By Hyon O'Brien
The Kyobo Life Insurance Company has its main office in Gwanghwamun. The company uses the facade of the building like a billboard, always displaying some words of wisdom or poetry for a few weeks at a time.
Last month, I was delighted to spot part of a poem by Chang Seok-ju (1954- ), ``Daechu" (this has been replaced with another poem as of this writing). Visitors to Korea will be familiar with the daechu, usually translated as ``jujube" (not the candy) or ``red date." It is the small, shriveled red fruit often found in teas or in ginseng chicken dishes.
I try here to translate Chang's poem to share it with my readers.
A Red Date
It couldn't have become red by itself
Inside that red date are a few storms, a few bolts of thunder and lightning
It couldn't have become round by itself.
Inside that red date are nights of frost, months of the red hot sun, and days of the new moon.
I was thunderstruck by its simplicity and the depth of meaning at the same time as I was hit by the excellence of Korean language. Readers should note that much is lost in my poor attempt at translating this poem. It cannot possibly convey the beauty of the Korean language's unique power to contain volumes of meaning in a few simple words, as expressed in this short poem filled with a profound discovery that the poet was sharing with us.
This poem got me thinking about various things of my life. I realize that I did not become who I am without the help of so many people, books and life experiences along the way not to mention God's grace. As I acutely feel that I am a ``work in progress," it is good to ponder upon who and what have played impacting roles in shaping me.
One was my fourth grade teacher, Ms. Kim. I don't recall anything significant from my primary school days until that teacher came along to wake me up from my childhood stupor. She gently pushed me out of the nest to fly with wings of confidence. Ms. Kim was the thunder and lightning that showed me the way out of darkness.
For William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a British politician, the thunder and lightning, frost and red hot sun came from Rev. John Newton (1725-1807), the former slave ship captain who became a clergyman and the writer of one of the most familiar hymns, ``Amazing Grace." In 1785 when he was 26 years old, Wilberforce felt God's calling to abandon his career as a member of Parliament and become a clergyman. However, Newton was able to convince him that where he was placed was where God intended him to be to lead the movement to abolish the slave trade. For the next 26 years Wilberforce headed the campaign against the British slave trade until the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.
He did not stop there. Tirelessly he kept on working to see slavery itself become illegal. This he saw three days before he died on July 26, 1833. It took more than 30 years for America to follow the British example when in 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves held in the Confederate States and in 1865 when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited slavery throughout the country.
Watching the 2007 film ``Amazing Grace," I realized again the length, width, breadth and height of opposition that Wilberforce had to overcome to see the glorious passage of that legislation finalizing his life's battle against slavery. I can't imagine the shapes and forms of thunder, lightning, frost and unbearable heat that were thrown in his direction throughout the journey while he toiled and labored for the outcome of freedom for the slaves.
I think of others: Helen Keller overcoming her handicap to bring hope to the blind by leading an accomplished life, Mahatma Gandhi never losing the sight of a free and independent India during the campaign he led under the powerful imperial British colonial rule. Martin Luther King Jr.'s long years of struggle leading the civil rights movement to right the wrong of racism in the States. Kim Ku and Syngman Rhee and hosts of others cheering on the Korean people to that day when Korea would be free from Japanese occupation.
What thunder, lightning, frost and heat they must have gone through. As the Apostle Paul encouraged the Romans, indeed the trials of our life produce perseverance, perseverance character, character, hope.
Kim Yu-na, the world figure skating champion, Y. E. Yang, the golfer who became 91st PGA Champion by beating Tiger Woods in August, Sarah Chang, the refined violinist of world fame, Ban Ki-moon, the current General Secretary of U.N., the list goes on.
All of them have something in common. They brilliantly passed through the seasons of discouragement, set-backs, pains, deprivation and emotional storms. They had to endure the lonely vigil of staying on course when easier path was beckoning them to cop out and abandon the quest. There must have been chilling thoughts, heated turmoil, tension and stress not to forget their mission in life. I salute to them. They are our heroes whose resolve, determination, endurance, concentration are our spiritual markers to emulate and follow.
Indeed these red dates did not become red by themselves. Much happened throughout the growing season to ripen that fruit. Let's not lose sight of the final glory during the time of long waiting for the fruit to form and ripen in us. It will be that much the sweeter because of the hardship that could not topple us.
Hyon O'Brien, a former reference librarian in the United States, has returned to Korea after 32 years of living abroad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.