안녕하십니까? [annyeong-hashimnikka?] (Are you at peace?)

by Paul Beirne, Director

Let me state at the outset that I am a great fan of a tragically divided country that lies directly to the north of Australia—Korea, and specifically, South Korea, where I lived for 17 years, from 1984 to 2000.

Soon after arriving in Seoul, at age 38, I entered into the struggle to learn the Korean language. Amazingly, I survived, but the experience left me with a huge respect and sympathy for anyone attempting to become fluent in a foreign language, particularly one as complex as Korean. I learned very early on the truth of the saying: “Korean is the language they speak in heaven, because it is too bloody difficult to learn on earth!” Why? Because the sago-bang-shik, the way of thinking, is so very, very different.

There is however, a lighter side to the struggle to master two disparate ways of thinking, in the flowering of a hybrid language called ‘Konglish’ where two languages merge to create something descriptively unique and expressive. For example, wandering past one of the many universities in the capital Seoul at the end of the academic year, I noticed, hanging above and across the main entrance, a banner which proclaimed, CONGRADUATIONS!! which, in a stroke of etymological brilliance, someone created a single word to convey a dual message. (Feel free to use it for someone you know who is graduating!) The example I wish to present to you now, however, while strictly not an example of ‘Konglish’, carries with it the same creative genes.

One afternoon after class, travelling on the subway in Seoul, in a carriage which contained the equivalent population of a mid-sized Australian town, I notice a young child, sitting on her mother’s lap. What drew my attention to the child (apart from the fact that she and her mom actually managed to get a seat on the train!) was the T-shirt she was wearing, which proclaimed in English on the front:

“I want to taste a little bit of everything”

The fact that I remember the T-shirt message after the passage of 34 years indicates that it had quite an effect on me. A part of me wanted to say to the child and to her Mum: ‘Jo-do creo’ (“I do too!”). But I didn’t.

I do question, however, why the message moved me so much. Perhaps it is because it carried with it an inquisitive innocence that I had long since discarded. Yet tendrils of the message and the longing that accompany it still remain somewhere in the depth of my psyche, emerging occasionally, and all too briefly, as a yearning to return to a time of ‘awe-some’ innocence.

And yet … and yet, I truly believe that in my life, I really have tasted ‘a little bit of everything’. The reason being that from a very early age I have been aware of a silent presence within, guiding me gently, care-fully, lovingly, with the delicacy of a feather floating on the wind, but with a purpose that I could only occasionally glimpse, ‘through a glass darkly’[1]. Naturally, there has been pain, sorrow, loss, grief and failure—which are an inevitable part of the human condition. But they have been more than balanced by the other side of the ledger– wonder, tranquility, companionship, creativity and love. I am certainly not alone in ‘tasting’ all these experiences—as we are, each one of us, ‘feathers floating on the wind’ of divine benevolence.

Now, as I delve further and further into my 70s, and undoubtedly because of this silent, guiding presence, I feel a deep sense of peace. The peace expresses itself sometimes as ‘I just cannot be bothered with that—life is just too short’. At other times, I

  • rejoice in the simple joy of preparing Saturday night dinner with Anna for our children Sarah and Sean;
  • am captivated by tiny flowers on the side of the road which blossom and disappear at the end of the day;
  • am struck with wonder at the giant English Oak, more than a century old, which towers over the track in the bush surrounding Blackburn lake;
  • savor the taste of spray off the crest of a wave the second before it breaks and tumbles to the shore;
  • laugh with a flock Rainbow Lorikeets as they mirror the clouds at sunset;
  • locate the Southern Cross as it spirals across the night sky.

It is at times like these that I remember the child on the train and her Mum. That child must be nearing 40 now. I hope and pray that life has been good to her, and that she is still on her quest ‘to taste a little bit of everything’. I hope that her Mum is too.

But back to where we began, to Korea and Korean.

Koreans have many beautiful practices, but there is one in particular which stands out for me:

When Koreans greet one another, they bow respectfully and say: annyeong-hashimnikka? which means: ‘Are you at peace?’

To this question, having tasted ‘a little bit of everything’, I can truly answer:

‘Yes. I am at peace.’

I can do this because I believe, intuitively, that the Alpha and the Omega of this peace is the still, silent presence within, nurturing me gracefully, who I am, and who I may yet become. I am fully aware that I am not alone in this becoming, and this fills me with hope for the future.

Because death, however and whenever it arrives, will be a new beginning, when the still presence will break the silence with

CONGRADUATIONS! Come on in.

And I will be at home.

 

(image of the author, Christmas 1949, Main Beach, Gold Coast, Australia)

 

[1] 1 Corinthians Chap 13 verse 12 (King James version)