The following is adapted from Shifting Optics.
Recently, my daughter had an accident on the playground, and one of the questions the nurse asked her at the hospital—which, the nurse assured me, she asks every child these days—is whether my daughter ever had thought of harming herself.
She asked this of a child.
Here, in the United States of America, we’ve gotten to a point where the nurses have to ask these questions—and where, presumably, some kids say yes. Suicide has been described as an “epidemic,” and it’s especially on the rise among teenagers. In fact, a couple of my friends’ kids recently took their own lives.
Those tragedies made me reflect on my own experiences in the darkest moments of my life. There have been many. I’ve fled a third-world country by boat, lived in refugee camps, been homeless and jailed, immigrated to the United States, grown up in poverty, and came of age in the Western world. Some of these things have been more challenging than others, and at times, I’ve wondered what the world would be like if I was no longer part of it.
Obviously, I concluded that they weren’t. I’d like to share why I reached that conclusion, in the hopes that it can give support if you or a loved one is going through dark times. The thing that pulled me back from the brink every time was perspective, and more specifically, breaking free from the narrow focus of my internal struggles.
Optics are Not Always What They Seem
Perspective is an important topic for me, not just personally, but also professionally. I work in the field of optics, and as someone who spends their days thinking about lasers and light, I can tell you that the optics of a situation are not always the same as the reality.
When people meet me, they often think of me as a successful engineer, entrepreneur, patent-holder, investor, philanthropist, and family man. What they don’t know is that many of my favorite social causes are directly related to the fact that I’ve gone hungry. Growing up as a poor immigrant with no healthcare, I had a lot of mental and physical pain.
When we’re struggling, we often look at the people around us and think, “They have it so much better,” or “I’ll never have what they have.” Social media hasn’t helped, since it serves up only the most appealing images.
But in all honesty, most people would say they’ve been low enough at some point in their life to think about suicide. They may not seriously contemplate carrying it out, but the thought has crossed their mind. As a society, we don’t like to dwell on this harsh truth, but when you’re suffering, it’s important to have that perspective. Other people—even people you admire who seem to have the “perfect lives”—have been where you are.
Those struggles are important. If you never struggle, you have no idea how to cope with real hardship when it occurs. In order for humans to persevere, we have to develop a sense of defeat. If some of my childhood challenges hadn’t occurred, I don’t know whether I could have handled the volatile emotions I experienced later in life. I had to learn the hard way how to make it through.
Look at the Big Picture
When you’re in the middle of a dark period, everything gets magnified. In high school, I felt mediocre compared to my classmates. Most of the students were from affluent homes, while my family was scraping by. I was in the middle of the pack academically, and even though my hormones were raging, the girls I liked wanted nothing to do with me. I felt small, physically and emotionally, and my confidence suffered.
Looking back, it doesn’t sound like the end of the world, but at the time, it felt like the darkness was all around me. Every bad feeling, shortcoming, and rejection seemed like it was under a high-power microscope, and I couldn’t see anything else.
That’s why it’s so important in those moments to force yourself to step back and try to look at the bigger picture. You can’t see the world accurately when you’re zoomed in. You need the external perspective; you have to see things as they are, not as they seem to be inside your head.
For example, one of my lowest points came when I was in high school. My sister, with whom I’m extremely close, called and mentioned that she didn’t have any comfortable chairs in her college dorm. Academically, she felt she was also struggling, which was a great source of shame in my prideful Asian family. I wanted to help her, so I skipped lunch every day and saved my money to buy her a chair.
I was proud, and my sister was grateful, but my father was furious that I had circumvented his control. We had a huge fight, and without thinking, I drove to the cemetery and thought about what it would be like to lie next to those around me. The only thing that stopped me was my sister. I didn’t want to leave her alone in the world, and I didn’t want to cause her any more pain. Thinking of her gave me the strength to carry on.
That’s what I mean by looking at the big picture. When you’re stuck in your own head, wondering, What is the purpose of life?, it helps to have that external voice that whispers, The people beside you. Focusing on other people can help reduce the intensity of your own misery.
Focus on Impact
Even if you don’t see it, you’re making an impact on the world. Other people rely on you, and you have a light that someone else appreciates. To shift your perspective, I recommend focusing on that impact. How are you making a difference in the lives of people around you?
To be clear, impact is not the same as accomplishments. I’ve got a lot of patents, which is an accomplishment, but it has very little to do with the way I’m making an impact on the world day-to-day.
Impact usually comes in smaller, more unassuming packages. I think about all the meals my sister cooked for me and the times she let me beat her at her girly games, like hopscotch. I think about all the jokes she tells me, and how she teases me when I’m arrogant.
Those tiny, day-to-day impacts have a significant ripple effect. They spread to other people in ways that you are not, and will never be, aware of. If you don’t feel like you’re making an impact, it’s because you aren’t focused on the right things.
When you’re in a dark place, the best thing you can do is force yourself to leave your house and make an impact on someone. You can start small; hold the door for a woman pushing a stroller. Or, you can start bigger; volunteer for a charity and expose yourself to people who are still surviving, even though they’re suffering.
Stop giving yourself too much time to think about your own situation, and focus on making an impact on someone else’s. There’s no faster way to shift your perspective.
Keep Everything in Perspective
When you’re feeling low, try to shift from the internal perspective to an external one. Being motivated to do better and to be better as a person and member of society can help you through even the darkest of times.
Stay true to yourself. Remain rational through turmoil. Pull back and look at the bigger picture. Life can be as complicated as you make it, so simplify as much as possible. You don’t have to be a Nobel Laureate or live in the lap of luxury. Be there for your loved ones, make tiny impacts that ripple outward, and keep everything in perspective.
For more advice on shifting your perspective, you can find Shifting Optics on Amazon.
Dung Duong is an entrepreneur, investor, and optic engineer who’s dedicated to making our world a better place. He supports his wife’s nonprofit, Perspective Charity, which works to give children the opportunity to become impactful doers, contributors, and leaders regardless of their economic or social situation. Dung wrote this book for his three children—Anastasia, Athena, and Radiant—in the hope that they find comfort, snicker at the infinitely bad jokes, and get a different perspective.