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.

1 comment:

nepaliketi said...

jon.....not sure if you remember me. we met at that conference in boston two years ago. sounds like you had a lifechanging time in south korea. i really enjoyed your blog and am impressed by how you have embraced unpredicability. i hope that one day soon learn that lesson the meantime, another cup of coffee for me ; )