When Mortality Breaks Your Routine
When will this class end? Don’t people realize I have more important things to do this weekend? I need to photograph a band, organize an event, take a trip, plan a vacation, work on my blog, write an article, drink with friends, get laid, go shopping, explore, or apply for a master’s program. Oh hell, maybe I won’t do any of those things. Maybe I’ll just drink some wine and chill watching Netflix. Regardless, my life is all about the weekend. Being in Korea is about moving forward or saving money for other parts of my life. I mean, my full life is ahead of me and this is only a minute, temporary, part of the puzzle. Korea and my teaching job may foot the bills, but my real reason to be here is to grow as a person and use the benefits of this lifestyle to propel myself in a positive direction – or so I thought.
Then, I heard this,
“Brent, let’s review your options for chemotherapy.”
Chemotherapy? Hold on Doc . . . I came in for a sinus infection. You found a large mass of lymphatic tissue, which I thought you said was an enlarged adenoid. Sure, you mentioned it could be cancer, but you said the chances were low. Oh . . . the tumor grew in a week while I was on extensive antibiotic treatment? That’s not good; what should we do?”
And there it was – a small and unlikely taste of death at 30.
Life and Death
None of us are naive enough to believe we are immortal. But, as young adults, how do we actually feel? We tell ourselves we can die. But, most of us don’t think we’ll die tomorrow, next week, or in the next ten years. Most of us don’t; some of us do.
Death, like advice from our parents, doesn’t fully resonate with us until we experience some aspect of it. Most of us have lived long enough to see some of the wisdom of our parents come to pass.
“I didn’t understand who I was until my late twenties”
“You know things and then you realize things. It’s only after you experience and realize things that you truly know or understand them.”
These pieces of advice are true, but they don’t click until we view our lives in hindsight. I didn’t think I could learn anything new about myself after 25? Now that I’m 30, my mom couldn’t have been more correct. Maybe Otto Van Bismarck summarized it the best when he said, “a wise man learns from the mistakes of others, and a fool learns from his own mistakes.” If I can be honest, I think most of us are fools.
We have all known since we were young that we were guaranteed two things in life: death and taxes. As a Christian growing up in the South, I thought I spent more time pondering death than most children my age. Yet, despite all my pondering and discussions about death and the afterlife, I learned more about death in two minutes with my doctor than in a lifetime of abstract thinking: death is real; death is coming; we are not promised tomorrow; life is unfair; death plays no favorites; it rains on both the just and unjust. You might say to yourself that you know this, but have you realized it? I’ve watched other people die, but nothing is the same as feeling death point its finger at you. My perspective on life radically transformed when I learned this vehicle that carries my consciousness might fail me.
Even recently, we lost an English teacher to a hiking accident in Korea. According to his friends, he was an extraordinary expat who touched every life he encountered. They described him as charismatic, kind, and full of life. He died unexpectedly and I’m certain he had plans for the future. He, however, taught me a very important lesson. He lived in the moment and for the moment, appreciating every breath and every day.
For far too long, I’ve measured the quality of my life through my aspirations for the future. My mind has never been focused on the present, but veered toward the day I would become a lawyer, naval officer, writer or photographer. Some dreams I never attempted, and others were within one bad joke of being accomplished. The real tragedy, however, was that I never enjoyed what I was doing at the moment. My self-worth was never based on who I was or what I had accomplished. Instead, I would often tell strangers my future goals as a way to define myself. I’ve constantly sacrificed my enjoyment of God-given opportunities and guaranteed moments in life for delusions of grandeur.
Those dreams may never come to pass. My life might be tragically cut short. If it ends, all I’ll be left with was the time I had. Did I enjoy it, or did I always gaze into the future without appreciating the beautiful, albeit humble moments, within my grasp?
There is nothing wrong with dreams and goals. But at 30, I’ve realized life does not happen the way you plan it. I still have dreams and goals I will work towards; I still want to be a writer/photographer, and I still want to continue my master’s degree. I will never again, however, define happiness through what I may become in the future – that is no way to live life.
Instead of dreading my workweek, I now understand that this is my life. The quality of my life is determined through how I approach what I have, not by what my life may become in the future. I’m an ESL Teacher in Korea. For whatever reason, I have these beautiful Korean children who look up to me and adore me. I may be under qualified to teach them, but they still deserve my best. I also owe it to myself to give them my best. No one can promise me tomorrow, so why not choose to enjoy every moment of fun and torment these children can offer. Why not approach the opportunity I’ve been given to make their lives better. If I die, the real shame is not that I was never published in a major magazine, married, or received a master’s degree. The real shame would be that I wasn’t happy when I was alive. This happiness begins with a simple choice – a choice to be happy in the moments I’ve been given. I’ve always known this, but a small brush with death helped me realize it was true.
If you’ve read this far please appreciate and enjoy everything you have. Don’t be a fool and learn this lesson for yourself. I am lucky; I’ve only had a cancer scare. The chances of my tumor being benign are still in my favor. My doctor only wanted to review my options if cancer was found during my surgery or from my biopsy. It was enough to wake me up. Many others aren’t as fortunate, and for them it is already too late.
For the first time since I’ve been in Korea, I combined one of my passions (photography) with something (teaching) that I always thought interfered with my real life. When I gaze back upon these pictures, it’s obvious my satisfaction, priorities, and joy in life were derived from the wrong places.
And by the way, Kids in Korea are ridiculously cute. Don’t be fooled by the irony of my title. I’m even willing to wager my students are cuter than yours.
If you really want to be inspired, watch this video about the last days of Zach. Only watch this if you are ready for cry.
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