My counseling teacher taught me that the dysfunctions we have as adults are often rooted in coping mechanisms as children.
For example, Tim grew up in a family with parents who were constantly fighting. He learned to cope with the strain and turmoil by avoiding conflict. Whenever his parents seemed to get into a heated exchange, Tim would do what he could to steer the conversation to calmer waters. Tim learned to avoid conflict, since conflict would inevitably lead to fights. But as an adult, whenever his wife Barbara brings up a difficult topic, Tim shuts down. Even though he is 40 years old, part of him is still that 8 year old, the sound of his parents’ shouting ringing in his ears. He isn’t even conscious of the role his childhood trauma plays in his current life.
The key here is to recognize where the dysfunction comes from. Oftentimes, we try to will our dysfunctions away. We resolve to do better, to be more attentive, to be more emotionally open. Yet if we remain ignorant to the deep well of our habits and patterns of thinking, resolve will only go so far.
For myself, one such coping mechanism/dysfunction is an expectation of rejection. It manifests as a little voice that says “No one really likes you. All these people that are nice to you, they are just being polite. If they said what they really felt, they would want nothing to do with you. The best thing you can do for everyone is to leave them alone, so they don’t have to put up with you.”
The story behind this coping mechanism is long and involved. Suffice it to say, I know that it isn’t true, but it still triggers within me at times. Yet when these thoughts come back, knowing the story behind them and how to speak truth against them is transformative. Instead of becoming hopeless or upset when these thoughts come up, I can ask myself: Where does this come from, and what is the truth?

Home Buying

I was having a conversation the other night about the merits of buying a home against renting with my legal writing teacher. He commented that he strongly encourages renting over buying for students entering private practice, since most such lawyers have careers that allow or even require geographic mobility. He said that he was buying a house because he knew he wanted to settle in San Diego and wanted certain amenities that buying allows, but otherwise would have still kept renting, and that he didn’t believe in the predominant cultural norm that encourages everyone to buy.
Yet another dimension to renting/home buying that came to mind was how the act of buying solidifies ties to a location, which is particularly important for immigrants. When my parents moved to the US from Korea, they had no family ties here whatsoever (even now, all of my family is back in Korea.) They had come on my father’s graduate student visa, and it wasn’t clear if they would stay or return. When they bought our house, it wasn’t just a financial investment, or a nice building in a neighborhood with good schools, or a choice for a certain bundle of goods that a local government could provide. It was a statement about the future, that our family would be rooted in this new place. The Kim family would make this place home.

Marriage is work

It’s almost summer, which means it’s almost wedding season. I haven’t been invited to any weddings this year, but I remember the weddings from the past few years that I attended (happy anniversary to Vinicius and Christina.)

I was telling a friend who is in his mid 30s that I’m getting to the age when many of my friends are getting married (in the past few weeks, two couples I know got engaged.) He said that he’s getting to the age when several couples are getting divorced. He said “I was a guest at their wedding. I talked to the guy’s uncle. I gave them a blender as wedding present.”

It is a sobering thought; I hope that none of my friends need experience a divorce, but underlying it is an important reality. Marriage is work. Once the wedding is over, once the champagne flutes are packed away, the decorations are taken down, and the music is over, marriage is hard work. It’s easy to look with loving eyes on your partner on the big day in a dashing suit or beautiful dress. It’s a lot harder when both of you are exhausted, you’re stressed over finances or family, and you don’t know how to make this life together. Marriage is messy, divorce is messy, and I have great sympathy for those who go through such hardship.

It will be interesting to see how my perspective on weddings changes once I get married (if I get married). Those who have experienced the joys and scars of married life will likely see weddings from a different light. Some may be cynical, knowing the difficult things ahead. Some may be patronizing, wanting the new couple to avoid the same mistakes. And some may be even more joyful, knowing that the hardships make the beautiful things even sweeter.

Grief is to let go

The very first memorial service I ever attended was for a woman named Mary Case. She was in my supervision small group for a counseling ministry in Berkeley. She was a gentle, sweet woman, who spoke with warmth about her relationship with her care receiver. She would share about her hopes for her teenage children, about family trips, about projects around the house with her husband. She would also share about her cancer. At our last meeting before she passed, she mentioned that things were going quite smoothly and that she was optimistic about the future. Her death, although not entirely surprising, was shocking.

I didn’t know Mary well, but I felt compelled to attend her service to support her family. I arrived at the church on that beautiful sunny spring day. Friends and family members came forth to share memories of her. Some were crying. Her husband told a story that had us all laughing. Some could only speak a few words.

Today, on another sunny spring day, I left a different memorial service, at a different church, in a different city. This time, it wasn’t a mother and wife whose life was cut short by cancer, but a vibrant young woman taken by an accident. A young woman whom I had never met, but clearly had an impact on everyone around her. As I reflect on what her loss means for those close to me, I remember these words from that first service, years ago: To grieve is to let go of that which you cannot have. It is painful, it is difficult, and it takes time. To grieve is to acknowledge that we cannot hold claim to another, but that we can thankful for how another has deeply changed our world.


What do people mean when they say “Happy birthday?”

It’s a phrase uttered all over the world. I received birthday wishes from China, Mongolia, Korea, and all throughout the US. Yet why do we say it? It’s a quick, one-off phrase, said in passing in the hallway or in a quick social media post. A smile, a wave, cake, candles, songs, laughter.

When I say happy birthday to an old friend, I want them to know how our friendship has enriched my life. How meeting them has changed me in a profound and positive way. My birthday greeting is rooted in the past.

When I say happy birthday to an acquaintance, I bring in my hopes for the future. If I have gotten to know them well enough to sincerely wish them happy birthday, I come with the hope that our friendship will continue to grow. My birthday greeting looks to what is to come.

When I say happy birthday to a stranger, I give them my good tidings for the moment. I may not know them well enough to know what this year has meant to them, and I may never run into them again, but I can still celebrate today with them. My birthday greeting is in the present.

A birthday is an opportunity to celebrate life. Because as hard as life can be sometimes, there is so much beauty to it. Each of us only has a fixed number of birthdays. To quote xkcd: “Remember, every second counts toward your life total, including these right now.”

Thank you for the birthday wishes, friends. I am 27 years old now (28 in Korea!), and every day is a gift.