[VIEWPOINT]The most important question

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[VIEWPOINT]The most important question

A woman became seriously ill and fell into a coma. As she was groping at the border between this world and the world beyond, she heard a voice: “Who are you?”
She replied, “I am Mrs. Cooper. I am the wife of the mayor of this city.” “I did not ask who your husband was,” the voice replied. “Who are you?” “I am the mother of Jenny and Peter.”
Not satisfied, the voice continued to press her. “I did not ask whose mother you were. Who are you?” “I am a teacher. I teach elementary students.” “I did not ask what your job was. Who are you?” “I went to church every Sunday, helped my husband well and taught students enthusiastically.” “I did not ask what you had done. I asked who you were.”
She seems to have eventually failed the test, because she was sent to this world again. After she recovered from her illness, her life changed a great deal.
Last night I turned on the television inadvertently, and a singer was performing a song called “Face,” which was popular in the 1970s. “I was about to draw a circle, but I absentmindedly ended up drawing a face. My dream in those days was like white clouds rising in my heart ....” went its lyrics. Although scores of years had passed, I found myself singing the song from memory.
In the 1970s, the streets were filled with tear gas and the shouts of demonstrators against the military dictatorship, and soldiers in tanks kept watch on empty campuses. At that time, in my 20s, the world I saw was full of chaos, and the countless crossroads of life that stretched in front of me struck me as agonizing choices.
Nevertheless, my life was filled with dreams and romances, and I had the courage not to be afraid of pouring all of my heart out to love someone.
But when I look back on the past now, my life seems to have been a continuing flow that has just passed away, as in the lyrics of the song. “I was about to draw a circle, but I absentmindedly ended up drawing a face....”
If I died now, and someone said to me, “Who are you,” what answer could I give to the question? Instead of answering as the woman in the story did ― that I am the daughter of someone, that I am the teacher of someone, and that I am the aunt of someone ― could I say who I truly am?
There is a saying that a fine horse does not look back, only forward, as it runs. In order to be a fine horse in life, I too have never looked back, running at full speed, until now, toward places that appeared to be better and more comfortable.
Feeling quite short of breath, I have managed to reach my present position. But I still do not know myself well.
A variety of titles are printed on the envelopes I received in the mail today. Among them are professor, doctor, advisory committee member and director. But none of them says who I really am.
I know of a doctor. He had worked hard and well at a general hospital, which paid him handsomely, until one day he volunteered to work for a medical service team in Africa. Once he left, he decided to remain there forever.
Before he departed, he said, “This is what I have really wanted to do since I was a child. I am going to do it now before I get too old. I will regret it if I can’t. I know myself.”
I envied this man who could say “I know myself,” and who had the courage to make up his mind to do what he wanted. I can’t even confidently say what I really want to achieve before I die, or what I like best now in this world.
I have lived, until now, looking only at myself, protecting myself eagerly and taking care of myself alone, so I should be the one who knows myself best. It is ironic that, in fact, I am not.
A theologian named Thomas Merton said that the way to find a true self, and the only genuine joy in this world, was to get away from the prison called “oneself.” But confining myself to a prison without bars called “myself,” and covering myself with all kinds of titles, I still go through life without knowing who I am.

* The writer is a professor of English literature at Sogang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Chang Young-hee
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