More than an umbrella,
a person walking in the rain
needs someone who would walk with him.
비를 맞으며 걷는 사람에겐 우산보다
함께 걸어줄 누군가가 필요한 거임을
More than a handkerchief,
a person in tears
needs a chest he can cry on.
울고 있는 사람에겐 손수건 한 장보다
기대어 울 수 있는 한 가슴이
더욱 필요한 것임을.
I was able to understand these
after meeting you.
깨달을 수 있었습니다.
Where are you, my dear?
I miss you. I miss you.
Words cannot express
my longing for you.
그대여, 지금 어디 있는가.
보고 싶다 보고 싶다
말도 못 할 만큼
이정하 <기대어 울 수 있는 한 가슴> (시집 “너는 눈부시지만 나는 눈물겹다” 중에서)
Black, gooey slime spread across the pristine white cloth of the meeting table. Juice spilt from the glass turned into blood soaking up the rug underneath his feet. Apparitions of a body floating in water flashed across his vision now and then. He insisted that he was not mad, but his servant drugged him into insanity anyway. His brother-in-law, armed with knowledge of psychology, staged sightings of his dead mother walking around. His psychiatrist, conspiring with the evil brother-in-law, hammered into him the idea that he had violently strangled his then-comatose fiancée. At the sidelines, his step-mother gloated not so silently at his disoriented state, while his father called him a weakling. Into this topsy-turvy world of chaebol heir Choi Min-woo entered an angel in the form of Byun Ji-sook, the quintessential warm-hearted Korean drama heroine and his new wife, who woke him from his nightmare and gave him a comforting shoulder as she dismantled one by one, before his eyes, the intricate illusions cruelly constructed around him.
Melodrama Mask, which quoted the umbrella and handkerchief analogies in the poem, knew that it was telling a canned story with far-fetched elements but did so with great relish at times anyway, even adding a dose of self-deprecating humor for good measure. Beneath the sensationalism and occasional comedy, though, lay the very real issues of emotional isolation and disconnect between material and psychological well-being. Human society has become adept at tracking and tabulating physical needs but, aside from medical responses, the mapping and accounting of emotional needs remain a vague science in public policy. Although indices of overall happiness levels are sometimes available, they cannot pinpoint the specific mental sources of dissatisfaction with life. Yet emotional suffering can stem from the want of psychological validation, emotional security, comfort, inner peace, warmth and more.
Emotional outcomes are barely even factored into the equation in many instances. While there is talk of emotional appeal in policymaking, emotions are the means in these cases, not the end goals. Decisions driven by such considerations can directly fulfill emotional needs only insofar as these needs intersect with the tangible objectives, like economic and formal health performance outcomes, at hand. Admittedly, the fulfillment of physical needs, which are in one way or another targeted by various public policies, contributes towards emotional ones. It can be hard to feel secure without a roof over one’s head or to experience warmth without food burning in the stomach. Nonetheless, physical fulfillment alone may not be enough for emotional satisfaction, and steps are seldom taken to ascertain that any desired emotional impact has been delivered. Furthermore, as suggested by Lee’s poem, there are certain points at which emotional gestures may be more effective than physical ones.
Even corrective social interventions such as counseling of offenders and family support services may fail to provide more than symptomatic relief when it comes to non-pathological emotional deficits. Often, what they target, at most, are the disruptive behavior and overt welfare issues that result from these deficits. It is possible that even while behavioral patterns and decisions are being successfully changed, the underlying emotional sores are left festering. Moreover, the approaches taken are passive, with personal deficiencies addressed only after they have led to visible problems. One exception may be pastoral care, but this is hardly available outside educational and religious settings.
On the other hand, policy interventions preventing emotionally destructive conditions from taking root do exist. Examples include privacy and harassment laws. Still, the identification of conditions to forestall is arguably an ad-hoc process, dependent on the shifting sands of public opinion. Many would probably agree, too, that those covered by public measures to date make up only a small subset of the myriad causes of emotional discomfort possible. Furthermore, being merely defensive tactics, these interventions cannot fill up emotional holes existing even before outside interference.
Finally, there are interventions such as community bonding schemes that actively foster emotionally supportive conditions. However, they suffer from the same arbitrariness issues as preventative interventions. Besides, the on-the-ground views that make up public opinion are imperfect in that, as Lee’s penultimate stanza illustrates, the workings of the mind can be so mysterious that individuals are not even aware of their own emotional needs. Without academic insights of human psychology closely guiding the direction of public policy, there will, perhaps, always be gaps between public initiatives and emotional wants.
As such, as long as recognized mental disorders and social problems clearly connected to the needs do not come into the picture, emotional needs are often, in effect, relegated to the private sphere. Yet the aspiration to a more psychologically fulfilling life, rather than a mere ordinary life engaged with minimal difficulties, is frequently a collective one. This is especially when “ordinary” is a dubious standard, applying as well to commonly tolerated or accepted experiences characterized by misery as to those characterized by happiness. Unfulfilled emotional needs can also wreak widespread havoc in subtle or indirect ways. Alcohol and tobacco products, for instance, may be consumed as a way of numbing emotional pain, and their well-known adverse effects place a strain on the public health system. Unhappiness has also been linked to risky behavior with public consequences like not wearing seatbelts while riding motor vehicles. It is no secret, too, that feelings of inadequacy and fear are frequently projected onto others, creating disharmony in workplaces and community spaces. People dragged into or otherwise exposed to such conflicts sometimes even acquire these negative sentiments, and wherever they go, the seeds of discontent and dysfunction find new avenues to plant themselves.
Even before academic psychology finds its way into the heart of public policy, there are simple steps policymakers can take to enhance emotional well-being in the populace. To begin with, emotional dimensions to public decisions can be considered, not just to win hearts, but also to fill holes in hearts. For instance, greenery and nature-inspired designs, already known for their restorative effects, can be experimented with and incorporated into city planning more frequently to sooth urban anxiety. There is, however, probably no solution as powerful and versatile as human empathy and support, the very point underscored by Lee’s analogies. In this light, the importance of improving public service attitudes should not be overlooked in civic reforms.
In the meantime, there are actions that individuals can take to gain emotional support from people, and Lee’s two other poems shed light on some of the most basic ones. In “A Low Place,” he compared keeping oneself accessible to love to staying at a low place, perhaps a recessed surface on the ground, where water could accumulate readily. Reflecting on the poem, fellow contemporary poet Moon Sang-geum remarked that even winter rain would run off the beautiful petals of plum and narcissus blossoms into a depressed spot at the bottom of some stone wall. In “In a Corner of My Heart,” Lee wrote of preparing a candle and keeping an empty seat for someone even though you are not together. Some fundamental things one can do to fulfill emotional needs, then, would be to remain open to new relationships and give thought to people who can enter such relationships with him. A point moral philosophers may note, though, is that the key motivation for bonding with people and showing kindness should ultimately be an altruistic one cultivated from within the heart.
Ji-sook, saddled with debts, family illness and death threats from a maniacal villain who forced her to impersonate the identical-looking fiancée, had little energy to keep a lookout for Min-woo. She, nonetheless, could not help but start caring after, time and again, Min-woo offered his chest for her to lean on.