Only Work

27 Apr

“Everyone in my generation wants to enjoy their life.  But not old Koreans.  The only thing they know is how to work.”

Driving idly through a tiny village, the comment instantly seemed the most insightful thing I’d heard in weeks.  Looking at the farmhouses a mere meter away from the open passenger window, I knew she was right.  Here we were, out looking for peace and solace, looking to smell magnolias and see bees again.  And there they were, 65 or 70 years old, still hoeing rows, planting cabbage, draining paddocks.  They had faces like jerky from spending every last day out in the sun.   There were no young faces, only old ones.  Their homes and outbuildings were spruced up with fresh white paint, perhaps even aluminum siding and a yard walled in with that ubiquitous lime-green fencing.  But they were old souls themselves.

They only know how to work.  The poverty of early- and mid-century Korea left them little choice if they were to survive.  Feeding an ever-more affluent yet crowded nation keeps them at it.

The only pity I felt for them, though, was that their families had moved on, probably to the bright city lights a couple of valleys away.  To toil is one thing, but to toil alone in your old age is another.  Yet, despite that, despite the fact that they knew only work, I felt not only respect but affirmation for their position.  They could fill every hour, every day with useful acts.  They had not the leisure that she and I did, as we passed through the village and up the mountain to hike.  But weren’t we in search of what they already had, a tranquil place to do something useful with ourselves?

Ah, but the difference was that our effort was an escape, an anodyne for a day.  Theirs was an act of living.  They needed no delineation between work and play, because play could take them no place more desirable.

*          *          *

In a real, practical, earthly sense, yes, they are the better ones.  A hard life, but a true one.  I have swung a hammer, picked fruit, cut trees to make ends meet, and have no illusions about what such an existence entails.  Could I make a life like theirs?  Doubtful. I don’t have that strength or temperament, for better or worse.  I am too ensconced in the complexities of the world.  The necessities of life demand it.

That necessity of living, that is the issue.  The food in our mouths, the clothes on our backs demand we adapt ourselves in some way.  Be we creatures of artifice or nature, we work and order ourselves to get what we need.  And we lose something for it.

Life, as Frederic Bastiat pointed out, demands that one’s person, property, and liberty be secure.  Life cannot be had even if two exist and one does not.  The struggles of our world are frequently over who shall control these things.  If we are to live freely, then certainly they must be our own.

But even if we have all three, even if our political and social liberty is perfected, our own ultimate liberty cannot be.  Even a hard-working, simple-living man who is spiritually and bodily whole and independent, who has not sacrificed himself for soulless modern life, is not free.  Existence demands his toil.  His life is more natural and rewarding than ours, but it is toil nonetheless.  He is still bound.

No matter the system, no matter the promises made by our betters, no matter the good we may find and champion, it all falls short.  We all wish to wander at whim, doing as we feel without concern for need.  Free as a bird, as the wind, bound by nothing, needing nothing, that is one of man’s deepest desires.  The lack of that freedom stings him more than anything on this earth, perhaps even more than lost love.

My armpits suddenly itched.  Ah, it was where my imitation wings had split out.  The wings that I had no longer; the deleted phantasms of hope and ambition flashed in my mind like the flipping pages of a pocket dictionary.

I stopped my pace and wanted to shout.

Wings, spread out again!

Fly.  Fly.  Fly.  Let me fly once more.

Let me fly once more.

– Yi Sang

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