I remember a conversation with one of my favourite high school teachers while volunteering with her elementary school archaeology program. She had been a reference for a summer internship with a non-profit that provides education about the history of WWII in east/southeast Asia. We were talking about how I would learn a lot about the atrocities during the war, and about the people it continues to affect to this day. “Harden your heart,” she had told me.
I didn’t realize at the time how much those three words would impact me throughout the course of my internship, and would continue to serve as a reminder of how I should live. During those summer months, I learned about genocide, sexual violence, human experimentation, racism, political ugliness, and gained an overall disturbing and disheartening picture of what human evil looks like. It was awful.
But it was also inspiring and humbling in ways I had not imagined. After learning about the evil, I would learn about the good: the efforts by international organizations and governments to bring about justice, peace, and reconciliation; the innate tendency that humans possess to be kind and to do the right thing; the willingness of people previously ignorant of these atrocities to work towards spreading awareness, tolerance, and hope. It was a phenomenal start to my journey as an activist.
Throughout this internship, I heard “harden your heart,” over and over again in my head. And I did try to harden my heart. But ultimately, it was impossible. How could I distance myself from what had happened and what is currently happening in the world? I understood that there was some truth and value to separating yourself from these kinds of things for your own mental health, but I was and still am unable to fully do that.
And I’m unable to do this in everyday life. Whenever I try to put up that tough/witty/authoritative front, it always fails me. And it’s a lesson that I have to learn over and over until it will finally stick. Being kind, being soft, being graceful in a world that pushes you to do the opposite is not only brave but necessary. At least for me. I know myself well enough by now that softness and kindness are a big part of my personality and bring more good than harm – as scary and vulnerable as it is.
And I think that’s why it’s so difficult to consistently soften. It’s just so damn scary. What if we crumble? What if our worldview and outlook on life are destroyed and cannot be mended? What if I change? What if I don’t? What if I don’t like what softening does to me?
Perhaps this is The Big Risk that people like myself have to take. Perhaps softening our hearts is the only way to live an authentic and fulfilling life. And perhaps that’s the way we’re meant to live.