My mom has this gift. She is able to find the good in every situation. And if the good does not exist, she creates the good for herself. Naturally, as my mother, she was well-equipped to handle my worries and woes growing up. It was not uncommon for my mom to come up with a detailed list of solutions and positive outcomes for any problem I had, big or small. Along the way, she taught me how to seek out the good for myself.
However, sometimes it is incredibly difficult to find the good.
In December, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Over the course of 7 weeks, she underwent weekly chemotherapy and daily radiation treatments. Additionally, she lost the ability to taste and was forced to get a feeding tube to receive the nutrients that she needed. As I write this, I am aware that I cannot accurately describe what my mom went through. But I can write from my perspective.
The following story is about my mother, “the good seeker,” and my own (recent) experience seeking out the good.
First, I must begin with a trip I took last summer.
A couple of months ago, I received a Facebook notification alerting me of a “time hop: one year ago.” It was a post about my trip to Dachau, Germany:
“During my time abroad, my world has expanded, which is of course to be expected. There are times, however, like today, when I wish my world would shrink back to the way it used to be. Everything was a bit simpler and I could make sense of most situations without much heartache. Today I visited the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, just outside of Munich. It serves as a memorial and a reminder of a not-so-distant past. Yes, there are moments when it would certainly be easier to be less aware of such atrocities and how they continue to take place although we profess the term “never again,” but I would be doing a disservice to myself and to those who suffered and continue to suffer. I hope that “never again” can someday become a full reality.”
I remember this trip very clearly. At the time, I did not realize how much this experience would shape my last year of college. In the midst of my mom’s fight with cancer, I was at school working on my senior thesis—researching humanitarian intervention, genocide, indifference, and inaction. To be completely honest, school was the last place I wanted to be. I didn’t want to leave my mom to fight this cancer without me; I wanted to help her find the good. But since I had to leave, I wanted to forget. I wanted my world to shrink back again. I wanted to forget everything—including what I was researching for my thesis. All of it was too painful. And sadly, my research topic and my mom’s cancer had something in common; they both seemed incredibly senseless. While I couldn’t find any answers for why my mom had cancer–and why she, of all people, had to go through this—I thought I could find answers with my research. So I attempted to distract myself.
Part of my research involved reading human rights reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that outlined unimaginable atrocities and human rights abuses. I had to read two decades’ worth of reports from both organizations (for two different cases). After a couple of reports, I thought I would become numb to the words, but I didn’t feel numb. I couldn’t. The worst part was reading the names. Amnesty International lists the names of people who are killed or unjustly arrested/beaten. There were so many names. Too many. Actually, reading the names wasn’t the worst part; reading what little the international community did to stop it was worse. None of it made any sense to me.
I summarized these reports, feeling incredibly helpless. At this point, helplessness seemed commonplace to me. I felt like I was contributing very little to such a huge problem. School troubles seemed to pale in comparison to the real problems happening around the world–and in my life. I kept thinking to myself: find the good, find the hope, find the solution, it’s there. You might be thinking: you’re researching genocide and a lack of humanitarian intervention, of course there isn’t anything good to be found. But I chose this topic because I have a serious problem with injustice and a desire to find some good where there appears to be none (Or a desire to make the good myself).
I inherited this optimism from my mom. Of course, if there was a scale, I would fall on the “cautious optimist” side. Some people might even call me a pessimist, but I am really just an often-disappointed idealist. Still, my mom has always been my rock, encouraging me to find solutions to my problems and to seek out the good. But she was crumbling, and I was too. The last thing I wanted to do was burden her further. Nevertheless, even as she was getting weaker physically and our conversations were getting shorter, she was still teaching me. It was her strength despite her physical weakness that inspired me the most.
My mom is a fighter. She taught me what strength looks like. Strength is complicated–it’s not at all what people paint it to be. Strength is not about masking suffering. It means showing weakness when you cannot hold in your pain anymore. It means being honest when things are not great. It means pushing through difficult situations with the hope that things will improve. I have seen my mom endure incredible physical and emotional pain. Even at her worst, she was determined. She broke down sometimes, but there is nothing shameful about feeling pain. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in pain right now. For some, it’s masked by anger. For others, it looks like hate. My mom never showed anger or hate. She was simply honest. And the world needs more of that honesty.
One day, a professor emailed me an article about Fred Rogers. There was a particular quote from the article that my professor shared with a lot of students, inspiring them to look past senseless tragedy. It is a great quote:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
The first time I read this, I thought of my mom. She is the ultimate helper. More specifically, she is a teacher. During her last few weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, she was unable to teach. Her doctor told her that she could take the rest of the year off, but she didn’t. My mom went back to teaching energetic 10-year-olds as soon as she could stand up straight.
My mom is also a runner. She always says that she can work out all of her problems (and ours) during a good run. She loves running, but she wasn’t able to for a very long time. However, as soon as her chemotherapy and radiation treatments were finished, she started running again, probably before she was ready. Again, I was not surprised. She seeks out the good.
Senior year was hard for many reasons. My research didn’t help. On a particularly discouraging day, I was scheduled to meet with one of my readers for my thesis. Although it was almost finished, my thesis was weighing heavily on me. It was becoming a little too personal. But this particular professor told me that I was researching something that mattered. More importantly, I was researching something that mattered to me (“embodied research”…I think he called it). He was right.
A couple of months later, after I presented my thesis (for the fifth time), someone asked me: “Now that you know this information, what are going to do with it?” I was glad that she asked me that question. I told her that there were two possible reactions to this research: give up because it is too dark and too hopeless OR do everything in my power to change it. I am choosing the latter. In that moment, I felt most like my mother.
Finding the good is difficult. While looking for the good, you’re going to find the bad, too. However, there is nothing foolish about being an optimist. It is actually brave; you are often disappointed or heartbroken, but despite it all, you continue to seek out the good.
Yes, the world is really messed up. Every day there is another tragedy. But I hope that I continue to feel disappointed rather than indifferent; I hope that I continue to feel heartbroken without feeling paralyzed.
Thank you, Mom, for reminding me every day how important it is to look for the good. When people ask me what I want to “do,” I often wish that I had a job title, organization, company, etc. in the back of my mind that I could blurt out. Instead I just laugh and shrug uncomfortably; my plans are complicated anyway. No one ever asks what kind of person I want to be. Well, I have an answer to that question, and I think I knew it all along. I want to be like you, Mom, the good seeker.