Letter to my Seoul Students

Saturday, March 24, 2018

                24 January 2017

Yongsan International School of Seoul
285 Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul


First, thank you so much for your hospitality and kindness to me last week. I made a joke at our first session that I’d heard you were disrespectful and irresponsible students, and you proved how much of a joke that comment really was.

Second, I want to say something about being creative. I think creative people—artists, musicians, fiction writers and poets, even actors and screenwriters—end up in a separate class in our society. Sometimes they’re thought of as prophets or magicians, doing work the rest of us don’t quite understand but have been told is deeply important. Sometimes they’re looked down upon, because they don’t contribute in obvious ways to social progress, the way inventors and scientists and engineers do. The way people making business deals in corporate conference rooms do.

I want you to know that I’m GLAD creative class people are viewed as different from “the rest of us.” It’s true that what we do when we make a poem or a song isn’t productive. It doesn’t add anything concrete to this world, like a highway or a skyscraper. It doesn’t hammer out the terms of a trade deal between neighboring countries. In my opinion we have A LOT of highways and skyscrapers and trade deals and not enough good poems.

We have a lot of poems, but so much art these days seems self-serving for its maker and not so much intended for its audience to love and remember. I write poetry that I hope people will love and remember. I want people to go to a weird place in their brain they don’t normally go, and for that experience to wake them up a little bit.

What would it be like if we were all a little bit more awake? What if we didn’t instinctively pull out our iPhones right at 3:10 and check Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook? What if we were more aware of what was happening when we boarded a bus or got in a car to go home? The engine beneath the hood, the velocity of the vehicle, the kinds of birds that were chirping in the trees around us as we sped toward our homes? What if we knew the species of trees and flowers around us? Wouldn’t all that knowledge cause us to stop – to take a break and be silent – in the midst of it all?

That’s what I want art to do. I want a place where everything stops and then goes in reverse for a second. You look, you wonder, you see something you hadn’t seen before. Or in the case of poetry, you hear something you hadn’t thought of before – or hadn’t thought of in that particular way. And it makes you laugh, maybe because something is jarred loose in your mind, maybe because you recognize the thing in the poem or work of art.

Creative work is as important as sleep and dreaming. It puts us in a place where we aren’t outwardly productive, but in the darkness we are growing, becoming wiser, confronting soul-killing conformity, complacency, comfort. It makes awkward a virtue.

What would it be like if we were all a little bit more quiet? If we looked and listened more than we walked around and talked. In my experience, that part of our lives is vital to sustained growth as a human race. Our imaginations and dream worlds help us decide what’s really important in life.

By way of conclusion, let me give you a heads up. You’re young, you haven’t lived too much of this life yet. Let me give you a spoiler. In the end, the one thing that matters is that you love each other. All the noise and traffic and money and plans and business, all the sports and war and politics, all the news, all the social media, all the comments on each other posts or pics – all of it is nothing without true love. I mean the kind of heart-melting, face-melting, faint from happiness kind of love you are supposed to offer each other every day, in real life, in real time.

And you can’t do that if you aren’t awake. You can’t do it if you aren’t quiet, or quieted. You can become quiet if you sit on the beach looking out at the sea. You can become quiet by sitting near a window while rain is pouring down, and you listen. It can also happen in the space of a work of art – or a weird poem. You wake up just a bit. You stop, you are pushed backward into quietness. You become the kind of person who’s open to actually loving others and valuing what is best in life.

I’ve said enough. I wanted to write you a thank-you letter and tell you how shocking and cool it was to be in Seoul and especially on your beautiful campus, full of surprises and wonder. I wanted to help you see, from the outside, that you’re in a very special place. You have a lot of talented and caring adults around you on all sides. You have classrooms and facilities most people in the world can only hope for. I hope – I pray – you don’t take any of that for granted. I hope you know how beautiful it all is to a middle aged man who’d never even been in Asia before last week, and I hope you will learn, through quietness and reflection, what a blessing it is for you. And then turn that sense of blessing outward to the people around you.

Art is a very private and personal thing. It is experienced privately, loved inwardly, and remembered in a way matures you and builds character. May it be so for each of you. It was truly a delight for me to meet you, and I hope we can meet again.

Dr. Belz

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