How a K-Drama, an Indian poem, and a head injury taught me the meaning of life

Life is short.

While I always knew this, the reality of this statement was thrown into high relief when I experienced a concussion (you can read all about it here). For a few weeks, I struggled with post-concussion syndrome, a mind-bending cocktail of symptoms that made concentration and speech processing difficult. The head injury also sparked a bout of sadness and nihilism that I couldn’t shake. Each night, I wondered whether I would wake up in the morning, or whether I would instead pass into death during the night because of some unseen neurological issue.

The incident threw everything into perspective. Time became of the essence. I wanted to make sure that every day that my children knew without a doubt that I loved them and valued their presence in the world. I wanted to savor every moment and to fill my life with experiences that brought joy.

Image of peach-tippped yellow roses with the words: "I made a conscious effort to stop saving my best self and my best moments for busyness."

I made a conscious effort to stop saving my best self and my best moments for busyness.

Work became less important. The perfectionism I once strove for – that elusive state of being that had seemed so very necessary – now seemed ridiculous. I still aimed for excellence and worked long hours at times, but I decided to let late emails wait until the morning, to pause long meetings for snack or tea breaks, and to do my best to focus on family and rest when I logged off for the day.

I was reminded of the narrative poem “The Man Had No Useful Work” by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. In the poem, a man is sent to the wrong paradise, one that is a heaven for busy people. He disrupts the order of things by dedicating himself not to busyness, but to idleness. He decorates pottery with artwork and ties a ribbon in a girl’s hair. The girl wonders at the man’s idleness, asking him of his of his artwork, “What does it mean?”

“It has no meaning,” the man answers. He knows what those in the busy heaven don’t: that some things are wonderful to have just because they are lovely. I love this poem because I am both the man and the girl in this story: overcome with busyness and longing to satisfy my creative impulses.

With this theme in mind, I made a conscious effort to stop saving my best self and my best moments for busyness. I started thinking beyond survival. I gave myself more gifts, like walks to make sure I savored the dewy cool of the morning, a delicious meal in the middle of the day for no reason, a spritz of a delicious fragrance, fresh flowers, or a beautiful, soft sweater. I started lighting fragrant candles and placing them next to me as I worked so that even as I typed away on one project or another, I surrounded myself with beauty.

Still, the reality of mortality was constant. I looked on as friends and church members lost loved ones, and as my husband lost a family matriarch, our dear Aunt Opal. I wept when a friend from church, John, passed away suddenly. I again grieved the death of my friend Rachelle, who passed away a few years ago from cancer and whose posthumous words of advice to those attending her funeral were to experience life fully and to travel. “You’ll never have the money,” she told us through her written word, “but do it anyway.”

I remembered that death can be imminent and sudden, or late and patient. I tried to accept that there are some things I can control and much that I cannot, and that life is full of both pain and joy.

I started watching Hotel Del Luna, a drama from South Korea about a hotel that houses souls transitioning from life to death. One of the most popular shows in South Korean television history, the 2019 series (now streaming on Netflix) explores the meaning of life and death while challenging the viewer to consider how our past often prevents us from living life and moving forward.

The hotel is managed by Jang Man-wol, a woman reckoning with old sins and grudges from her death more than a thousand years ago. She is sentenced to run the hotel by a deity, Mago, until she learns to reconcile these pieces of her long life. The hotel guests, too, are riddled with unreconciled feelings: regrets about things they didn’t do, love for living loved ones they aren’t ready to say goodbye to, anger at those who wronged them, and longing for desires they couldn’t fulfill during their lifetime. The show combines magical realism, low-key horror elements, and classic romantic tropes to tell the story of how Man-wol’s heart hardens and softens over a millennium, and how helping others helps ease her suffering and also process her own woes.

One of my favorite images from the series is that of souls crossing the bridge over the Samdo River into the afterlife. As they cross, step by step, the souls feel their memories begin to fade, starting with the most painful and the deepest grudges. Though this isn’t my particular theology – I couldn’t begin to tell you what happens when we die – I found it comforting to imagine my happiest memories being the very last thing to fade. I thought about how many more happy memories I wanted to add to my memory bank.

I’ll admit that the title of this blog post was a little presumptuous. I haven’t figured out the meaning of life. But what these stories, and my own story, are teaching me is that life is for more than busyness and regret. If I were to guess at the meaning of life, it would be this: Life is for living. And that is enough.

This post is part of a monthly series called Watch. Read. Listen., where I explore some of my favorite shows, movies, books, articles, and podcasts.

8 responses to “How a K-Drama, an Indian poem, and a head injury taught me the meaning of life”

  1. Life is for living. I like that.

    1. Thank you, Beth! I’m so glad it resonates!

  2. Roy Bass (Byrnie) Avatar
    Roy Bass (Byrnie)

    Another keeper, Irie Price. Best wishes.

    1. Beautiful, Irie! Inspiring and motivating! Thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. Beautifully done, Irie; thank you for sharing!

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