Within the first hours of living in Korea I began to move vividly understand the paradox of life this side of eternity, and I coined it as my mantra of sorts for this year of my sojourn. Hard but good. At times I’ve seen the pattern of my life more like mountaintops: all beauty and ease and deep content. Other times, all I can see is the badlands of the hardship and pain in my life, the lives of those I love, and this broken earth. I remember looking over the four years of college the day before I graduated and seeing mountaintops and valleys both, and realizing every step of the way has neither been the peak or depths of my existence. It’s been the walking in-between, sustained by the Maker of the summits and canyons all.
Weeks before I moved here, I remember sitting on the front porch stoop where I spent many summer evenings with a cup of tea and a book and the Carolina humidity. This evening I remember so vividly, because I saw something awfully wonderful for the first time. I had just been scrolling through pictures of my time at college and before college, and I realized how happy I looked in every one of them. Even in times of deep loneliness, or incredible stress, or anger or frustration or tears. Glad, and happy and content.
Yes, I know there is undoubtedly something to be said of how we only put our best selves on social media, but these were my pictures of myself and I know my own story. So when I saw a thread of photos of myself still looking happy in times that I remember were distinctly hard, I also saw a steady thread of God’s faithfulness that held me on the mountaintops and yet never left me in the badlands.
And now, without a doubt, the same can be said for the past 7 months in South Korea. There have been times when I wake up and don’t want to even move- the loneliness too crippling. And there have been times where I’m all but skipping around Changwon city with a heart so full of gratitude for what I’m seeing and experiencing.
This is the paradox. This is life in the far country. This is hard, but this is good.
March was a season of hard. The week my great-grandmother died was painful and draining and crying-in-the-bathroom awful. It took me the rest of the month to get out of that darkness, even thought I was so lonely and heartbroken and far from my family and friends I felt like I was being broken in an unmendable way. When I thought I was finally mending, everything about South Korea’s excruciating education system seemed to hijack my very breath, and as I saw the manifestations of it in the lives of my students I felt completely paralyzed to continue on as their teacher. Coupled with that, the heartbreaking reality of the standards of outward beauty that these girls are inflicted with has been nothing short of troubling when you hear their comments of wanting plastic surgery before they even reach high school, or how their dad won’t look at their legs because they’re too fat. One day it all became too much, and I remember telling Andrew, “I don’t want to learn another thing about South Korean culture, it’s all heartbreaking to me.” And then my co-teacher came to me informing me that one of my elementary students had been so stressed that he pulled the hair of his eyebrows out, “So don’t be shocked when you see his face” she said… but actually I had to walk outside to pull myself together before the class began.
I tried to take action. I tried pounding words of truth into my brain. I tried expressing myself to people but only ounces of my internalized pain could seep through. I found I couldn’t even pray. I could smile a weak convincing smile while I shoved it all down beneath my skin so I could get through another day and collapse into bed at night.
March was hard.
In recognizing that all of life is hard but good, there are moments so small you might almost miss them, yet so profound they almost knock you over. At the end of a hard, hard, week, in the middle of this hard, hard month, I was walking to school, pretty lost in my thoughts, when for whatever reason I happened to glance to my right. Along the sidewalk that takes me to my job, there is a small creek within a deep trench of concrete, fenced on either side. It’s prettier than it looks, especially on this day- the azaleas were just starting to burst into yellow blooms. I think it was the brightness that caught my eye, but it was something beneath them on the cement wall that stopped me dead in my tracks.
Someone in this country wrote it. Someone who lives in this country of never-ending work hours and school until midnight and stress so dense it makes high schoolers take their lives and unreachable beauty expectations that make young girls go under knives for the sake of manmade eyes and noses- someone in this place wrote the word hope on the wall above a gutter beneath the blooming azaleas. I absolutely broke down right then and there, and for the first time in weeks, cried tears that weren’t from pain. There is a promise of hope, and there it was; in plain sight, mingled with the promise of spring.
As I began to emerge from the dark tunnel that was this month, at the exact same time, the trees began to grow small buds and leaves and flowers. Each and every day I feel myself getting better and better, and the trees and new life around me is growing fuller and brighter and warmer. The promise of spring has quickened my heart to see the good amidst the hard and all the beauty mingled in between.
Just yesterday, my friend Courtney and I were coming back from a weekend away and as the taxi took us into the heart of Changwon we were greeted by thick, vibrant pink cherry blossom blooms lining the streets. I mean, miles of fully-bloomed trees along the highway. “Let’s never forget this moment,” I said. “Let’s never forget that time we were driving back into our city after an incredible weekend and everything was transformed because these buds literally bloomed overnight while we were gone.”
The best part is, this isn’t even the peak of their blooms. My breath was still stolen.
~ ~ ~
On hope, Brian Doyle once said:
“Look, I know very well that brooding misshapen evil is everywhere, in the brightest houses, and the most cheerful denials, in what we do and what we have failed to do, and I know all too well that the story of the world is entropy, things fly apart, we sicken, we fail, we grow weary, we divorce, we are hammered and hounded by loss and accidents and tragedies. but I also know, with all my hoary muddled heart, that we are carved of immense confusing holiness; that the whole point for us is grace under duress; and that you either take a flying leap at nonsensical illogical unreasonable ideas like marriage and marathons and democracy and divinity, or you huddle behind a wall. I believe that the coolest things there are cannot be measured, calibrated, calculated, gauged, weighed, or understood except sometimes by having a child patiently explain it to you, which is something that should happen far more often to us all. In short, I believe in believing, which doesn’t make sense, which gives me hope.”