Living in these troubled times, we ponder the things that are most precious in life. Some people might think of expensive jewels as precious, such as a diamond ring, a platinum bracelet, or a pearl necklace. Others may pick famous brand name products, such as a Chanel handbag, a Gucci purse, or a Rolex watch. Those who adore expensive cars would treasure a Rolls Royce, a Ferrari, or a Bentley. I addition, there are those who think of political fame and power as a precious thing, such as a ministerial appointment, thinking that it is an utmost honor to him and his family.
However, “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy (2001-2003) illuminates the topic of what we think is most “precious.” Throughout these films, the ugly Gollum, clenching the powerful magic ring, avariciously whispers, “My precious!” He meets an ironic and grisly end: unwilling to let go of his “precious” ring even to save his own life, he falls into the Crack of Doom. The movies wisely caution us that it is better to discard rather than pursue material rapacity or evanescent power.
What, then, are the precious things that we should cherish? We are now living in an uncomfortable and difficult period when people are liable to commit hateful acts against one another due to suspicions over the highly contagious COVID-19 virus. Since we never know who might carry the coronavirus, we become cautious. We cover our face with a mask and try to communicate through the face-covering devices, which is not an easy thing to do. Cut off by the masks that hide our facial expressions and muffle our voices, communication and understanding among people is getting harder these days. Still, however, we may be able to find some precious things even in these hard times.
The other day, I encountered my new neighbor who had just moved in. She greeted me with a friendly “Hello,” brightly smiling, even though she was at a distance and in the middle of conversing with someone on the phone. To me, her smile was one of the most precious things in this pandemic era, at a time when some people harbor hostility toward Asians.
When I took a walk recently, a child playing nearby smiled at me and said, “Hi!” The little boy’s cute smile made my day. In fact, the immaculate and endearing smiles of children are like priceless jewels. My ten-month-old granddaughter’s enchanting smile, too, is a precious thing to me. In her charming smile, I see her infinite trust and affection toward me. When I stroll with my granddaughter, passers-by wave at us, saying, “It’s a gorgeous day for a stroll, isn’t it?” or “The baby is adorable.” Their smiling faces, too, are some of the most precious things to me.
A young child’s innocent smile reminds us of our obligation to build a better society for them. Sadly, however, we are now living in a society that requires our children to wear a stuffy mask because of the deadly coronavirus and hazardous microdust. To make matters worse, we are living in a society plagued by hate and bigotry, the wound of which would take a long time to heal. Therefore, our strenuous efforts to change our society for the younger generation are precious, too.
COVID-19 is not the only thing that makes our lives hard. International politics, too, incessantly troubles us. Presently, South Korea is witnessing maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, which will ultimately affect the Korean peninsula, as well. South Korea is also facing the constant threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Under the circumstances, our alliance with the US is a precious thing because it can protect our country from the belligerence of our neighboring countries. We should know that without the US alliance, South Korea would be instantly vulnerable to foreign aggressions.
Therefore, those who instigate anti-American sentiment and demand the withdrawal of the US military from Korea are very naïve and inconsiderate. As soon as Washington pulls US troops out from the Peninsula, South Korea will have to deal with aggressive and hostile neighboring countries alone. Then, foreign investors will leave Korea as well because they would not want to invest in a country where national security is so insecure. In that sense, we should value and appreciate our friendship and alliance with the US.
In these challenging times, friendship is precious, too. Especially, we should cherish our friendly relations with foreign countries and foreign people. I, too, treasure friendship with my friends from all over the world. The feeling that someone who cares about me and morally supports me somewhere out there gives me relief and a sustaining strength in these inhumane, hostile times.
Living in these times of unprecedented crisis, we should realize there are still so many precious things we should cherish in this world.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.