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29 Aug 2009

Brief thoughts on life – I had not intended to wait this long before posting again. In fact, I started writing this entry on Tuesday. It is now Saturday. I have revised and rewritten this more than anything else I have ever posted on the front page—and what you are reading now is the result of me scrapping all of that and starting fresh. For some reason I was unable get my thoughts on the subject to arrange themselves in a neat, pleasing structure. The more I wrote, the further away I seemed to get from where I wanted to be. It was like chasing shadows. So I am going to just say what I have to say, with no embellishment, and be done with it.

“We plan for the future, but we do so under the assumption that we are going to be a part of that future.”

This is something I have been thinking about since our visit to the States. While we were there, a young man was hit by a car and killed. I did not know him, but his parents went to our church. He was only eighteen years old—old enough for the newspapers to call him a “man,” but still far too young.

I overheard Hyunjin and my mom discussing him, and Hyunjin told my mom about one of her students. He was about our age, a very smart guy who went to a good school, got an MBA, and came to work for a solid company in Korea (Samsung, I believe it was). He seemed to have his best years ahead of him. Then he went to the doctor to get his freckles removed, and he discovered that they were not freckles but skin cancer. He went back to the States for surgery and treatment, but not too longer after that we found out that he had died. Naturally, this came as a shock to Hyunjin.

Life is not fair. If life were fair, I wouldn’t be sitting here in front of a computer in a nice apartment in Korea and a young man in the United States wouldn’t have been hit by a car. I have seen a lot of the unfairness of life around me, though I have experienced very little of it for myself. I once walked through a hospital in a South African township, where we visited a ward full of children with terminal illnesses. There was little the doctors could do but try to make them as comfortable as possible as they died. What could I do in the face of such tragedy? Desperate mothers asked me to pray for their children, and as I did I felt like a barefaced fraud. I said my words, and then I left them behind. Or did I? I can still see their faces, even though I know every one of them is most likely gone now.

We plan for the future, but we do so under the assumption that we are going to be a part of that future. Yet who knows how long we have to carry out these plans? I have always been a planner, a dreamer, a hoper. Even now, I look forward to the day when I will be able to cast off this weight I call “my dissertation.” I think about how wonderful it will feel to finally be done. This is not a bad thing. It is good to have hopes and dreams, to have goals and aims. But these days I feel like I am stuck at a crossroads in life, not making progress in any direction. Everything seems to lie ahead of me, and where I am now is merely a place to get through.

The truth, though, is that the only time I have is right now. I can say that I am going to enjoy life in the future, but I can’t enjoy life in the future. I can no more do anything in the future than I can do something in the past. The present is all that exists, and I have this sinking feeling that when the future becomes the present, I will have found something else to worry about, some other excuse to not live in the now.

To be taken at eighteen, or ten, or five—this is indeed a tragedy. But in the greater scheme of things, is a life of eighteen years that much different from a life of eighty? Anne Frank died at the age of fifteen in a concentration camp, but her diary touched the lives of untold numbers of people, myself being one of them. And then there are people who have lived long lives yet can only look back in regret at the things they failed to do. Quantity is no guarantee of quality.

I am reminded of one of my favorite lines from Fellowship of the Ring (part of a trilogy that produced many favorite lines). In the mines of Moria, Frodo tells Gandalf that he wishes “none of this had happened.” Gandalf replies, in a sage but kind voice, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” We may never be as heroic as Frodo, but the same wisdom applies. We have no more say about when we leave this earth than we had about when we came into it. The only thing we have control over is how we spend our time while we are here.

I wish I could live always with this sense of urgency, that I could live by the motto “carpe diem!” But I find the days sliding through my fingers, dripping into an ever-widening puddle of years at my feet. Perhaps it is my inability to comprehend my own mortality that robs me of this urgency. Or maybe it’s just that precious few of us are truly able to live each day as if it were our last.

Now that I have said all that, this last part may come as a bit of a surprise, but it is the flip side of what has been on my mind. It is true that I fret about wasting precious time and not living in the present, but at the same time I do not regret my life. What I wanted to say, finally, is this: should I die tomorrow, I would not consider it a tragedy. It would be a sad occasion for those I left behind, but I would have no regrets. People might say it is a shame that I could not finish my dissertation, that I could not make my mark on the world, that I studied all these years and never achieved what I set out to achieve. But that does not define me—this may be what I do, but it is not what I am. I have experienced things that many people will never experience no matter how long they live, I have been blessed with a great family, a loving wife, and caring friends. My reality has always surpassed my dreams. What more could I ask for?

In case you were wondering, I’m not planning on going anywhere. I fully expect to wake up tomorrow and go about my business, and continue to do so for years to come. But we never know what is going to happen, and we cannot know when the threads of our lives will come to an end. So I will continue to strive to live in the now, and I will be thankful for the blessed life that I live.

That is what I wanted to say, and finally I’ve said it.

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