Kindness and Compassion in the Midst of Violence and Chaos by Quyn Lê Erichsen, M.Ed., RCC

While travelling on our boat journey to escape from Vietnam and during the four years living in the refugee camp, I have begun to learn about the complexity of humanity. I’ve learned that people are not all good or all bad. Even among those who seem to be very bad and evil, there remain some spots of kindness and compassion in their hearts.

Although it took me a long time to discover that my blindness could offer me some important gifts in life, I have come to believe that one of the gifts of my blindness is drawing out the goodness in people. Hence even though I have witnessed many violent acts and evil gestures done onto others, I have also directly experienced countless acts of kindness and compassion that others have done for me. So rather than believing that most people are bad, untrustworthy or are out to get me, I choose to believe that most people are very kind. I choose to believe that every person’s heart has a soft spot. It’s just a matter of how to help that person draw out his/her soft spot.

This belief, the belief in the goodness of mankind, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy in my life. I have met many kind people on my life journey. I have benefited from many acts of compassion. Although I am aware that many individuals who have been very kind to me are not perfect, have their own flaws, and even seem mean to others, I choose to focus on their kindness. This in turn seems to bring out the kinder side of them. And because of having this belief, it has helped me to discover treasures and gifts in my clients as a psychotherapist, even those who seem to be so broken and damaged by life’s harshness.

Let me share with you some stories that really show how touching and powerful kindness can be. And in some instances, kindness and compassion can even transform others’ lives.

When our boat was finally rescued after ten days of floating on the ocean and battling against seasickness, hunger, thirst and sunburn, we were given a place in Malaysia to stay temporarily. We were kept in the woods, hidden from civilization for that entire month. we didn’t understand why, as it was never explained to us. We had to sleep in tents, feeling tree roots underneath our bodies. Many nights we were quite cold, as there were no blankets to keep us warm. Sometimes when it rained, we had to lie on wet spots, with water trickling into our tents. During the day, we had to tolerate the intense sun of Malaysia, with temperature could be as high as 37 degree Celsius.

I was nine years old at the time. My mom and my older sister were with me. We were among one hundred and twenty-six other Vietnamese boat people. Despite having been rescued onto land, many of us were still very weak and tired. We were still recovering from our hunger and being on the sea for ten days straight. Emotionally, we were confused as to why we were kept in the woods. We felt a huge sense of uncertainty, loss of control and little dignity. We didn’t know what was in store for us.

We, Vietnamese refugees, were under the control by a group of Malaysian soldiers. Since there were more of us and less of them, they used a lot of force and control to overpower us and to instill fear in us. When our men were too weak, confused and exhausted from our ten days at sea, they were slow to follow the soldiers’ order to cut down trees and set up tents. The soldiers, with their military boots, would kick our men violently, causing them to roll on the ground. As those soldiers didn’t speak our language, our men often misunderstood them. Again, those men would be kicked, punched or slapped for not following the soldiers’ instructions properly. Those soldiers often barked loudly at us and pushed us aggressively around.

As a nine-year-old girl, I came to really fear these soldiers. Even now, when I hear men speaking in another language and in an angry or violent tone, I would shudder inside.

In addition to witnessing the Malaysian soldiers inflicting physical force on our men and experiencing fear among ourselves, we were also constantly hungry. Everyday food was given to us in small rations. It did truly feel like a prison being kept in the woods, not being able to do anything or go anywhere.

One day, one of the Malaysian soldiers overheard me sing in broken English to some Vietnamese people. It was a song called Beautiful Sunday. Back in Vietnam, my mom taught me to sing some songs in English, although with really bad pronunciation. The soldier who heard me sing clapped and praised me enthusiastically, and proceeded to reward me with a hard boiled egg, which was one of his daily rations. From that day on, everyday, sometimes many times a day, different soldiers would ask me to sing for them, and I would get a hard boiled egg from each of them. Soon I would get so many eggs a day that we started to share them with other children. I would sing songs like Beautiful Sunday, Clementine and Hundred Miles Away from Home. I would sing these songs both in English and Vietnamese. The soldiers gave me eggs, cookies and some other food items. My family didn’t have to struggle with hunger so much for the remaining time of our stay.

