[Editor's view]Life is beautiful

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[Editor's view]Life is beautiful

The Zen Buddhist training center in Muan county commemorates the Venerable Choui, a 19th century Zen master who revived traditional tea ceremonies as a way to resist Confucianism.
The training center’s interior space measures 81 pyeong (267.8 square meters). The height of the interior pillars is 19 ja (5.75 meters). The width of the horizontal beam that supports the roof is 24 ja. Choui was 81 when he died, 19 when he attained nirvana and 24 when he met Chusa Kim Jeong-hui, the Joseon dynasty scholar and calligrapher who taught him poetry and Confucianism.
It’s apparent that we can learn a lot from numbers. St. Augustine, the 4th century theologian, argued that numbers represent a universal language provided by God to reveal divine truth.
Here are a few more to consider: 550, 52, 3.6, 47.3, 2.2 million, 2.86, and 26.1.
The first is the difference between the average annual hours worked by Koreans, compared to workers in the United States. Korean employees work an average of 2,345 hours per annum. Their U.S. counterparts work just 1,804 hours: And 550 hours equals 22.9 days.
Next up is 52, which represents Korea’s per capita income of $19,600 per annum, expressed as a percentage of per capita income in the United States, where the figure is $37,600.
The third figure is 3.6, the percent of GDP which Koreans spend on recreation and culture. In the U.S. they expend 6.4 percent of their GDP in these areas. Korea’s expenditure is third from last among the 30 member countries of the OECD. Only Mexico and Ireland spend less of their national income on recreation and culture.
Numerological divination is the ancient art of telling the future by using numerical patterns, and the fourth number, 47.3, would have intrigued the fortune tellers of old.
According to the OECD, the figure represents the percentage of Koreans who are satisfied with their lives. The average for OECD member countries is 70.6 percent. Within the OECD, only Hungarians and Slovaks, both notoriously gloomy peoples, have less “life satisfaction” than Koreans.
Of even greater interest is that 87 percent of Koreans say they feel happy, almost exactly the same number as the OECD average. The disparity in these figures suggests that Koreans might tell researchers they are happy but, inside, they have a deep well of dissatisfaction.
The remaining numbers in the series support this notion, for they are like mile markers on the highway to hell: 2.2 million is the number of Koreans who suffer from diseases related to alcohol abuse, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare; 2.86 is the percentage of GDP lost to excessive drinking per annum, according to Yonsei University researchers. And 26.1 is the number of people per 100,000 who committed suicide here in 2006, a figure that was released this week and puts Korea on top of the OECD’s suicide league.
Any numerologist worth his salt should be able to discern a pattern here. Koreans work 30% harder than Americans for half the income, they spend half as much on leisure, the majority are dissatisfied with their lives, many drink too much and far too many commit suicide.
As an outsider who is enamored of this beautiful, melancholy country, I am saddened by these trends. Maybe I can be pardoned for making some suggestions.
Koreans seem very reluctant to talk about their emotions and rarely inquire after each other’s happiness. This is not a culture in which “Have a nice day” rings out on every street corner. Koreans, who are concerned with team-building to the point of obsession, appear to have only a slight concern for individual happiness.
For example, many Koreans greet a friend by asking if they have eaten, not by inquiring about their emotional condition. This is not surprising. Korea was, for many years, a survival culture in which starvation was a real issue. It was that culture which created the economic miracle of the last 20 years.
Young people are hesitant to talk with their parents about emotional problems, because they know how much hardship the older generation endured. Many of my Korean colleagues tell me that talking about happiness feels unnatural and they were raised with the assumption that life is hard.
And so it can be, but that’s not the whole story. From these numbers it’s apparent Korea’s miracle is only half complete. Among OECD countries its economic grades are outstanding but its quality of life grades are awful. It lacks balance.
Maybe that explains the Cho Seung-hui atrocity. Living in America, a society where individual happiness is a prime goal, he couldn’t adjust.
Being Korean he knew how to be successful but he didn’t know how to be happy.
In 1940, Leon Trotsky, aware that Stalin’s assassins were near, produced a last testament. “Life is beautiful,” he wrote. “Let future generations cleanse it of evil and enjoy it to the full.”
That is the challenge for Korea’s young generation. To be financially secure and happy. Without both, the nation’s appalling suicide rate is unlikely to fall.

*The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Daniel Jeffreys
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