The recent bombings in Korea brought to mind this image…
…from a TV travelogue on South Korea:
In a concrete room on the border of North and South Korea, two soldiers stand, facing each other, just a few feet apart.
The soldier from the North mirrors the soldier from the South. They both have their fists clenched; their rigid arms are held to the side, but in a position of martial readiness, as they glare at one another, never changing expression.
They maintain this stance for hours on end—this is their work day: to threaten retaliation if the other steps over the line.
It’s a symbolic gesture, but symbols are not empty.
Like many symbols, this one consists of real, breathing human beings. How would it feel to stand in that manner, fists clenched, all day long?
When I clench my fists, the tension in my hands goes all the way up my arms, into my chests—my whole body feels the tension; my mind feels the tension.
In such a posture, I notice anger rising toward the one I’m staring at—though that other be in my mirror.
This experiment has taught me the potential power of a symbolic act. Feeling and thought can be transformed.
…if I had to hold myself in that stance for an entire day, I don’t think I could sustain that level of anger—unless I felt angry about being stuck there.
If I was one of those Korean soldiers at the border, I’m sure my mind would drift…
I’d probably start thinking about my lunch break. If there was a clock nearby, I’d try not to watch it, but ever so often, my eyes would likely sneak a peek.
I’m sure I’d figure out a way to relax a bit, while maintaining the appearance of rigidity.
A thousand thoughts would come and go until I arrived at the question of “what the hell am I doing here?” If I’m stuck in one place long enough, whatever I’m doing usually starts to seem a little absurd, a little silly.
In such a frame of mind, I would try to look deeper into the other—that one returning my stare; the one mirroring my hard, flat demeanor.
No matter who that person was, I believe that in time…
…I’d come to see myself standing there.
This stare-down at the border is supposed to be a show of strength and resolution…
…just as the bombing of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong by the North was, according to some news reports, “a show of strength”.
Strength? To me, such a strike shows fear, shows weakness. The one who ordered this attack does not feel secure. Just the presence of an opposition threatens him. Ironically, by trying to protect his position, he puts himself in ever greater danger.
Unfortunately, no one can cure him of his fear but himself.
His fear would seem to be contagious. His fear seems to have traveled all the way overseas to infect the leaders of the United States…
…and some of its citizenry as well. I like to think of myself as a peace-monger, but after hearing of the attack, for a few moments, I imagined ways by which we might retaliate.
But no, I had not caught that dictator’s fear. For that matter, the United States did not catch his fear—though it might appear otherwise.
My fear belongs to me—it is my responsibility. I can’t blame my anger on anyone but myself. If the dictator is the only one who can cure his fear, I’m the only one who can cure mine.
For the moment, we, in our anger, in our fear, are glaring at the North Koreans, just as they, in their fear, in their anger, are glaring at us. Both sides have their fists clenched. In the process, we both consume—or rather, waste—so much mental/emotional energy.
I don’t know what the answer is here. I don’t know how this situation might be resolved peacefully.
But I don’t think the answer will come to us while we still have our fists clenched. From my own experience, I can tell you that fear and anger work to block creative, productive thought.
Can we really expect to find ways to work through such seemingly intractable conflicts?
I believe we will do what we need to do in order to save the human race.
But instead of creating a new mythology that will then lead us to peace…
…I believe that by finding ways to create peace, we will build the new mythology we need: a mythology that will help guide us through these “mirror” dilemmas.
© 2010, Michael R. Patton