Surviving the Waves

The Great Ocean Road, one of Victoria’s premier tourist attractions is under erosion threat. Pounding waves stirred up by passing storms threaten the foreshore removing swathes of sand and causing significant damage to infrastructure.

It is an apt illustration of how the pressures of life batter us. Author Ann Voskamp says,

“It is hard to survive in a world of relentless waves. Life keeps crashing in on every side.”

Author Thom Hunter writes about sexual brokenness and its impact on families. He says,

“Having been through the fire of accusations and having run the gauntlet of public embarrassment, I was like a battered boat against the boulders of the jagged coast, barely holding together under the relentless waves of …..”

A public failure or indiscretion leaves us open to attack, sometimes physical but more often psychological.

We live in an age of ‘hot technological rage,’ where social media platforms expose users to insults, abusive remarks and verbal harassment. A person’s character and values are belittled and torn apart.

We are vulnerable on many levels and look for ways to cope. Sometimes our choices place us at the mercy of the relentless waves. Our growing dependence on drugs is but one example.

Drug use is on the rise in Australia and it can affect the lives of those caught up in it in ways they might not expect. It can affect health, relationships, job and education.

Drug abuse is often associated with illicit drugs such as speed, ice (crystal meth) or heroin, but prescription or over-the-counter medicines can also be abused.

The Penington Institute’s Annual Overdose Report, released this week, highlights some disturbing trends in Australia. It says,

“The total number of drug-related deaths hits a 20-year high of 2177 in 2016, with accidental overdoses making up more than three-quarters of cases. Middle-aged people are the most likely victims with 70% of accidental deaths in the 30-59 age group.”

Five people a day are now dying from a drug overdose. Prescription drugs used to manage pain and anxiety have become the nation’s ‘silent killers.’

We assume our survival is something we can control. But for some drug users survival is not a given. Careless and impulsive actions can have tragic consequences.

It is important to believe that our survival is worth fighting for. Sometimes you hear a story that bears this out.

I was privileged to hear Hyeonseo Lee speak at the Bendigo Writers Festival 2018 and have since read her bestselling book The Girl with Seven Names.

Hyeonseo Lee lived in North Korea until her escape in 1997. Her story, although full of sadness and hurt, is inspirational. It is a study in survival.

Her escape from North Korea highlights three important aspects of survival. If we can grasp their importance they will help us remain strong, despite the pressures of life.

1. Identity

‘Hyeonseo Lee’ is the name she gave herself when she attained freedom. It reflected her changed circumstances. Hyeon means sunshine. Seo means good fortune. She desired to live her life in light and warmth, and not return to the shadow.

Identity has to do with how we define ourselves. It is what makes us the person we are. Our personal identity may change over time. Something that never changes is our ethnic or national identity.

Hyeonseo Lee accepts that given her status as a North Korean defector, she is an outsider in the world. An exile. She now lives in South Korea but can’t fully accept this as her new identity. Although she would like to shed her North Korean identity and erase the mark it has made on her, she can’t. She loves North Korea. It is the place of her birth and the place of her formative memories; memories of family life and picnics and fields of wildflowers, and the many good people she knew there. She says,

“North Korea is still my homeland, my country. I suffered on the outside because I was alien, without identity.”

Our personal survival is dependent on our personal identity. Identity determines the type of changes a person can undergo without ceasing to exist.

2. Purpose

Hyeonseo Lee describes herself as a defector and a refugee. Rather than seeing this as a deficit she has used her experience to define her purpose. Hyeonseo recently completed her undergraduate studies in English and Chinese at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea. She spends much of her time writing and speaking about North Korean human rights and North Korean refugee issues. Her speaking commitments take her around the world.

Hyeonseo is also committed to connecting North Korean refugees with supportive members of the international community and to the reunification of North and South Korea, which she firmly believes will happen in her lifetime.

Writing for Forbes Magazine, Maggie Warrell says,

“Living purposefully requires moving toward that which infuses a rich thread of meaning through your life.”

Hyeonseo has found that rich thread of meaning. She has a dream to see her beloved North Korea renewed and restored, taking its rightful place in the global community.

Having a purpose and meaning in life is connected to happiness, life satisfaction, physical health, and self-esteem. Hyeonseo knows this to be true. It has also allowed her to survive.

3. Response to fear

Fear is a powerful human emotion that may be perceived as either positive or negative.

Fear keeps you alive: At the most basic level, fear is a survival instinct. It is a necessary response to threats and dangers.

Hyeonseo lived in a society dominated by fear. It determined how you lived your life. Throughout her childhood years fear kept her senses sharp and helped her stay alive. She was aware that a careless word could have serious consequences for herself and her family.

Fear can also paralyse you into inaction: People faced with a health crisis might be aware of the symptoms but choose to deny them, hoping they will go away. Fear holds us back from getting a proper medical diagnosis.

Hyeonseo didn’t allow fear to overrule her curiosity. Sometimes her curiosity exposed her to cruelty and injustice. As a seven-year-old, she was drawn to a crowd gathered beneath a bridge. It took considerable effort to push her way through the onlookers only to be greeted with the sight of a man hanging by the neck. Public executions were common in North Korea.

But curiosity ultimately led to her escape from North Korea.

Hyeonseo lived in Hyesan, a border town. But like the rest of North Korea, it experienced regular power cuts. She could look across the river and marvel at the halogen lights and neon signs of Changbai and wonder at their seeming prosperity.

Her mother was something of an entrepreneur and formed trade links with Chinese traders on the other side of the river. They visited North Korea occasionally to check on their business interests and visited Hyeonseo’s mother. Hyeonseo knew that crossing into China was risky but this didn’t deter her. She was seventeen when she made her daring escape. Her story of survival is inspiring, a testimony to her courage, ingenuity and resilience. She says,

“Leaving North Korea is not like leaving another country. It’s more like leaving another universe.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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