Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Of Mystics, Memories, and Futures

In his book Saints and Madmen, Russell Shorto says that there is only one difference between a psychotic and a mystic: he says that a psychotic is inflated by his experiences, while a mystic is humbled by them. According to Mr. Shorto it’s that simple, the line is that narrow. A mystic takes what he has seen and heard and done and is humbled by its magnitude and holds those memories in reverence; while a psychotic understands his blessings only in light of himself and sees them only as a reflection of his own grandeur.

After 13 months of living in a foreign country and being blessed beyond what I dreamed, I am flying back to America tomorrow. I am entering that crucial time of reflection, an attempt to understand what all this has meant, what it means, and what it will mean. Thus far I know only one thing: if I am to fall into one of two camps, let it be that of the mystic.

My last two weeks have been really wonderful. I have spent time with my Korean friends, with my Korean family, and also with the beauty that is Korea. Saying goodbye to my school was particularly heart-wrenching. Many of the students hugged me, told me that they would never forget me, and gave me awesome cards they had written in broken English. To be honest I really didn’t think it would be as hard as it was to leave. I have spent so much time in that school, I have taught hundreds of classes, spoken to hundreds of kids, and suffered through cafeteria food countless times. As scared as I was when I first began teaching, now I can’t imagine life without it. It’s amazing how life shifts things like that. And if there has been one central theme to my time here, to my life, perhaps it is this:

The fear of something is always worse than the thing that is feared.

It’s incredible how this has proved true over and over again. Whatever I have been afraid of has never been worse than how I imagine it to be, to the fear I have created and in my mind. It’s really been a liberating concept to embrace.

**But before I get ahead of myself, allow me to divide this final Korean essay into a few pieces, each of which I hope will draw together and create some kind of puzzle, (although it's picture will no doubt be abstract.)

A Brief Note on the Nature of Unpredictability. A year and 4 months ago I could never have told you that I would go to Korea, let alone live there, for a year. Nothing could have been farther from my mind as I busily applied to law school and worked at my full time job. Suddenly I was ripped from that situation and thrown into one of the most difficult and rewarding situations of my life, one that necessitated the embrace (awkward though it may have been) of unpredictability. Embracing this concept is incredibly difficult for me. I have a great friend who I respect very much who really encourages me this way, because I am very high-strung and stressed and cracked out on caffeine most of the time, but he is one of the calmest people I know, and no matter what variables are handed his way he engages them with the calm faith of a man who understands what is worth worrying about. We are the same age, but he has embraced unpredictability, he has embraced the unknown, and all the freedom that comes with it. I wrote a while ago in my journal, in the midst of my teaching and traveling and planning for a marriage, that I really had no control over my life. That I was nothing but a small boat being tossed about in a storm, subject to wind and wave and every manner of nature's furry. That, for a person like me, is horrifying. For my friend whom I mentioned earlier, that's just a part of life to roll with. For me it means that I can't plan my future with any degree of accuracy, it means that my planning each year in advance is frivolous at best, and irresponsible at worst. All this because any plan I make is ultimately ephemeral. Fleeting. Temporary. So, this time has forced me to confront the darker, grittier side of human life on this planet. To bear the weight of uncertainty on my shoulders while clinging to the strength that is faith. To accept the fact that my boat will be tossed about by the wind and the waves, but to pray that God is in the wind.

A Note on the Continuation of Hope. I was speaking with a friend of mine a couple of days ago. I hadn't seen her in two years, not since an economics conference in Boston, and we were catching up about all that had happened since we last met. I have to mention, she is brilliant. She goes to an Ivy League school and will soon graduate with all the honors that her prestigious degree confers, and she will go on to do great things. So we were talking and she was telling me about how she had been traveling, how she had seen many beautiful and terrible things, how she had worked in the Netherlands at the Hague, and how the immense egoism and hypocrisy of the International Criminal Court had driven her away. She told me that she wasn't as idealistic as she had been, that after seeing so much she no longer felt compelled to become an international lawyer, that the life of altruism she had always dreamed of was not for her. She told me that she would rather embrace life at her Ivy League school and life in the lavish reality that it provided. And to be honest, I don't blame her. It was something that I struggled with a great deal after traveling this winter. A friend of mine once asked me how anyone, with eyes open to the world, could maintain hope. I'm not sure I have an answer yet, but I am thankful that the bitterness and cynicism that enveloped me for some time has dissipated, and that I remain today as much in love with traveling and experiencing as I ever have been. Hope is a tricky thing, and I think if we hope in anything less than perfection we are destined to be let down. I was, and I am learning to move past our broken nature to something lasting, to something greater.

