By Anneliese Abela
I’ve never really been sure how to react when people say they’re proud of me.
Since my dad passed away last year everyone has said how proud they are of how well I’m doing, to which I can only silently nod and give an awkward smile. How do I respond to that? I’ve never been good at receiving compliments at the best of times, and being told I’ve made someone proud is a strangely uncomfortable experience.
What makes it so hard to understand is the fact that I haven’t changed that much since my dad passed away. I haven’t conquered any of my biggest fears or ticked off any lifelong dreams. It doesn’t feel like I’ve become a better person, or really changed at all. I still avoid completing my uni assignments until the last possible minute and occasionally call in sick to work simply because I don’t feel like going. There are days I never reply to any of my friends, or sometimes delay getting out of bed until three in the afternoon. How can anyone be proud of that?
What makes the constant mentions of pride even more difficult to swallow are the awe-inspiring yet guilt- inducing reminders of what other people in the world have achieved. People who have faced much more serious and life-shattering tragedies than I have; people who have walked away from something that should have broken them, only to strike back with success, happiness, determination and strength.
It feels like all I have managed to do is continue studying my degree, keep my part-time job and maintain a level of sanity that stops me from collapsing on the ground in tears every day.
However, lately I’ve begun to realise that when faced with the heartbreak of losing loved ones, or any kind of personal tragedy, some days, simply managing to walk in a straight line is an accomplishment. I’m learning I can’t compare my own sorrow or misfortune to those of any other human being on this planet, nor can I compare my happiness with that of others. Things that happen in life will always affect us differently, and we can’t expect to recover the same way.
During my dad’s long and emotionally draining illness, he broke down more than once into sobs of ‘why me?’ to which he’d answer himself a few minutes later: ‘I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I am so lucky. I have been given all this time. I can still talk, hear and see, and I am with my family. Some people have it so much worse’.
I can distinctly remember sitting in a small, bare-walled room in the middle of a counselling session one day, a few months before my dad’s passing. On the table between the counsellor and I was a glass bowl filled with shiny, polished pebbles, all engraved with words like believe, love, inspire and hope. I remember the counsellor leaning over the table after I mentioned the guilt I had for feeling so sorry for myself over something millions of people worldwide had to endure too. After handing me one of the cold smooth pebbles with ‘live’ in a slanted, gold engraving, she told me that saying I shouldn’t feel sad because others have it worse than me is the same thing as saying I shouldn’t feel happy because others have it better than me.
My dad worked hard to stay with us. He focused on his health, both physically and psychologically, and he was so determined to survive for his family. My guilt at hearing how proud I make my family always used to stir this thought in my mind. Dad was the one who fought and held on stubbornly and conquered life in the face of the inevitable. You should all be proud of him, not me. All I have managed to do is not cry on the bus each morning.
But now, looking back on all those morning bus rides, I understand that this is a small but significant way of conquering life. Every time the rain fell across the bus windows or sunshine illuminated the fingerprints and dust on the glass panes, I was strong in my own small way. I am now proud of the fact I can get my assignments finished on time, and even more proud when I receive a high mark for them. I understand my family’s pride when I make it through a whole day of work, interacting with people and witnessing fathers and daughters laughing, talking and walking together. I am proud when I make time to catch up with friends, even just for a quick coffee.
For when personal tragedy strikes us, despite how unimportant or trivial it may seem in the great global scheme of things, it is important. Discovering that we can move on and continue breathing, that we can strive to make the most of our lives and our time on Earth, is the greatest achievement. Because when we’re so weighed down by worry, hopelessness, grief, fear or overwhelming sadness, just being able to get out of bed at all—even if it isn’t until three in the afternoon—is definitely something to be proud of.