Making Something Special of Solitude: Baek Sehee on Falling Through Life’s Cracks
“I must stop expecting myself to be perfect. The best I can do is to learn or realize something new every day.”
“If you want to be happy, you mustn’t fear the following truths but confront them head-on: one, that we are always unhappy, and that our sadness, suffering and fear have good reasons for existing. Two, that there is no real way to separate these feelings completely from ourselves.”
–Une Parfaite Journée Parfaite by Martin Page
This epigraph is one of my favorite bits of writing, one I often go back to. Even in my most unbearably depressed moments I could be laughing at a friend’s joke but still feel an emptiness in my heart, and then feel an emptiness in my stomach, which would make me go out to eat some tteokbokki—what was wrong with me? I wasn’t deathly depressed, but I wasn’t happy either, floating instead in some feeling between the two. I suffered more because I had no idea that these contradictory feelings could and did coexist in many people.
Why are we so bad at being honest about our feelings? Is it because we’re so exhausted from living that we don’t have the time to share them? I had an urge to find others who felt the way I did. So I decided, instead of aimlessly wandering in search of these others, to be the person they could look for—to hold my hand up high and shout, I’m right here, hoping that someone would see me waving, recognize themselves in me and approach me, so we could find comfort in each other’s existence.
Whenever my self-consciousness hits overflow, or I feel weighed down by anxiety, sadness, irritation or fear, I think to myself: I have to turn my gaze.
I think I’ve realized that this constant internal fighting is never going to make me feel better about myself. And how exhausting it is to have the whole world’s motivations and intentions bearing down on my shoulders!
So I turn my gaze. From despair to hope. From discomfort to comfort. From the majority to the minority. From the things that are useful but make me rust to the things that are useless but make me beautiful.
Once I turn my gaze, I see the more interesting aspects of life. And my gaze guides my behavior. And my behavior changes my life. I realize that I can’t change all by myself; what makes me really change are the myriad things of the universe that my gaze happens to rest upon. Through turning my gaze, I learn that the low points of life can be filled with countless realizations.
My head is full of good writing I’ve come across, but it’s hard to find good people. It’s because becoming a good person (my ideal of what I should be) is a very difficult process. Aside from characteristics one happens to be born with, it’s hard to change all the thoughts and attitudes that have accumulated over the years. Which is why even after coming across a piece of advice and realizing how good it is, I can’t follow it for more than three days. Words and behaviors are very different, and while hiding words is easy, hiding the behavior that reaches out from one’s subconscious is impossible.
Most people have trouble living a life where their words match their actions. No matter how much they read and try to remember, they always return to their old patterns. I admire those who realize their past mistakes and prove how they’ve changed through their behavior.
Perhaps this is why we feel discomfort when reading the words of those who are always saying the right things. Because it’s so rare to see someone who walks the talk. The silly thing is, we feel uncomfortable even if we do find someone who walks the talk. We feel smaller next to them, afraid that they will see us for what we are and look down on us. Maybe this is why I feel more comfortable with people who are unpretentious and uncomplicated.
I am in a vague state at the moment, which is not good. I was born depressed and pathetic. I don’t have deep thoughts or powers of insight. The only things I’m good at are regret and self-criticism, and even these I can only pause, never stop completely. I understand all this with my brain, but I have the hardest time modifying my behavior appropriately. I support feminism and rail against racism, but I find myself shrinking away from a passing foreigner or my body reacts with distaste at the sight of a lesbian who doesn’t put on make-up for valid political reasons. My hypocrisy disgusts me.Through turning my gaze, I learn that the low points of life can be filled with countless realizations.
But nothing comes from scolding myself or hating myself for these feelings. I simply must accept that I have room for improvement, and consider these moments as constant opportunities for self-reflection, to feel shame and joy at having learned something new and to keep inching towards change.
I can’t suddenly become like the people I envy. That would be truly impossible. The only way for me to become a better person is to go my way little by little, as tedious as that can be. To delay my judgement, to not force myself, to accept the countless judgements and emotions that pass through me. Criticizing myself isn’t going to make me a cleverer person suddenly.
I think I am learning how to accept life as it is. Accepting your burdens and putting them down isn’t an occasional posture; it’s something you need to practice for the rest of your life. To see the pathetic little me as I am, but also to see that the pathetic other person I am relating to is trying their best. Instead of ruthlessly judging others the way I judge myself or trying to bend others to fit my rules.
I’ve got to accept that everyone has a flaw or two, and first and foremost, see myself as I am first. I must stop expecting myself to be perfect. The best I can do is to learn or realize something new every day.
Looking back, I seem to have made a lot of decisions based on love. There were moments where I would refrain from calculating the gains and losses and simply choose what my heart told me to. I used my rationality in school and work only. In those spheres my first considerations were pride and money, which I prioritized over my dreams and my writing, because sometimes life makes even choosing the second-most important thing an impossibility.
That’s how it is with the people I love. I love the light in their eyes, their passion and their courage in leaping into love. I’ve never loved anyone with half of my heart thinking, this is enough for me. As passive as I am, I share my everything. Perhaps I am bad at making detailed plans or am unable to imagine a neat future because of these tendencies.
Meeting someone who moves your heart, writing something until it moves the hearts of others, listening to music and watching movies that depict love—I want to always be motivated by love. If pure rationality keeps forcing itself into the spaces in between, I shall lose the shine and comfort of my life—which is why I want to be an emotionally bright person, even if it means becoming impoverished in terms of rationality. I want to hold hands and march with those who feel similarly to me. It’s difficult to say whether sense or sensibility is the superior of the two, but they definitely have different textures. And the texture I enjoy more of the two is definitely one of love and sensibility.
There are eyes on the walls. And inside the phones of strangers, on the partitions in offices, in the air that sweeps through the streets. Once solitude opens its eyes, the face of fear begins showing itself, and countless eyes blink in the dark as they scrutinize my words and expressions.
To me, solitude is my one-bedroom apartment, underneath the blanket that fits me perfectly, beneath the sky I find myself staring at while out on a walk, a feeling of alienation that comes over me in the middle of a party. It’s in my self-criticism, in moments when my hands fidget in my pockets, in the emptiness of my room after I’ve played back my voice on the recorder, when I’ve accidentally met eyes with someone staring off into space in a café—when despite my fear of the gaze of others, I find that no one is looking in the first place. Can all the solitude I’ve drawn from these places become something special? This is the task and privilege of all artists.
Ruminating on love, work or anything really, I often have thoughts like Ah, I was wrong about that, I should’ve known better, and this both pains and consoles me at the same time. I am pained by the thought that I could never go back and correct it, and consoled by the thought that I won’t make the same mistake again. If the incident has to do with work the consolation is bigger, but with love, it’s the pain that looms larger. Because the moment I realize I should do better comes just when the person I should do better with is no longer by my side.
It’s no use to hold on to the empty shell of a love that’s past, to try to win back a heart that will never return, or to let your regrets eat you up from the inside…
On those days, I read. Because there really is no torture greater than endlessly rambling on about unshakeable feelings for another person. That just results in cycles of meaningless emotional consumption, for myself and for whomever is listening. But books are different. I often look for books that are like medicine, that fit my situation and my thoughts, and I read them over and over again until the pages are tattered, underlining everything, and still the book will have something to give me. Books never tire of me. And in time they present a solution, quietly waiting until I am fully healed.
Excerpted and adapted from I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki: A Memoir by Baek Sehee, translated by Anton Hur. Copyright © 2022. Available from Bloomsbury.