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7 Oct

Lost and found – My wife and I spent the weekend in the southern Korean city of Gyeongju, and originally that was going to be the subject of today’s entry—a discussion of “cultural festivals” and the popularization of folklore. But you know what? I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my field of studies these days, and my previous entry was a result of that, but I just don’t feel like getting into an academic discussion today. I’m feeling somewhat introspective, so I think I’m going to go in a different direction (and besides, I figure it won’t hurt to post an entry on the Gyeongju trip at the same time I get the pictures up).

“The idea of ‘finding myself’ has always rubbed me the wrong way.”

In my very first entry here at Liminality, the text in the pull quote read: “People who write blogs are losers!” Granted, I did not say this—the honor for this quote goes to my wife. But I must admit that I sometimes have difficulty disagreeing with this rather harsh statement, and I have carefully avoided referring to Liminality as a “blog”—I like to think of it as an “online journal.” Not that there aren’t some really great blogs out there—there are, and there are a whole bunch that are far more interesting than my ramblings here. But there are also a whole lot of blogs that are insipid, banal, and excruciatingly tedious, and they have given the term “blog” a rather sour taste, at least for me.

I realize, of course, that mere terminology means little—you can call a blog anything you like, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a blog. So in addition to linguistic sleight-of-hand, I have also tried to avoid some of the hallmarks of “blog behavior.” One thing I have studiously avoided is linking to something on the Web and then writing very briefly about it (again, I realize that there are some very successful and interesting blogs that do this). I suppose one reason for that is that the stuff in my head keeps me busy enough as it is, but I can’t deny that it has also been a conscious effort to avoid the typical blog format.

I said all that just to say this: I read something on the Web recently that really got me to thinking, and I’ve decided to break with tradition and do the link/discuss thing. So here’s the link: Joshua Tree Blooms, as seen on Fray. If you’ve got a moment, go give it a read now. It’s not too long, it’s well written, and it has some nice pictures to boot.

Now for the discussion. At the end of the story (as at the end of all Fray stories), there is a question that links to thoughts and stories by other people inspired by the question. The question for this particular story is “Where have you found yourself?” I posted my answer—it’s on the third page if you’d like to read it (incidentally, I thought for a while about what to type in the “name” field, and ultimately decided to use my birth name (Charles) rather than what most people call me these days (Suho, my Korean name)).

I must admit that the question bugged me, and it bugged me for two reasons. For starters, the idea of “finding myself” has always rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe that’s because I’ve too often heard it used by people who think they are far “deeper” than they really are, and who look down on others who haven’t “found themselves”—as if they possess a wisdom that the unenlightened masses could never understand. Maybe it’s because I’ve never felt that the phrase applied to me, and hearing people use it makes me feel small and uncultured. Most likely it’s a combination of these and other factors, but the fact remains that I’ve always despised the phrase. My semi-sarcastic reply on Fray betrays these feelings: “To be honest, I was never really into ‘finding myself’—maybe because I never lost myself in the first place.”

The second thing that got under my skin was the word “where.” If there is such a thing as “finding oneself,” why does it need to be tied to a specific place? Why is it that certain, special places can trigger these emotional epiphanies, while other, mundane places can’t? Do I need to stand on the top of Mt. Everest to find myself? Why can’t I just find myself right where I am? Reading over the replies to the question, I found that a number of people spent more time on a specific place rather than any specific truth they discovered about themselves. And it seemed to me that some people just wanted to go on about the wonderful places they’ve been to, and how special they are for having been to a place few people go. (Yes, the question did ask where, but I was looking forward to hearing more about what people found as well.)

Yet I said in my post that I am brutally honest with myself and my feelings, and if I were to subject myself to some of that brutality right now I would have to admit that a lot of what rubs me the wrong way about “finding oneself” stems from my extremely competitive nature—I just can’t stand the idea that someone might be more “enlightened” than I am, or that they might have had more and greater experiences than I have. Second place has never had any meaning for me—it’s always been first place or nothing. It’s childish, of course, and it’s ultimately hypocritical. I deny others their enlightenment and experiences, and yet I secretly hold my own enlightenment and experiences up as the ideal.

This isn’t really where I wanted to go with this when I started writing, but I just couldn’t paint over the cracks and hope no one would notice. I would notice, and I would know I wasn’t honest, and that would gnaw at me—like it has gnawed at me, I now realize, ever since I posted that reply on Fray. Maybe no one who reads my post on Fray will read this, but at least I’ve been honest with myself.

