“Family quarrels have a total bitterness unmatched by others. Yet it sometimes happens that they also have a kind of tang, a pleasantness beneath the unpleasantness, based on the tacit understanding that this is not for keeps; that any limb you climb out on will still be there later for you to climb back.” ~Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic’s Notebook, 1960
Let me tell you a story. It is the story of a family divided. Not emotionally divided by jealousies, differences of opinion, and misunderstandings, as is frequently the case, but physically divided. Divided by the heavily guarded and barbed wire fence along the border between North and South Korea, to be exact.
It is the story of a family who, while others are happily celebrating Chosuk (a popular Korean holiday similar to American Thanksgiving), tearfully remembers the loved ones that they have not seen for decades since their migration from the north to the south in the 1950s.
It is the story of a family who, instead of eating and drinking and visiting the graves of their ancestors like others do during Chosuk, spends hours driving to the Korean demilitarized zone along the border between North and South Korea. It is the story of a family who stands as close as possible to the guarded fence, pulls out their binoculars, and gazes longingly at their homeland and any relatives who may be standing on the other side. It is the story of a family who knows that, despite the physical division and separation, they have made every effort possible to bridge the gap and close the divide.
There are many things that separate us from our families, friends and loved ones – emotional baggage, physical distance, time and scheduling constraints – but few of us are separated from our loved ones by armed guards and a massive barbed wire fence. Yet, upon hearing this story on my recent trip to South Korea, tears welled up and I marveled at the fact that, despite this family’s physical division and possible political division, they are willing to go the extra mile. They are willing to come as close as they can, and use whatever tools possible to reach out to their loved ones and close the gap – if only for a few moments to catch a blurry image of them through binoculars.
We all have certain relationships – with families, friends, loved ones – that stretch us, strain us, divide us, and separate us. We have relationships that sometimes feel like more work than pleasure. We have relationships that drift apart for a variety of reasons, whether it is time and scheduling constraints, misunderstandings, emotional differences, political differences, jealousies, resentments, or geographical distance.
But we must ask ourselves: Am I making the extra effort, coming as close as I can, and using whatever tools possible to try and close that gap?
Or am I allowing the gap to widen?
Life gets busy and messy and complicated. Work and other personal commitments eat our time and consume our minds. And relationships – often those relationships that matter the most to us – get lost in the chaos and busyness. Communication begins to focus on the to-dos and chores, status updates, and progress reports. And we forget to talk – really talk – in a way that allows us to know each for all that we really are, with all of our flaws and imperfections, strengths and skills, complexities and intricacies.
Some of my favorite parts of my recent trip to South Korea were the early morning runs that I took with my brother along the Han-Gang River. Ironic and a little sad, but we needed to travel halfway around the world to find the time to really talk. And I doubt we are alone in this conundrum.
Not only time and geographical divisions separate us from our loved ones, but emotional divisions separate us as well. People hurt us. They disappoint us. They frustrate us.
And we hurt, disappoint, and frustrate others, as well.
But often times, there is, as the quote above says, a sort of tang to the bitterness. There is a tacit understanding that whatever connects us is stronger – can be stronger – than what divides us – if we allow it to be.
We can stop waiting for the other person to call. We can make the call ourselves. Send an email. Text just to say “hello.” We can use social media to connect with family members and friends, not just as a means to promote our own self interests and objectives.
We can stop waiting for an invite, lamenting the fact that we don’t see our loved ones as much as we’d like. We can extend an invitation ourselves.
We can stop waiting for an apology. We can offer a sincere apology. Because, as much as we hate to admit it, we are, to some extent, responsible for our role in quarrels with loved ones.
We can ignore the personality conflicts and frustrations that drive us crazy. We can, instead, focus on the good, the strengths. We can appreciate the whole complex personality.
There are myriad causes of relationship divisions and separations – emotional, physical, geographical, and otherwise – but, ultimately, we must ask ourselves: is the relationship worth it? It is worth the extra effort? Is it worth compromising and coming as close as we can to meet the other person in the middle? Is it worth using all the tools at our disposal to bridge the gap?
If the answer is yes, then make the effort. Go the distance. Meet in the middle, bring your binoculars. And, with any luck, you’ll see the other person standing on the other side, with his or her own binoculars, smiling and waving back at you.