Last August my husband and I packed up our apartment, stored our belongings, sold our cars, crammed everything we thought we couldn’t live without into 4 suitcases and took a one-way flight to South Korea. We were going to teach, something neither of us had any experience doing. We didn’t know anyone in Korea and we didn’t speak the language. The plan seemed foolproof.
After three years of marriage and three years of working dead-end jobs – watching friends finish graduate school, start the careers they dreamed of, and begin buying houses and starting families, I felt stuck. I felt stuck in spite of the fact that we had moved across the country, just to try something new. I felt stuck in spite of my changing jobs every summer since college, consistently growing to hate whatever my current job was and searching for something better. I felt stuck even though I loved North Carolina, lived within meters of my best friend, had two fantastic cats, and had been able to do some traveling each year. In spite of all of that, the disquiet inside of me was unrelenting.
And so, we struck out across the sea. To a continent neither of us had stepped foot on before. To a country I’d honestly never even considered visiting. We went in pursuit of adventure and new opportunities and a fuller life. I thought living abroad would mean an end to boredom. An end to feeling trapped in the tedium of the jobs I’d held before. An end to the monotony of the ordinary American life, and an end to unhappiness and discontentment.
It took only a few months for the newness to rub off and suddenly Korea was no longer a shiny and alluring dream to chase, but a somewhat dull and ever-present reality. The novelty of being immersed in a new culture gave way to the everyday challenges of being misunderstood and the frustration of feeling like a child again, unable to properly do something as basic as ordering food in a restaurant or answering the telephone. Every small aspect of life being just a little more complicated and a little more confusing than it should be soon became exhausting instead of thrilling. As the winter came and the weather became colder and grayer, I found myself, once again, struggling. Struggling to be positive. Struggling to pull myself out of bed and head to work in the morning. Struggling to care about blow-drying my hair and dressing nicely. Struggling to eat well instead of ordering McDonald’s delivery and lying in bed until it arrived. Struggling to connect with my husband instead of sinking into my own little Downton Abbey world at the end of each day. Struggling to go through the motions of another day that is as ordinary as daily life was at home, except that now ordinary includes not understanding half of what happens around me.
Although intellectually I always understood this, it wasn’t until we’d picked up and moved across the world that I fully realized that no matter where you are, the rituals of daily life just are mundane. Even in Korea I have responsibilities. I have to get up and go to work on time. I have to do the laundry and clean the apartment and cook dinner and buy groceries. Yes, there are new things for me to explore every weekend if I want to. Yes, I have a job that doesn’t feel as pointless and soul-sucking as my marketing job did. Yes, I have opportunities to travel and see new things I never dreamed I’d see. Those are the things that make this experience the best decision we’ve ever made. But in my day to day life I can find just as many things to complain about, just as many things that weigh me down or to make me unhappy as I did back home.
For years I have wrestled with discontentment. I have been the master of convincing myself (beyond all logic and in complete contradiction to the Apostle Paul’s assertion that he had learned “to be content in every circumstance”) that the reason I was discontent was because of one particular set of circumstances or another. That life would be better when the next thing came. That I would be better. I told myself I would be content once I went to college, had a boyfriend, graduated from college, got married, stopped nannying and found a real job, moved somewhere new, quit my new job, went back to school, lost weight, had more friends, took an exciting vacation, moved abroad…
Sometimes this was true. Going away to college made me infinitely happier than I was in high school. Getting married has been the richest and best experience of my life. Quitting my marketing job helped me realize that I am not cut out for a desk job. And moving to Korea and the travel we’ve been able to do since we came has made me feel alive in a way that nothing else ever has. But in the end none of those things were a permanent fix. Three weeks or four months or a year later, there was always something else for me to be dissatisfied with.
I’m not a “sad person.” I laugh easily, and often. But those who know me best can see that there is often an underlying sense of dissatisfaction with life and frustration with myself for being that way.
Because even though I have made change after change after change (and some of them have been wonderful) I have carried the root of the problem inside of me like a cancer. Living in Korea has objectively been a wonderful experience, but Korea doesn’t have the ability to make me happy. Because I brought pessimism and discontentment and a tendency towards depression here with me.
I understand the difference between happiness and joy. That happiness is temporary because it is affected by our circumstances, but joy is something you can possess even when you’re unhappy with your circumstances. But I also know that discontentment leaves very little room for joy. And for me, sometimes discontentment’s uglier cousin, depression, can fill up all the space inside of me until there isn’t any room for joy to grow.
Coming to Korea has changed me in some positive ways. I am no longer waiting for the next great thing. I no longer tell myself that I will be happier or more content when I reach the next milestone. I think of Korea, and this time living abroad, as our great adventure. I don’t in any way think life will be miserable after this, but I also feel that this may be the biggest and craziest thing we do. That there might not be a “bigger” thing after this. And I don’t want to live my life constantly looking forward to what’s ahead. I want to live a life that is full of wonder. I want to soak up beauty like a sponge and know wisdom’s voice. I want to know that things are real because I’ve seen them and touched them with my own hands. I want to be willing to give of myself with no thought to how tired it will make me. I want to learn to love the whole world. And I want to learn to love myself.
This is the life I want and yet, this winter has been dark, friends. Some days I’ve wanted to let it swallow me. To lay down in my bed and not get up again until spring. This isn’t because my life is horrible or even particularly difficult. This has nothing to do with my actual circumstances. This is because I am broken.
I’ve been depressed before. The scary kind of depressed. I’m not quite in that place. I’m not unhappy about my life– there are so many things that I am truly, deeply grateful for. I’m not incapable of feeling joy. There are many moments when I am deeply, wildly happy. The problem seems to lie in my inability to rest in that joy and let it color my more monotonous days. Many days I lack either the will or the skills to let those precious, joyful moments weigh heavier and count more than the gray sky and the sour smell of rotting kimchi on the street.
I wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the fight for joy wasn’t quite so hard. When I didn’t reach the end of each day exhausted from the energy it took for me just to smile, to be kind and to stay engaged that day. I’ve tried to change. I even tried to writing 1,000 Gifts like Saint Ann Voskamp and was pretty pissed off when I was not magically transformed by gratitude. (By the way, that is not a dig at Ann Voskamp who I think is wonderful person and whose book and blog you should read.) It’s possible that this is the result of chemicals in my brain or hormones in my body misfiring, keeping me unbalanced, my whole being in turmoil because of some rogue element. But even if that’s part of it, I know deep down it’s not the whole thing. I know there is a core to this problem that is spiritual. It is a disquiet that comes being dissatisfied with myself. From the questions I have been afraid to ask. The truths I’m not always sure I believe. The prayers I pray and the ones that I don’t want to.
Here in Korea, I have been given the gift of space and the time to do some of the deep work I need to do. To wade through the muck inside of me and to start giving a voice to the questions. To start expressing the doubts. To expose the darkness I see in myself. To admit how much it scares me. To see if Grace might intervene.
I want to live an extraordinary life. But I can’t do it when I’m crammed full of ugliness . So maybe it’s time to stop waiting for the next thing to come. Maybe it’s time to roll up my sleeves and get to work. Maybe it’s time to beg Grace to show me how to carve out space for joy.