Living on Earth is hard on the heart. We see things, feel things and hear things that can hurt us, hurt our soul, hurt the everlasting spirit that we know is inside of us and has been in and of this galaxy in many forms and shapes since time immemorial. We cannot avoid the pain; we cannot avoid the love, the moments of bliss or the moments of terror. We are cursed and blessed with the gift of consciousness. We have a brain that goes beyond hunting/gathering, or the baser instincts. We have developed the capacity of empathy; whereby we can use our sympathetic evolution to embrace these tender and terrible expressions evident in all aspects of daily life. We can be ruined by them and remove ourselves or we can be strengthened by them and insert ourselves into that river of endless emotion.
I worked this Saturday at my school for a “Fun Fair” to celebrate the students’ completion of their winter session. It was just a day to watch movies, play games, paint faces and have fun. But, it was on Saturday and so I naturally thought the kids would be upset that they had to come to school. And just like they said before the summer fair last year, and like they will presumably continue to say, they told me on Friday that they were happy and excited to visit us on a weekend. It makes me feel honored to teach children that want to spend time with me despite how hard they break my balls during the week with their constant, “Teacher! Finished! Teacher! Bathroom! Teacher! How do you spell! Teacher!” We had a good day and I taught them blind dodgeball, which is exactly what you think it is, and fun to watch. It was a pleasant day with kids I adore. What simultaneously broke and bonded my heart of this occasion was their sincere happiness of being with me instead of doing crazy kid weekend imagination games.
My fellow teachers and I went to the now indisputably famous Gangnam area of Seoul to eat at our favorite Mexican food joint. Sadly, it had been gutted and all that remained were the stickers on the windows naming the now unobtainable delicacies we were craving. We walked lost in the fancy streets until we found a suitable Italian eatery filled with blind date Korean couples and tiny girls sharing plates of Carbonara while hiding their mouths with their hands after every bite. It reminded me of my recent thoughts that things have a way of working out despite your best-laid plans. My stomach (sometimes seemingly connected to my heart) sank at the sight of that empty old Mexican restaurant, but was soon filled with decent spaghetti and Parmesan.
We continued to the destination of the day—a board game café. It is just that, a place to drink coffee and play silly games. We love “Ticket To Ride,” and have been known to play multi-hour marathons. We floundered outside in the frigid air using smartphones as maps and finally got lucky and found the correct building. There was construction nearby and as I opened the door I heard a not uncommon sound of such places, that of something which had fallen. My friend exclaimed, “Oh, God, did you see that cat that fell off the roof?” I knew this wasn’t good. It was a young kitten, tottering on weakened legs from some incongruously extreme fall. It was a cat, and therefore landed on his feet, but I heard the sound from in the stairwell, so he must have hit more than his padded paws. I was overcome by the feline lover in me and wanted to pick him up and hold him, petting and scratching his undoubtedly cold and achy body next to mine. I wanted to pop him into my jacket under my warm scarf and hear his purrs of relief for the unrestricted love humans reserve for their pets. I wanted him to be safe. I wanted him to be happy. I wanted him to sleep at my feet, stretching lazily in the sun-beamed morning and eat little pieces of tuna with me as we watch sit-coms. I wanted anything but what this little striped cat’s future held. He soon gathered himself, was startled by the worker at the job site and scurried away into a corner, outwardly unharmed. “What will happen to him, where is he now, is he hungry, does he have a family, is he lonely?” We can hurt ourselves by anthropomorphizing animals. People imagine those wild beasts of Earth to feel and engage in the world in the same manner as us. Any pet owner knows how dogs can mirror their emotions, or how cats purring can cure any bout of depression. The truth is that I felt bad for my inability to give the cat what I presumed he needed (or perhaps it was what I needed.) Those scenes break my heart more than I can express. “Oh, he’ll be alright,” I remarked after watching him scamper off into an alley. And he probably will be, I hope. I see the stray cats all over Seoul. There are several that patrol the grounds of my apartment building; others hunt along the walls of my school and a multitude more in any section of this sprawling metropolis. It seems the symbiosis of a rat free city is reached is this manner. The apparent sadness and distance in these cat’s eyes shocks me every time. They don’t look at me like my little Lisa Cat. They don’t look at me with the friendly, affectionate eyes of an ally. They are purely feral. I saw many strays in Italy and Sicily as well. Although those cats are also feral, they had a distinct Mediterranean calmness about them, as if they noticed your presence, but didn’t care to learn more about you—like Spaniards. My day continued.
We met up with more friends, ate another of the incomparably delicious and varied Korean meals, laughed, talked, drank and moved on to a club. We danced in our accidentally brazen American way and soon had a crowd of lovely girls and high-fiving dudes all around us. The DJ kept playing that Slick Rick sound bite: “Alright, party people in the house.” I danced in my style of unabashed singularity, trying not to dwell on any one moment. There will be good and bad, light and dark, happy and sad. It is the way of the Tao, it is the Yin and the Yang, it is the changing of the tides, or the seasons, it is the sunrise and sunset, it is all that we know, will learn and all we cannot fathom. It is too much; it is what causes us distress. It is existential angst; it is the concurrent knowledge of inevitable death and existing life. It is the unwritten; it is the possibility, the impermanence and the unknowns. It is the search Plato told us to examine to make life worth living. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby ends with a fantastic line: “…So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.” There is no expulsion, no total death, only transformation. That poor little kitten I saw, that beggar with no legs, those starving children, those tortured animals, those poached sharks, elephants or tigers, those innocents of life, they may be reborn where their energy could get another chance for satisfaction and comfort.
Life breaks your heart and then gives it back to you, over and over again. It’s what we call wisdom. Maybe you can never be fully realized without the pain that life provides between moments of pleasure (or vice versa.) Life isn’t supposed to be one win after another; it isn’t supposed to be perfect all the time. Ask Westley from The Princess Bride: “Life is pain highness, anyone who says differently is selling something.” Life isn’t understood ever. I read a quote from an old philosopher that he is no less scared to die than he was of the fear he possessed of coming into the world. Whatever reasons brought us to living on this little blue planet, whatever highs and lows we may experience, we can be sure of this: we have full control over our completely and inexplicably uncontrollable life.