A midsummer’s night dream?Our dream-like days have ended. It was emotional and exciting. We unified to watch with bated breath and applauded our athletes for performing beyond our expectations. The intoxicating spell of the Olympics was only diluted by anxiety and the sinking feeling that all this may be over soon. Once the Olympic torches died, we returned to the very opposite end of the spectrum; the liberal against the conservative, Gyeongsang versus Jeolla, young against old, and ruling versus opposition. The vitriol on the campaign trail only underscores the schism. Had the unity during the games all been just a midsummer’s night dream? Why is it that we come together simply during national sports competitions?
It may all depend on where our focus lies. When our eyes move beyond our immediate neighborhood toward Yeonpyeong Island, the Dokdo islets or London, we are looking out with our national flag behind us. We realize we are one country and must form a united stand when our lives come under the threat of North Korea or our territory is in jeopardy due to Japan’s unwarranted claims or when our athletes compete against another nation. When a community comes under threat, it is group instinct to unite in confronting and defending one’s community.
But at the same time, each individual is innately selfish and endeavors to protect his or her interests and to get ahead in a community. Competition, strife and fissures appear in the process. We get bitter, frustrated and vapid when our gaze is constantly looking inward. Individual aptitude overpowers a collective one. A country can prosper or falter depending on how the two instincts are balanced.
We get a lump in our throat when we see our national flag flying over an Olympic podium or members of our national team winning. We become one with the players in sharing the desire for and joy of winning. We rejoiced over the London Olympics feat not because our players exceeded our expectations in medal count, but because they helped to divert our attention from internal fights. They opened our eyes to see our country in a global context.
A thought suddenly gripped me. What would the same people who refused to pay respect to the national flag and sing along to the national anthem but instead read the workers’ manifesto feel watching the Olympics? Would the people claiming to prefer the North Korean system watch and cheer for our team in London? Would they deny their South Korean identity in this moment?
If they did, they do not belong in our society. They are harmful and threatening to our community’s viability. Even as we compete with one another, we must not undermine or damage our national framework. Without our national identity, we cannot exist. Whether we are conservative or liberal, our cries should be heard within the country’s fences.
Patriotism is a collective instinct. Cheering for our national team is a form of patriotic demonstration. But the feeling can ebb once the Games are over. We go our separate and individual ways once the celebration cools down. Why can’t we keep the patriotic flames burning in our heart? For our community to remain viable, each individual has to yield and sacrifice to some extent. Even as most pursue their self-interests, communities are often saved when individuals sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
Ahn Jung-geun’s martyrdom saved our national pride and dignity during the humiliating colonial rule by the Japanese. Behind each triumph of our players, there have been many nameless sacrifices. The cheers we cried out during the Olympics fail to crystallize in lasting patriotism because we found joy in winning simply as an audience.
We have not fought for our country name as the players and their coaches have fought. We must appreciate the valuable effort of each individual sacrificing for the community. Then our hearts too can breed the seeds of patriotism. Who would want to sacrifice their lives for the country if descendants of those who sold off their country to Japan live on in prosperity while those who fought for independence do not?
There are always political predators who seek to manipulate and exploit group thinking for their personal gain. Totalitarianism and military imperialism have sprouted from them. Many among our political leaders also played with community emotions to serve their individual and political interests.
Politicians love to speak patriotism. It is hard to weed out those who are genuine and not on the campaign trail. But those who stir the community and undermine national unity for their political ambition are certainly not patriotic. Those who have not sacrificed or have no will to do so are also not friends of the country. One cannot truly love one’s country without sacrifice. Patriotism must be acted out. It is a lesson the Olympics have taught us.