At the age of 10, I was diagnosed with Leukemia. Cancer quickly changes lives: receiving a diagnosis at such a young age was incredibly difficult as my days shifted from carefree playground antics to week long stays in the hospital. Facing a life-threatening illness brought along so many emotions that were hard to process: fear of death, sadness from my constant physical pain, frustration from my helplessness, and an anger at God for letting this happen. But the one that stood out amongst them all was the loneliness.
Fighting cancer is an isolating process. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy kill the malignant cells in your body, but also kill healthy cells in your body. Most critical are the body’s immune cells. Without these defensive cells, cancer patients undergoing treatment are much more prone to infections and even the slightest cold can become deadly. As a precaution, I was pulled from school and could only have limited interaction with others. And when I did, I had to be hypervigilant that anyone I talked to would wash their hands as they entered a room I was in.
However, even with this feeling of isolation (and all the others), I was very lucky to find myself surrounded by a community that was rooting for me and my recovery. Of course, my family and friends represented a large portion of this community alongside my doctors and nurses.
But most surprising to my family and I was how many strangers became a key part of my support system. They constantly uplifted me with their words of encouragement, thoughtful prayers, and small acts of kindness. None of this was on greater display than when Make-a-Wish granted my wish to meet the President.
In a weeklong trip to DC, we were lucky enough to tour the White House, Capitol building, and Library of Congress. Along the way, we met the most inspirational and encouraging people who greeted with us kindness and hospitality. Everyone from the congressmen to the Capitol police to restaurant servers and even President Barack Obama went the extra mile to make my trip truly special. In one of my most difficult times, they provided so much love, kindness, and support.
But today, this sense of community and kindness seem harder and harder to find.
In a world that has never been so connected, how can it be that we feel lonelier?
With our phones coming out at the slightest hint of boredom, we’ve almost completely stopped talking to strangers. When waiting in the checkout line, we pull out our phone to scroll through our Facebook newsfeed. At any lull in a party, we start tapping through Snapchat stories. We’ve all been too engrossed in our social media at some point or another.
But at least we make up for our loss of interaction in the real world by strengthening our connections with those online, right!? Well, it may not be.
It turns out that the more time you spend online, the more likely you will perceive social isolation. From a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, people who spend more than two hours a day on social media are twice as likely to feel socially isolated than those who visited social media platforms half an hour each day. ( study )
But besides the perceived social isolation, technology and social media make it so easy for us to segregate ourselves into more and more isolated social bubbles online. We begin to interact less with people who look different, talk different, think different thoughts, and like different things. The effects of this phenomenon are all around us as the world we live in becomes increasingly more divided.
We need to make a conscious decision to remember who we are at our core. What values all of us share because we are so much more than what divides us. A small action you can do is to show kindness to a stranger.
A stranger’s kindness saved my life. That wish experience was a dose of concentrated hope that completely reinvigorated my fight against cancer. The entire trip was a series of small acts of kindness from a group of strangers who inspired me to not only beat cancer, but to give back to other patients as well. It was from their selfless love that I founded a social enterprise to help other patients fight cancer with hope.
Now, I challenge you to do the same. Put down your phone, interact with someone you otherwise wouldn’t, and spread this same kindness for a stranger. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is, but what matters is showing unconditional love to someone else. You never know how much your act will mean for someone else. Your love could change their perspective, bridge an ideological gap, or even save a life.