As I sang to these soldiers, I started to experience a very different side of them. I would hear them laugh and talk in more friendly ways among us. Sometimes a small group of soldiers and Vietnamese refugees gathered around our tent to hear me sing. And so there were exchanges between the soldiers and the Vietnamese refugees. The division between Us and Them started to become smaller and smaller. The soldiers started to regard us as real people, not just some victimized refugees who came to intrude on their land and burden them with our quest to find refuge. In broken English and with lots of gesturing, the soldiers started to share with us more about themselves and vice versa.

I remember one particular incident that really confused me yet touched me very deeply. Living in the woods, we encountered a large number of mosquitoes. I got bitten quite a bit, mostly around my legs and my arms. When one soldier noticed several red bumps from mosquito bites on the pale skin of my legs and arms, he became quite concerned. He showed the bites on my legs and arms to another soldier. Then a small group of them gathered around me. They seemed genuinely concerned for me. They rushed off to find some cream to help alleviate the bites on me. One soldier started to apply the cream one by one on each bump on my legs and arms. Then another soldier pointed to any bites that the one soldier would miss. I could really feel their care towards me as they gently  applied the cream on me. Although some Vietnamese women in our group felt sexualized by some of these soldiers at times, I nevertheless experience only care and gentle treatment from these men as a nine-year-old child. Everyday, they would check to see if the bites had healed. They would give me insect repellence incents and lotion so that I wouldn’t be bitten by mosquitoes anymore. They really treated me as if I were a precious child.

On the day of our departure, one soldier even had some tears in his eyes as he said goodbye to us. Other soldiers would pat me on my back or shake my hands to say goodbye. Although many of those soldiers were violent towards some of the men in our group, those same soldiers let themselves be touched by a blind child. They showed their capacity to be kind and caring. They let their guard down with me.

This next story again shows how kind and caring men can be, even those who struggle with alcohol. While living in the refugee camp in Indonesia, I didn’t have much to do. Every day I spent my time rocking on a hammock. I often felt bored and lonely. Yet I never complained. I accepted things for what they were.

One day, a drunk, loud man was hanging around our place. Initially I felt repulsed by him. His breath wreaked of alcohol. He spoke loudly and rambled on and on about things that didn’t make too much sense. He seemed arrogant. I had a feeling that people weren’t too impressed by him. He was singing and playing guitar to entertain us. My mom mentioned briefly to him that I had been wanting to learn to play guitar to occupy my time. Amidst his drunkenness, suddenly he seemed to notice me.

He then turned to me and asked me, “Quyn, do you want to learn to play guitar?” “Yes,” I replied quietly, half hoping that he would teach me, and half being afraid to be around this drunken man. Then he said emphatically, “I’ll teach you! Starting tomorrow, I’ll come and teach you guitar.”

True to his words, he came to our barrack the next day looking for me. I was shocked to notice how different he was when he was sober. He wasn’t arrogant. He was rather quiet and didn’t talk as much or didn’t speak as loud. He was quite polite and respectful, not that he was disrespectful or impolite the night before. It was just that his drunkenness got the best of his social grace.

And every day from then on, he came to spent an hour or two to teach me playing some basic guitar. I called him Uncle Bao. On any day Uncle Bao couldn’t come to teach me, he would send someone to bring me some sweet treats and tell me he couldn’t come that day. I felt quite special and respected, even as a thirteen-year-old girl. Even those days when Uncle Bao came to my place drunk, he still intended to teach me guitar. He was still focused on explaining guitar to me.

One night Uncle Bao came to my place when I happened to be home alone. While he was teaching me guitar, my mom got home from a movie. She became very concerned seeing me spending time with him alone. She was concerned that he would take advantage of me.