A Note on the Enigmatic Nature of Time. I am, or possibly am not, in my mid-twenties. In America I am 24, in Korea I am 25, either way I am looking at about a quarter century. I am learning to be ok with this, but I have noticed, with a degree of alarm, that each year moves with a speed with which I am not yet accustomed. Upon leaving for Korea, my year-long commitment might as well have been an eternity, (because when you leave to a mysterious Asian country any period of time beyond a few months it seems like forever.) Yet here I sit, sipping a coffee in Seoul, South Korea, and wondering where the time has gone. I know intellectually that time has passed, over a year has gone by, but when I think back I can remember vividly arriving for the first time. My first bites of Kimchi, failing my language classes, taking taekwondo, and losing feeling to my legs as I sat cross-legged for hours on the floor. These things just happened, and yet they happened a year ago. And I don't think that this is tragic, or sad, or happy or anything; it just is. It's the strange reality we live in. I really struggled with trying to understand this, until I heard a man a respect very much, Dr. Ravi Zacharias, put this this way: He observed how strange it was that we humans should be constantly remarking at the passing of time, as if it were unexpected: "how tall you have grown!" we say, "where has the time gone?" we wonder. Indeed how strange it is that we constantly remark with surprise at the passing of time, although to our physical bodies, time is the one constant thing we have. It is as strange as if a fish were to constantly marvel at the wetness of water. Such an idea would be strange indeed, unless the fish was one day destined to be a land animal.

**So, to communicate some of what my last two weeks in Korea have been like, check out these pictures:

I went on a final hike with my homestay family, reminding me again of Korea's incredible beauty.
When we reached the top of the mountain, sweating and out of breath, the first thing my homestay family did was buy rice wine and popsicles. How awesome. How Korean. When asked if I would like a cool alcoholic beverage to hydrate myself with, I politely declined.
I was invited back to Chuncheon, the town I spent my first 6 weeks in Korea living in, to deliver a lecture to the new Fulbright Grantees who had just begun their orientation. It was weird. Here were new grantees, in the exact situation that I had been in one year prior. I stayed in the same dorm, and sat in the same room I had sat in for hours during my orientation. Things really came full circle, it was good and right to be back. Then we ate the Chuncheon famous dalk-galbi, something I had been craving since I left a year ago. It was good!
I encountered what has been voted one of the most difficult things to adjust to here in Korea: throwing TP in trash cans. I spent some extra time hanging out with my Korean friends in Cheongju, getting to know them has been one of the highlights of my time here in Korea, and I did some more hiking and found more beautiful places, each distinctly Korean.
I also spent some quality time dressed as a pirate with my coteachers. We believe in keeping things loose.
Finally I hung out with my students, playing fun games and eating pizza with corn and sweet potatoes on it, shooting rubber-bands and throwing pencils into the ceiling. This is the part that I will miss the most.
I have reached the end of my grant to South Korea, I have reached the end of my adventures here and to my teaching. I leave here deeply humbled and honored to have had this opportunity, it has been a blessing in good times and in bad, and I emerge a better man, a more complete man, for it. It's the end of an era for me, and I am running headlong into the next; I don't know how to do it any other way. This next stage of life will also be full of blessings, although it will be much different and will require me to grow up in substantial ways. I feel a sense of loss, but I am heartened by the hope that rises before me, in all its uncertainty, with all it's unknowns and questions and risk, which is perhaps why I feel so ready for it. Because I know that whenever I encounter difficulty, risk, danger, unknown, I am headed in the right direction, because to be fully alive you can't be safe.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Awakenings, or, Live, Love, and Leave

I have entered my final days of this great Korean experiment. This is my last weekend in Cheongju, and that sobering fact is just beginning to settle in as I have intentionally kept my self busy enough so as not to think of it. Leaving is a funny thing, it’s something that tugs at those tender heartstrings that we try so hard not to pull. Sometimes when I think of it I shake my head and laugh, because it’s one of the only actions that we perform repeatedly in this life yet it remains one of the hardest to do. Therein lies the beauty and the difficulty of travel, the art of constantly coming and going, of living, loving and leaving.

