A few weeks ago my father, a man 65 years of age, wrote me a heart-wrenching plea, seeking to undo something that we grew too comfortable with. As Asian Americans, my family of five was raised in a culture where we didn’t talk about our feelings. Though my family has been a shining example of laughter, fun, support, and love, there was simply a disconnect. We would share stories and exchange jokes but we truly only ever spoke about the shallowest parts of our lives. Nothing was ever profound.
When my younger brother, 22, unsuccessfully tried to take his own life we realized, as a family, that we truly didn’t know each other at all. This prompted my wonderful father to write an email that started off with this:
“As my life is coming closer to the end, I’ve come to realize that even though I love you all I’ve made no effort to understand you.”
He spoke about his regret not being more open to his parents:
“I regretted that I kept a distance with my parents when they were still alive. I was too proud to admit any weakness or being wrong. But mostly, I was afraid of their disapproval. I was afraid that they would inflict pain on me when they knew of my true shortcomings. As a result, I failed to learn the wisdom they could have imparted to me. I did not realize this tremendous loss until many years later after their deaths. I don’t want this to happen to any of you.”
He continued by saying:
“You see, I cannot say I love you without understanding you, your happiness or sufferings. You cannot say you love me without understanding me, my happiness or sufferings. So, let us begin a new phase in our relationship, let us be open about ourselves with each other, can we?”
This email changed my life because I began to realize that maybe I didn’t really understand and truly know anyone in my life. Was every friendship I ever had nothing but a shallow puddle of water lacking any substance? I was saddened when I realized that I probably took the time to truly understand maybe about two or three people in my entire life.
As a gay Asian American, I am someone who has known quiet struggle all my life and because of this I’ve always appreciated the fact that in everyone is a story that I don’t know. But what I’m guilty of doing is not taking the time to figure out what those stories were and in the process I allowed my younger brother to slip into the darkest place he’s ever been and I truly regret this. Because ultimately, I never knew he was suffering so much. I never knew that deep down in his heart he would rather die than be alive. I look back and wonder if I completely overlooked warning signs because I was too caught up in my own life and my own problems.
I think in general, as a society, we are failing to understand one another. We’ve lost a genuine interest in the stories and the struggles of our fellow friends and family and we’ve replaced true relationships for mere tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram photos. As a society, we’ve done what my family has done; we’ve grown comfortable only knowing the shallowest aspect of the lives of our loved ones. My dad is wise beyond his years, and is right when he says that we truly can’t say we love one another without understanding each other, our happiness and our sufferings.
Ultimately, I think our failure to understand one another – this disconnect – is the reason for many of the problems we face in this world. From the mass shootings that kill innocent people to the teenagers that kill themselves because they are so bullied. If we could just close this gap between one another, I think we can truly make the world a better place. As the saying goes, the greatest distance between two people is misunderstanding. Because is not every act of violence, whether it be against other people or to oneself, not just a cry for help? A yearning to not feel so alone in the world? Or retaliation against someone who you truly haven’t taken the time to understand and as a result, fear?
So this is my plea to you: take some time of out of your life and be genuinely interested in the lives of your friends and family – their happiness and their sufferings. Understand them, so you can truly say that you genuinely love them.