One of the courses I’m currently taking is Creative Non-Fiction. Essentially, you write about your real-life experiences and stories in a compelling way. After finishing the first round of workshops (we peer reviewed each person’s witting and provided feedback to them in front of everyone) I came out of class feeling like I had left a therapy session.

Each person has their own story to tell. Some of my classmates joked about having nothing “bad” happen to them, so they weren’t sure to write about. The class, of course, it not only about writing on the bad things that have happened to us; we’re allowed to write about anything, including happy memories. But often, I find that people have an easier time writing about trauma because it’s deeply emotional, it’s something most can’t forget, and it’s something that probably shaped a person in some way. I know when I think about who I am today, it’s because of a lot of bad things that happened in my past; so it’s easier to write about that stuff passionately.

There is a woman who sits beside me in this class. She is probably in her late 30’s or early 40’s. She is thin and soft-spoken. The first day of class I didn’t think much about her; she was quieter than many in the class and had a sweet smile, but she didn’t stand out.

Because we ended up sitting beside each other, we became partners for first draft reviews. So far this semester, I’ve read three of her stories. Late Wednesday, I began reading a 13-page paper she handed out. Unusually when I see someone wrote 13 pages, I feel dread. Most people are not 13 pages worth of interesting, but she was.

I read her story and felt so sad. I wanted to hug her and help her and tell her “it’s okay.” She wrote about the abuse she’s faced in her life. She wrote about past drug addiction and how people judged her (and how she judged herself) for it. She wrote about how lonely she’s been. She wrote about wanting to die at points of her life. She wrote about being an outcast. She wrote about losing her children for a time. She wrote about a lot of things that I would have never known about had she not opened herself and shared them or had I not taken this course.

On Thursday, when we had a workshop on her piece, I told the class that it made me feel so sad that we don’t know what others are going through. When we pass someone on the street we look past them or sometimes we are rude to a stranger, yet we have no idea what they are dealing with inside or when they are at home; they could be going through something so horrible, and we would never know.

My teacher responded by noting that all humans deal with things they might not tell everyone and it’s important to be understanding. That’s not a groundbreaking concept, but he’s right. So often we might be rude to a total stranger (or someone we know!) because they do something that gets on our nerves or they don’t get our order correct. I think it’s important to consider what is going on behind the scenes and realize that each of us is struggling and all we have is each other. This might be the hippie in me coming out, but I think if we did that, the world would be a nicer place. Empathy can be a powerful tool if we use it.