I will be honest with you; I am a bit of a sentimentalist. I enjoy reminiscing and thinking and learning and really searching through the pages of my recent history. So I beg your forgiveness in advance as I indulge with relish in this weakness of mine.

When I first came to Korea a funny thing happened: I didn’t eat breakfast. Or, rather, I couldn’t eat breakfast. Although I was confident that I wanted to be in Korea, I suffered from a crippling anxiety that subtly manifested itself in its ability to paralyze my capacity for food eating before noon. Not that I really cared, honestly, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of eating rice and kimchi at 7:30am. I tell you this because if someone were to paint a picture of my first few months in Korea it would be something abstract, employing many different colors and drifting far outside the lines. I suppose my expectations were met. I had expected nothing but a massive change, and that is what I received. For the first month I endured, along with dozens of my Fulbright comrades, a 6-week orientation that ran a bit like a military boot camp, complete with a drill sergeant walking up and down the halls with a megaphone at 7am to wake us up. Needless to say this form of motivation did little to decrease my anxiety. I remember one day in an orientation seminar being asked to write down why we had come to Korea, what our motivation was. I paused. It was such a basic question, perhaps the most fundamental question there was, yet I struggled to put into writing exactly why I had ventured around the world and landed here. What I eventually wrote was something like this:

“I am not here to teach. I am here to experience, to learn, to grow, to understand beauty and to learn to live in uncertainty. Teaching is just the vehicle. The means to an end.”

The day after we wrote these statements I received what was to me a rude awakening. We were sitting in our orientation class again, and we were told that if we went home early, if we did not finish our grant period, that we would have to pay Fulbright back for our flights to and from Korea. I listened without really hearing, each word falling heavily into place like a prison door clanging shut. “You…will…pay…us…for…both…of…your…tickets.” I did the math, “ok, each ticket is around 1,300 dollars, times two, that equals 2,600 dollars…oh dear,” I concluded, “I don’t have that kind of money.” My mouth slid open, I stared dumbly at the pencil on my desk as if it held the answer to my dilemma, as if it would sprout legs, arms, and a mouth, jump up and show me a way out of this quandary. Please understand, I had every intention of staying for the duration of my grant, but its one thing to say that you will live somewhere for a year, and its another to be locked into it via the threat of financial ruin. I officially had no plan B. Ultimately it was good for me, I reacted by pushing myself a bit more and acknowledging that I couldn’t afford anything less than success in this venture.

Fast forward to last night. I was sitting on the floor around the dinner table, with my homestay mother (Mrs. Bang) and father (Mr. So) on the other side, pouring another glass of Hite (the only Korean beer that they drink) and talking about Mongolians. “Did you know that years ago the Mongolians went into China, then into Alaska, then down into Canada, the US, and Mexico, and ended up in South America, in Peru?” Mrs. Bang asked. “No,” I replied. “I had no idea.” “And,” she continued, with a pleased look on her face, “that is why today the people from Peru farm the same way we do here in Korea. And they perform the same ceremony before harvest that we do.” Right on cue, Mr. So jumped up from his cross-legged position, beer in hand, to demonstrate. Dipping his pinky finger into his glass, he started flicking beer out of the glass and onto the floor with incredible volume and speed. Mrs. Bang, who had not anticipated this demonstration, started slapping his legs, telling him to stop throwing beer on the floor, and that he would have to clean it up. After he had emptied about half the glass, he stopped with a big, pleased smile across his face.

Moments like that I’ve found are hard to replicate. They are endemic of the comfort I now feel living in Korea, a comfort that has taken a while to achieve, but I now feel deeply.

So in a week I will leave this. I will bid goodbye to all the places I ever visited, to all the coffee shops I ever indulged within, and to all the beautiful people and places I have met and seen. Just as I've awakened to the beauty of this experience, so will I leave this and awaken to another beauty, another adventure greater than this has been. I will move on to greater and better things, I really believe that, and I am excited to do so; but that fact doesn’t make leaving any easier.