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19 September 2011

Being kind can change lives

For as long as I can remember, I have always felt different from other people. As I have grown older, the more I began to realize I was as unique from everyone else as I was similar to them. This concept of duality emerged from a long period of depression that stemmed from the nature of my childhood.

I have lived my entire life in Florida, but when I was only about 2 or 3 years old I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. Psychologists describe the cognitive development disorder as a mild form of autism, a spectrum disorder that is often measured by perceptions of social awkwardness and intense, narrow interests. While I do not believe I ever had the disorder, I had to live with that label and the world’s perception of it for most of my life. As a result, I dealt with all the struggles autistic children endure, compounded with some of my own on the side.

In elementary school I was heavily bullied for my size, my personality, my interests, and my religion. I had few friends, and juggled my internal struggles with those external ones by myself. I had never seen myself as autistic, but nevertheless I had been sent to psychotherapy without/against my consent. Though I now understand my parents were only trying to help me, I also understand that the years of repeated interventions only aggravated my situation and isolated me further. To make matters worse, I had taken my antidepressants and therapies for eight years without knowledge of the reason until I was 13.

To sum up my elementary school years through my last year, I survived a lot of horrible experiences. I had braces for ten years, and finally lost them during my senior year of high school. I was always short and extremely thin, and because of my internal struggles even I agree now that I wasn’t the most socially adept person on Earth. I eventually had friends, many who didn’t understand me and capitalized on my extremely low self-confidence. I remember quite vividly my friends doing nothing at my 18th birthday party when one of the guests “pantsed” me as I lit the candles on the cake. I also remember many friends doing nothing when people called me “awkward”, “Gonzo” and “short” to my face in public. To this day, I can say I have never had a friend stand up for me when I was down.

Yet, somehow, I survived. It wasn’t easy. I endured such severe depression from those feelings of loneliness and worthlessness that during my sophomore year of college, I turned myself in to the nearest psych ward. I spent ten days there until my most intense emotions disappeared. Through rock and roll music I learned how to cope with my emotions and find a sense of profundity and empathy in the wasteland that had become my life. Even in college, I still had many friends call me awkward, short, and clingy to my face, and I had to clean up the damages as I was recovering from my depression. Through shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show” I learned wit, compassion, satire, and comedy, and further developed my sense of humor. From Tae-kwon-do and anime, I learned discipline, self-control, and integrity—the very core of my philosophy.

And, yet, despite these challenges, I bulked up and became somewhat coordinated in sports (unlike most autistic children). I also developed an intense social and moral awareness, and built on my intense desire to help others. If I could be thankful for two things in this world, I would thank my willingness to learn and my safety net keeping me afloat all these years. Even in high school as I was coping with these challenges, I ran cross-country and track, earned over 500 community service hours, and landed myself a spot in the top 5% of my graduating class. My desires to make artwork and verbalize my feelings into words also helped me achieve a sense of security during my time of chronic crisis. I learned it is important to diversify your intelligence so you don’t become too dependent on a single skill. Specialization is as great a risk for humans in the economy as it is for creatures in ecosystems.

The one thing that I believe truly saved me was a friendship I made freshman year that I still have to this day. A certain marine science major showed me such genuine platonic friendship that he made me love myself, however briefly, throughout my entire freshman year. I also believe this sense of self-worth kept me going even through the hardest times. A real friend can really tilt the balance between life and death in the game of depression.

A random act of kindness, however small, can have enormous repercussions for society. I stand by the philosophy that being kind can change lives, and my main goal in life is to spread that genuine kindness to the world. I also believe nobody deserves to feel alienated (except as a result of their own hypocrisies) or feel depressed to the point of suicide.

“Thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered—either by themselves or by others”, quipped Mark Twain. I believe this is also true of good people. “Never, never, never give up”, as Winston Churchill always said. You can’t sweat the small stuff, but you must always stand up for yourself during the good times and the worst times. Find higher purpose in helping others, and always learn from your experiences.

Former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Circumstances are beyond human control, but our conduct is in our own power”. Throughout my life I have always found this to be true. If you are in a bad situation, manipulate the elements you can control to find your way out of it. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. If I can do it, so can you. And best of all, you won’t be doing it alone. I’m with you!

Andrew Blitman is a senior majoring in marine affairs and biology.

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