Now far removed from the 9th floor Korean apartment I called home for nearly two years, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve taken away from my time in South Korea. I’ve come up with quite a list.
I’ve learned about graciousness, and about understanding. I’ve learned patience and learned to wait for the full story before casting my final judgment- there is always a reason behind even the strangest cultural customs. It’s proven true that living in another culture has become one of my life’s great teachers.
The more I worked through lessons learned, (and trust me, there were many) there was one particular lesson that separated itself from the others; my changing understanding of the beauty and importance of saying “good-bye.”
While living in foreign countries, expats make friends with natives and other foreigners alike. It’s possible, or probable, that as foreigners we will become friends with people soon to leave us, and so, we say “good-bye.”
Eventually, our time will come. Whether that time is after 30 years or 30 days, we inevitably will leave and call a new place “home.” Maybe we’re really heading home (the place of our birth), or maybe we’re starting a new chapter filled with new scenery and with new people. No matter the situation, it all ends the same way, with us saying, “good-bye.”
I, like most people, hate good-byes. Separating oneself from those who learned and grew with you is a difficult and painful event. When we leave, we are leaving behind part of our self, and with us we take a unique mark; a mark penned by the culture that took us in.
But, since my journey back west, I’ve come to a few realizations.
Good-byes force us to start a new chapter.
Life often will take the form of a story. We live our lives in phases, or chapters. We grow during chapter 5, we fail during chapter 7, and find hard fought redemption in chapter 14. During our story we live, breathe, love and cry. The chapters of our lives are different lengths and they are filled with a wide range of emotion.
It’s important to remember one thing, though. Like the chapters in a book, our life’s chapters never last forever. We are not defined by the mistake we made in chapter 3. What defines a person is what he chose to do with the number of chapters he or she was blessed with. Do we choose to accept what happens and allow chapter 3 to propel us into chapter 4?
Since my time in Korea, I’m learning that “good-bye” is often the final period on that final page of whatever chapter we are currently writing. The act of saying “good-bye” lets us start again. It allows us to grow. It allows us to leave unhealthy situations in search of healthy ones, or it allows us to leave healthy situations in pursuit of a dream.
Good-byes help us to realize what we had, and to appreciate it.
I’ve got a confession. I don’t think I ever fully appreciate people or places when they are part of my life. I take them for granted. But, as soon as I am about to leave a place, the ordinary, everyday buildings that inhabited my world (buildings that I’ve passed hundreds of times without notice) are filled with color and I find them remarkable. The people are revealed for who they are, which are friends that I am going to deeply miss and who had a lasting impression on me. I think this is human nature, though. We rarely appreciate the things right in front of us. “Good-bye,” though, forces people and places back into their proper place; their place of high honor and importance. The act of saying farewell is the great equalizer.
Good-byes help us to hope that beauty is possible again.
The fact that saying “good-bye” is so incredibly difficult speaks to what our experiences were: beautiful and important. This pain is the living proof that we cared and that we loved. It is the frame work that defines the art that was created during our time. It’s not easy to end something of eternal importance. It’s not easy to leave friendships that altered the course of your life.
It’s important to remember that the pain, the memories, the beauty, the lessons learned all come down to this: As bad as it hurts, our act of leaving is a statement of faith (for without faith, we’d never leave) that in our act of going, there is a belief that there is more art to be created and that there is more beauty to be discovered. There is justice to be done, and lessons to be learned. There is hope to be given and there is love to be given.
“Good-bye” is a hopeful sending, and in our going, we are granted permission to go find and create again.
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“The Pain and Beauty of Goodbye” was written by Michael Palmer. Michael is a Midwest transplant residing in Northern California, a pastor, proud father of two little ones, an avid St. Louis Cardinals Fan, and a lover of cultures, travel, food, and theology. He’s published numerous articles on theology, art, and life, and is a contributor to Renovating Holiness (SacraSage Press, January 2015), a theological re-imaging of holiness. You can also find him at michaelrpalmer.com and on Twitter: @michaelrpalmer.
(Suitcase photo by Elitatt.)