There are three types of fluids we emit when we are troubled or in trouble, whether physically or psychologically: Blood, sweat, and tears. When we have our body parts cut or wounded, we bleed. When we are under stress or work hard, we perspire, and when we are sad or joyful, we shed tears.
In his recent interview with the Chosun Ilbo, Lee O-young, a renowned cultural critic and former Minister of Culture, aptly pointed out the core problem we are now facing in Korean society. He said, “We have shed blood in revolutions for democracy and perspired for economic development. As a result, we have accomplished democracy and economic success. Yet, we have not shed tears for others, which means we seriously lack the spirit of fraternity.”
Indeed, the three colors of the French national flag symbolize liberty, equality, and fraternity. If we sought liberty and equality only without fraternity, it would be a hollow mockery because we cannot truly appreciate genuine freedom and equality if we do not care for others. Yet our politicians, preoccupied with hate and vengeance, incarcerate their political opponents in the name of “equality,” “fairness,” and “justice.” Yet, they do not try to understand those who are different from them.
In his interview, professor Lee contended, “I think seeking freedom and equality without fraternity is annihilating our civilization. The tears we shed for others can heal people’s psychic wounds. Thus, we should shed tears even for someone whom we do not know, especially in this pandemic era.”
Referring to the sectarianism that has seriously plagued Korean society for the past several years, professor Lee lamented the current situation, saying, “Today, Korea is torn and has been disrupted by the administration’s relentless purging of political enemies, whom they blame for the government’s accumulated vice, its unsuccessful efforts in the pro-North Korea policy, and the ever-threatening global pandemic. But what we need in this stifling situation is to shed tears for others, not to harbor hatred toward them.” Then, he came up with a parable, saying, “In the game, rock, paper, scissors, paper wins rock. Likewise, warm tears for others can melt hard feelings and ideologies that kindle personal anger and political vendettas.”
The irony is that a popular stereotypical image of the Korean people is that they tend to get emotional easily and thus are prone to weeping and crying. However, we shed tears for “ourselves,” not for others. Contrary to what the image of being “emotional” might suggest, Koreans today, or at least those in power, do not care for others much. Nor are we thoughtful or considerate enough to be in other people’s shoes. Otherwise, how can we explain the rampant social phenomenon in our society, such as “I am always right and you are always wrong,” or “If I do it, it is romance, if you do it, it is adultery”?
Of course, we should blame our self-righteous politicians for creating and embodying such an undesirable phenomenon. Instead of embracing differences and calling for unity, our deplorable politicians have antagonized those who have different opinions and torn the country apart with contempt and revenge. Indeed, they detest anyone who opposes them and labels him or her as an archenemy. As a result, grudges, slanders, and retributions are ubiquitous in our society. Like a deadly virus, they are threatening public health.
Recently, the American Medical Association announced that racism is an urgent threat to public health in America. The US Center for Disease Control, too, expressed its concern, stating that racism is a serious health concern. It means that both the coronavirus and racism are equally menacing our society. If public health is in danger, it can make the people and society sick.
Racism is not the only thing that threatens public health. Other things, such as self-righteousness, egotism, and vengeance, too, are a threat to public health and make one’s nation ill. If we are full of bigotry, hate and selfishness, our existence itself will become a threat to public health and the welfare of human beings. Then, someday, artificial intelligence might perceive us as a virus that threatens civilization and try to eliminate us.
If we are to avoid becoming such a travesty, we should learn to shed tears for others. We should have the capacity of embracing differences, whether they are cultural, ideological, or ethnic. If we cry for ourselves only, we are nothing but a “cry baby.” If we shed tears for others, however, we would become decent human beings, different from animals or machines.
In Ernest Hemingway’s novel, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the American protagonist Robert Jordan chooses to die for a Spanish woman named Maria and the freedom of her people. Tears for others has a miraculous healing power. Surely, it can change our society and make the world a better place to live.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.