How Korea’s Arirang Reminded Me to Stay Hopeful in Life’s Toughest Moments

Editor’s Note: The author of this article wished to remain anonymous.

I’ve lived a long life.

Usually I’m able to shake it off, to ignore the heartache and work through it. To brush it aside, remind myself that others have it worse, and to put on a brave face so I may walk through the door every morning.

Then there are days, like today, when I have been completely and utterly defeated. When the world goes by too quickly for me to grasp onto anything, and, while flailing unsuccessfully for a life preserver, I feel myself being pulled down, down, down, until I drown under my heavy sorrows and misery.

And in those moments in the darkest, blackest, pits of despair, when depression takes hold and chokes any breath of happiness I desperately struggle to gasp, there is a light.

It shines dully at first, hardly noticeable while I contemplate ending it all. As I wonder what it would be like to drive into oncoming traffic or leap from the blufftops near my home into the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean below, the light gets brighter. Slowly, but surely, the light is accompanied by a sound — a hum — that quietly makes its presence known. It’s unobtrusive in the beginning, but once it starts, it doesn’t stop. The hum forms into words of warmth, singing the song my soul yearns to belt out. The light, the song, the pain, all weave together and turn into hope. It comes from within, but not only from oneself; the powerful force of countless generations, their mark on this world no longer physical, reminds me I am the culmination of their joys and their sorrows, their triumphs and their tears.

That song — that hope — is Arirang; the words ring of the bitter realities of life while freeing the soul to experience a tenacious hope despite suffering. This song transcends culture, language, and belief systems to give voice to the human existence. It’s a song that defines my people, as dear to us as a mother to a child, yet resonates with others who may not even understand the words. The song of hardships, heartaches, and humanity: Arirang — the unofficial anthem, the spirit of the nation, the UNESCO-Designated, lyrical folk song of Korea.

Hundreds of years ago, high in the mountain villages, the people of Korea gave their suffering a beat. A rhythm. Lyrics. Different regions gave the song different lyrical variations, but all versions ring of the same truth. Arirang, be it a hill, a pass, or a long road, means more than just a physical place, but is life itself; the path is long and the going is tough, and travelling this road causes pain. There are countless stars in the sky, and just as many sighs within our hearts. There are many hills in life, such as hellos and goodbyes, that we all must get over. Such is life, its bittersweet suffering characterizing the seemingly insignificant mortal existence.

And in this suffering, there is solace, for it simply is. It’s not something one can explain with words or logic, but must be felt with every fiber of one’s being. And in that suffering, you must keep going, and Arirang represents the strength — that hope — that is needed to persevere.

I’ve felt the meaning of Arirang many times throughout my life.

The cold nights of my childhood, looking out the window and seeing a deep blanket of snow on the ground. The moon’s light, reflecting against the whiteness all around me, creating a frozen stillness to my icy world. In the throes of depression, where I was so lonely that I could hear the moon, the feeling of Arirang gave me the warmth I needed to carry on.

The sunny days of my first love, when even a moment apart felt like a lifetime. Bringing laughter to the other person, sharing secrets and creating fond memories by simply being together. In the midst of happiness, where I was so giddy that the warmth from within turned my cheeks a glowing red, the feeling of Arirang sang purely from my heart.

And perhaps most recently, the complete and utter defeat I’ve been struggling with. This hill I’ve come to seems insurmountable, and as each day passes I learn there are countless more hills behind it as new problems arise. My life has been long, this path has been difficult, and I am very tired — too tired to climb these hills. My heart broken, my spirit contrite, I had all but given up on this world.

But just as I felt like I couldn’t go on any longer — as if I must collapse along the path and perish — Arirang weakly hummed from somewhere inside me, pulled forth by a desperately needed human connection that calmed my aching soul. Arirang sang quietly, voicing my despair. Arirang sang purely, characterizing my pain. But Arirang sang confidently, giving me the much needed hope for the future, the strength to carry on.

Although Arirang is an old song, the first people to sing it long forgotten, it remains timeless. It speaks of a history of suffering — something the Korean people know far too well — but also that of a hope that cannot be destroyed. Arirang’s message resonates deeply, and is just as true now as it was in the mountain villages hundreds of years ago. Arirang is the hope that pushes steadily through despite pain and desolation, a lyrical resistance to remain victorious over life’s lofty hills and winding roads.

I’ve lived a long life.

The path is long, the going is tough, and travelling this road causes pain.

But that is life.

All I can do is hope for the better as I tackle the hill before me.

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