Veronika: A journey from fear and anger to empathy and kindness
Empathy is essential for positive mental health because it allows us to develop stronger relationships with others and cultivate a sense of compassion and understanding.
Empathy helps us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and experience their feelings, thoughts or attitudes. But it’s not just about understanding someone else’s perspective, it’s also about understanding our own feelings, leading to increased self-awareness and a greater sense of well-being.
Exploring empathy does not undo or make right what someone has done, but when we are intentional about having empathy, we can choose to show compassion over judgment. In a world so deeply divided, we need to be able to listen to each other and connect.
Here’s how Veronika’s experience with empathy has improved her mental well-being.
I’ve travelled to over 40 countries, but I’ve never been to Canada before!
I got off the plane a few months ago, and had this very strange experience: Everyone around me was being so polite, asking me how my day was, and saying “sorry” all the time when they did nothing wrong. It was kind of weird, but you know what? It felt right!
When I arrived in Canada, one of the first things our LiveDifferent team did was take me for a Canadian breakfast. There was bacon, eggs and pancakes. My teammate, Hasan, took fried chicken, put it on sweet French toast, covered it in maple syrup and bugged me until I tried it. This did not look right, but let me tell you: it felt right!
All of this to say, I love this country!
Life in China during lockdown
I am originally from Ukraine, but when I was 13 years old, my family moved to China. You can imagine: I had to leave everything I knew, my life, my school and my dear grandma.
I had to learn a whole new language and culture, and it was very challenging. But I love challenges, and my teachers and classmates appreciated the effort I was making, and encouraged me to keep trying. So after two years, I became fluent and began to feel a sense of belonging; like this place was home.
But when COVID hit, everything changed.
Things were VERY locked down in China. I was used to traveling and adventures, and now I wasn’t even allowed to travel to class, the library or even my dorm room. For years, it felt like a prison.
But in February 2022, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Beijing Winter Olympics. I was so excited to finally have another adventure after two years of lockdown. This was going to be just what I needed!
Once I arrived, however, I discovered things were more locked down than ever. I wasn’t even allowed in the Olympic Village or to watch any events.
On the last day, they took us back to the hotel and told us that as of 12 a.m., we would be locked in our rooms for a 21-day quarantine. We weren’t even allowed to open the door to our room, except for at approved times to quickly reach out and grab a food tray.
I went to bed that night, worried about how I’d get through the next 21 days. I had no idea how much worse it was going to get.
Devastating news from Ukraine
That very morning, I woke up early and picked up my phone to discover that my home country had been invaded by Russia. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe this was happening to my country. It felt like days as I waited and waited, trapped in that dingy hotel room, to finally hear that my grandma was OK.
A few days later, I got a message from a Chinese journalist I met through the Olympics. She asked me if I would do an interview about the war (it’s not like there are many Ukrainians in China that speak the language).
Since Chinese media is very supportive of Russia, I thought this might be a great opportunity to educate people. But when she sent me her list of questions, it was obvious that they were not really questions, but more like statements in support of Russia’s invasion.
I began to feel overcome for days with anger at not only her, but at all my other friends I saw posting their support for this war. How could anyone think this way? How is this OK?
But then I got another message.
My Mom had sent me a video to watch. I hit play and it was an interview with a Russian soldier. He was just a regular young man and was the exact same age as me. He did not want to kill anyone, but he was forced to join the army, otherwise, he would go to jail. When he arrived on the front lines, he heard there was a village in Ukraine where he could flee to surrender himself.
So he took his compass, put some food in a bag, and ran away into the forest. He ran for three days, only knowing the general direction to go. He didn’t have a cell phone as he couldn’t risk being tracked, and he got lost in the forest. He slept in the trees to hide from Russian soldiers. When he finally walked out of the forest, he saw a lady on the road and asked her where the village was. It was still a number of kilometres away and not easy to find, so this lady sent her two kids with him to take him to the school that the Ukrainian army was using for a base. He walked up with his arms in the air and surrendered himself, thinking surely he would be a prisoner of war.
He started crying when the interviewer asked if he had been tortured. He said when he first arrived, he asked for permission to go outside, but the Ukrainian soldiers looked at him and said you are a free man, you don’t need to ask for permission. They even gave him candies and sweets because they knew how hard this must be for him to leave everything he knows. He just couldn’t believe that his own people were trying to hunt him, but his enemies were treating him with such kindness.
Choosing empathy over anger
I began crying as I listened to his story. I realized that if these soldiers, who had been taught to hate and kill each other, could instead show each other empathy and friendship, then perhaps I could as well.
I thought about all the friends I was angry with and about this Chinese journalist. I began to imagine how she grew up only being exposed to limited sources of information.
I realized that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know.
Instead of using anger and judgment, I began to use empathy and kindness. Instead of trying to argue or tear her apart, I asked questions and shared my perspective.
In the end, I know I might have only changed her mind a little bit, but that’s OK. I realized that all my friends like her who I was so angry with for their political views, my relationship with them is more important than having to win an argument, change their minds or be “right.”
This might seem weird, but I promise you that when you choose empathy and kindness, it feels right.
Mental health is an ongoing journey and it is important to make sure that we all take the time to check in with ourselves, our loved ones and our mental well-being.
LiveDifferent Circles equips young people with the skills and tools needed to build positive mental health. Through conversations on authenticity, empathy, growth, resilience, altruism and values, youth develop the self-confidence to deal with the issues they’re facing and take positive action in their communities.
Want to join people like Veronika and help youth across Canada build positive mental health? Become a Road Team Volunteer!
Want to learn more about Circles and how it can make a difference in your community? See how LiveDifferent can help!