This doesn’t mean, however, that all of my objections to the phrase can be explained by my own shortcomings—I think my objections still have some validity. My comment about never having lost myself in the first place may have been a bit cliché, but I meant what I said. I think sometimes we are so busy chasing after what we think is important in this life that we lose touch with ourselves and with the things that are really important. We let the world around us dictate our desires, hopes and dreams, and we hide our true hopes for fear that they may be broken and crushed. How much of what we do is done because it is what we think we are supposed to do, and not because it is what we really want to do? Obviously, we could not have a functioning society if everyone did only what they wanted to do and nothing else, but I think sometimes we are fooled into believing that we need to conform more than we really do.

Caught up in life, it takes special circumstances to jar us out of “reality.” Thus, people “find themselves” in the desert, on a snowy mountain, in Africa, wherever. When we find ourselves in surroundings radically different from what we are used to, our sense of perspective changes. We no longer see things in the narrow frame of everyday life, we see the big picture. And when you don’t get to look at the big picture very often, when you do see it it tends to blow you away.

I wish I could say that I look at the big picture all the time, that I don’t get tangled up and bogged down in life’s trivial little details, that I always keep an eye on what’s really important. That would be a lie, though. I get caught up in things just as much as the next person. Where I try to be different is in my honesty with myself, and in the frequency that I step back from things for a little perspective. I won’t deny the power of a change of locale in helping to get that perspective—the vast Mongolian steppes, the broad southern African sky, and the desert of the U.S. Southwest have all given me the opportunity to step outside of my life for a moment and think. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t take a step back right where I am. I don’t have to be in any particular place to find myself.

I remember my first floor meeting during my freshman year at university (this may seem like a tangent, but there is a point to all of this). It was my first opportunity to meet all of the people on my floor, and I also realized that it was my only chance to make a first impression. So I dressed all in black, and I wore a grey fedora that I had used in a high school play. I had never worn the hat except in the play, but I decided to reinvent myself, and the fedora was going to be part of my new image. I sat there during the floor meeting trying to look as cool as I could, and I poured my entire life’s allotment of suavity into my introduction. I must have looked ridiculous.

We eventually grew to be a very tight-knit floor, one big, sometimes happy family. At one point a bunch of us were sitting around talking, and we decided to talk about our first impressions of each other. Everyone was unanimous in thinking that I was a freak, and in being relieved to find out that I wasn’t anything like they had first thought. I had to smile at that, because in a way I had been successful—I had given a rather memorable first impression. I couldn’t keep it up, though. I stopped wearing the fedora after a while, and my carefully crafted coolness disappeared long before that. It just wasn’t me, and no amount of trying was going to make it me.

Four years later, I found myself packing up my stuff in a small, half-basement apartment. I was set to leave for Korea two weeks later, and I remember thinking as I packed that another chapter in my life was over, and a new chapter was about to begin. I was excited and scared, and for the same reason—the road ahead was open, and I couldn’t see around the next bend. I had done some things right during those four years, but I had also done some things wrong, and my heart was heavy with the memories of those mistakes. Korea would offer me a clean slate, I told myself. There I would be able to start my life over and escape the ghosts that haunted me.

And so it came as something of a shock when I arrived in Korea and discovered that my problems had followed me. And it was there, lying beneath a pavilion on the top of South Mountain (Namsan) in Seoul, that I suppose I found myself. At the very least I realized that no amount of moving around was going to solve my problems—my problems were a part of me, and unless I dealt with them I was just going to spend my life running from them. I have not solved all my problems, but I no longer run from them. I face them, and expose them with brutal honesty, and I don’t need to be anywhere special to do so.

That was definitely a turning point in my life, that morning beneath the pavilion. I never connected that epiphany with that place, though. It was brought about by the circumstances of the moment, but it could have happened anywhere. I remember that day vividly, and if I were to go back there I would most likely pause beneath the pavilion to reflect on how my life has changed since that day. But it would merely be a reminder of how it all began.

We cheat ourselves if we only experience those epiphanies in special places. Not to cheapen those experiences, of course, but what good does it do to find ourselves in the desert if we’re just going to leave ourselves there when we return to the bustle of our lives? Although such experiences may make great stories, finding oneself is not a one-time thing—at least it never has been for me. I try to find myself as often as possible, lest I lose myself and forget who I am. This entry, typed up here in my study, was a chance for me to find a little more of myself. It only happened here, though, because this is where my computer is. I don’t need to be anywhere special to find myself, I just need to be willing to look, and to be honest with myself about what I find.

Update: I received an e-mail from Derek Powazek, the creator of Fray, and he pointed out that the question could also mean, “Where have you been?” He also said that the Fray questions all have multiple meanings, and are intentionally vague. Almost as if to prove that point, one of my friends said that she interpreted the question (before she read the Fray story) to mean, “Where do you see yourself manifested in the world around you?” I realized that all three of these interpretations are valid, and I smiled again at the beauty of language and meaning. The way we interpret language says more about us than it does about the originator of that particular language. I guess you can always count on a lit major to over-analyze stuff—at least it makes for interesting journal entries.

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