing a big part in my life.
Growing up, I learned that suffering is what makes people human. I saw this narrative being repeated throughout my developmental years, different contexts but all trying to communicate the same thing. It is considered an act of kindness to see strangers as though they’re inherently in pain, where suffering equates to worth and depth—I came to see this perspective as strange, and it grew even stranger when grief became the center of my life. I was suddenly the subject of this ideology. As my environment unravelled in front of my eyes, I began grasping at the threads and tried pulling my world back together. This was when I realized that happiness could be worth the narrative, too.
I disagree in seeing suffering as the bedrock for why we treat others as human. I gained perspective on this when my mum became ill during my sophomore year of high school. Strangers at school apologized; “With Sympathy” cards were sent from companies my dad worked at six years ago; and an uncomfortable, knowing air surrounded my friends and I when we talked. Following her passing during my junior year, I was forced to confront my unease—forced to ask the question of why others were treating me the way they did.
I returned to school that same year with the goal of embracing people as though they were just being understanding; giving them the benefit of the doubt, if you will. However, with time, I came to recognize their words and actions as pity rather than empathy, and that I was actually being observed. Those who knew about my loss saw me as a product of tragedy itself, thus I became complex to them. People looked at me like I was a puzzle and they were waiting to see where that last piece fit in. While I spoke to my friends for the first time following my mum’s passing—their weak smiles and doughy eyes—I realized that I’d never been treated kinder, and my joy has never been treated as such. Was this all just me, I remember asking myself while they hugged me, or is there something imminently wrong with how we as a whole treat pain?
The farther I submerged into mourning, the more I saw how flawed this concept was: moments of sadness are so glorified that positive experiences are not processed nearly as thoughtfully as negative ones. If I’m crying, it’s detrimental; if I’m enthusiastic, it’s not much to discuss. Navigating through a reality constructed from other’s commiseration and my own sensitivity, I dug and dug through social awareness and grief, the knots at which they tangled, until I found my answer: there is something imminently wrong with how we as a whole treat pain, and it’s because we ignore happiness.
Amidst this chaos, I began to love writing. And when I saw how many critically-acclaimed stories were woeful, I questioned if I should instead center my efforts around my mum. Even so, I’d seen what flimsy awareness that mindset harboured—from inaccurate representations of struggles to disregard for optimism—and I continued capturing everything I believed held importance. Even if the books assigned by our institutions, ones bred from sadness, are seen as more symbolic and critical than those descended from blue skies, I still pursued the tales whose meanings weren’t seen by the public yet.
Thanks to the sanctuary I’d found in writing, I brought to life possibilities of humanization outside of despair. Joining a book club, I absorbed stories concerning two individuals learning to respect the contrasting traits of one another. I wrote poems centering verse around age expectations, where people in different timelines acknowledged the gaps between them. I buried myself in the “mundane” engagements between people: where joy and excitement exercised the same muscles of empathy that sadness and despair flexed. Through storytelling and awareness of behaviour, I listened to the powerful tale that glee sang.
I no longer want the world to see suffering as the core of kindness. Instead, I want us to experience the versatile tales of those around us as though every emotion is equal. With this abiding hope, I strive to express narratives that reveal depth we would have never noticed before, and show my younger self just how valuable their happiness is.
Since a year or two ago, I’d disliked all variations of the phrase, “treat others with kindness because you never know what they’re going through.” I disliked it because, why did people have to be in immense pain before you treated them with decency? That philosophy felt like saying, “look around at everyone in the halls as if their mother has cancer so you aren’t mean to them and feel bad later when you find out.”
Fast forward September of my senior year, when I was attending a guest speaker meeting for extracurricular art class, the speaker tipped that same philosophy towards us. I took a piece of paper and quickly decided to scribble out my thoughts. That was how my personal statement came to fruition. It would be a long time before the final product became what it is now. It went through weeks of brainstorming and editing, days of total reconstruction, and months and months of outside suggestions and revision. If it weren’t for my family and fellow mentees and mentors at GWN, my piece wouldn’t be what it is, so I thank you guys.
Freya Patel is a senior in high school living in Princeton, New Jersey. In her free time she enjoys drawing and reading sci-fi. She is interested in studying neuroscience in college next year.