Later on after Uncle Bao left, my mom talked to me and wanted to know if he ever touched me inappropriately. My mom had often explained to my sister and I about inappropriate touching or behaviours by men. I truly believe that this is a very important conversation for a mother to have with a daughter. I reassured her that nothing like that had happened. She felt relieved. Yet she still didn’t really trust him.

However deep down, I had a good intuition that I could trust Uncle Bao, even though growing up I typically wouldn’t spend too much time with men who had alcohol problems, and avoided spending time alone with them at all cost. In Vietnam and in the refugee camp, I witnessed many men with alcohol issues being quite violent, abusive and unpredictable. However Uncle Bao had always shown me respect and courtesy, even when he was drunk. There was never any indication of sexual inappropriateness.

Eventually Uncle Bao stopped teaching me guitar because my fingers hurt badly from the guitar’s metal strings. My mom also started being less welcoming towards him. So I think he got the hint. Then shortly after that, we left the refugee camp to come to Canada. I felt very sad that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to Uncle Bao and to thank him for all the time he spent with me teaching me guitar. I really appreciated how he treated me quite special, even though many other people judged him poorly. I learned a bit from other people that Uncle Bao had experienced quite a number of traumas in his life.

These two stories, and countless others, have taught me that not everyone is either all good or all bad. I have learned that even the seemingly mean individuals still have some kind spots in their hearts. I have also learned not to judge others based on only one encounter or based on their reputation. Rather, I need to reflect on how they treat me and ask myself, “What are some good points or good qualities that this person has?” I would ask myself, how I feel whenever I am in that person’s presence. Do I feel respected, safe and valued? Do I feel accepted and appreciated?

You may have some unresolved anger towards someone, perhaps a parent, a sibling, a previous or current spouse or intimate partner, or a close friend. That person may have hurt you very much. You may have felt betrayed, unloved, abandoned, rejected, neglected, unwanted, unvalued, abused, violated and/or used by that person.

You try to hang onto that anger to remind yourself not to be hurt by that person, or anyone else, ever again. You may believe that hanging onto the anger towards that person can punish him/her. Or, you may think that letting go of the anger means that you condone his/her wrongdoing. Sometimes keeping the anger intact can help you numb the emotions. Or it can help you avoid acknowledging how deep that person really hurt you. More often than not, in keeping the anger burning, you continue to hurt yourself, not so much the person who hurt you. In the process, you have unintentionally allowed the anger to control your life. You somehow let the anger have power over you.

Or in another scenario, you have forced yourself to let go of the anger and to suppress all of your feelings. You pushed your feelings down under the rug. You believe “The past is the past and what’s the point of dwelling on the past.” You may not feel entitled to feeling angry. You have done a very good job minimizing your own feelings and your own needs. You have rationalized the situation by coming up with justifications or making excuses for that person’s hurtful behaviours. This is often not helpful either. Feelings that are suppressed or unacknowledged can be similar to wounds that are left untreated. They will inevitably spread into other areas and become a more serious infection. More often than not, hurts that have not been honoured and acknowledged become internalized as a part of our self-identity and can turn into depression, addiction, troubled relationships and, at its worst, suicide.

Remember, any extremes in the emotional continuum can leave you in a state of imbalance. Being angry and hanging tightly to the hurt feelings, or not validating and honouring these hurt feelings are neither helpful nor healthy. Neither will lead you to a state of balance and inner peace.

You then may ask, “How can I go about resolving my anger?” Although totally resolving anger arising from serious emotional injuries is beyond the scope of this article, here are some suggestions that you can try:

  1. Identify the person or persons who have really hurt you. It might be easier to deal with one person at a time, starting with the person that you feel most ready to address the issue with. This also works if the person has already passed away. Indeed, resolving issues with a deceased person can be extremely powerful, especially if that person was your parent or spouse.
  1. Reflect on all the ways in which that person has hurt you. Then write these thoughts and feelings in a form of a therapeutic letter. If you are not a writer, you can also write these thoughts and feelings in point form or as keywords. Writing this letter allows you to find an outlet for your feelings and to externalize your feelings so that they no longer linger inside you and are a part of you. In addition, writing can be a form of honouring and acknowledging your feelings by naming all the ways in which that person has hurt you. For now, this letter is just for you and not to be sent to that person.

Remember that as you write this letter, very intense emotions may surface. Share with someone you trust who can support you in this process. If not, find some activities that you enjoy doing to soothe yourself. Avoid self-medicating, as it is very important to feel all the emotions that surface.

Here are a few sentence starters to help you write the letter:

I was frustrated when you …

I was angry when you …

I was furious when you …

I was very disappointed when you …

I felt criticized when you …

I felt stupid when you …

I felt let down when you …

I felt sad when you …

I felt disrespected when you …

I felt insulted when you …

I was hurt when you …

I felt abandoned when you …

I felt betrayed when you …

I felt used when you …

I felt neglected when you …

I felt guilty when you …

I felt rejected when you …

I felt useless when you …

I felt worthless when you …

I felt unloved when you …

I felt violated when you …

Honour your feelings for what they were or are. Don’t question your feelings, and don’t minimize them or make light of them. Your feelings are often an important indication that your needs were not met. Look at your feelings with lots of understanding and compassion, even if you got none from the person who has hurt you. True self-compassion is the root of emotional healing, personal growth and ultimate inner peace. And self-compassion starts within you and with you.

  1. After writing the letter, read it a few times. Edit it if you wish. You may find that after reading the letter a few times, your feelings and emotions towards the person and the situation become increasingly less intense.
  1. When you are ready, burn, delete or tear the letter that you have written. Now that you have had a chance to acknowledge and honour your feelings, give yourself permission to begin to let these feelings go, to release them from your body, your mind and your heart. For as long as you hang onto these feelings, they continue to infect your body, your mind and your heart. They take up a lot of room in your body, your mind, your heart and your life that you don’t have much room for other more positive things in your life. Remember, letting go of these feelings doesn’t mean that you condone the other person’s hurtful behaviours. Rather, it means you choose to no longer let these feelings about that person control you and have power over you and your life.

Of course, the process of letting go is not an overnight process. Just because you have written the letter and have gotten rid of it doesn’t mean that the process is completed. You may find yourself still having some anger. But at least you have started the process. You have taken some very important steps. Hopefully I have planted a seed in your mind and in your heart, a seed of letting go. And this seed will grow and flourish when you are ready or when the time is right for you.

  1. In another letter, write down all the ways in which you have loved or appreciated that person. Were there any good qualities that you can remember about that person? Do you still have any pleasant memories about that person? Were there any specific experiences associated with that person that touched you or made you happy?

This step may be extremely difficult for you, especially if that person has hurt you deeply. You may have a very hard time coming up with anything positive to say about that person. Just do what you can.

What is your understanding of why this person did what he/she did? Do you have any knowledge about this person’s upbringing or background? Understanding someone’s behaviours based on his/her background or upbringing doesn’t mean that your feelings weren’t valid. It doesn’t mean that what that person did to you was right either. Nevertheless, it could give you a different perspective. It allows you to look at another person not from the perspective of black and white, or all good or all bad. Rather, you look at a full picture from different angles and notice the context of the picture. In other words, your perspective of that person becomes more balanced, more integrated and more complete. This in turn can lead you to feel more at peace about the person. In other words, you are effectively rewriting your story, reprocessing the feelings associated with it in ways that help you to become more empowered and at peace with yourself.

Repeat this process for any significant others in your life who have hurt you. If you find this process too difficult and painful, I suggest that you seek help from a qualified and experienced therapist. Hopefully this process will help you be liberated from the prison of your feelings and become free from your past hurts.

May your walls of anger and defense become lower in ways that you still feel empowered and safe. May your mind be free of angry thoughts and instead be filled with clarity and calmness. May your heart be open to deeper connections so that you can begin to experience true joy and love in your life. May you be able to live a fuller and more authentic life that you are worthy of.

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