The Wisdom of the Dead


By Yangil KIm

Have you ever found solace in morbidity? Have you ever found comfort in that which others find objectionable? I remember a time in my life; a time in which the driving force of my young existence was confrontation and antagonism. In those turbulent times, I always returned to a place that left me feeling at one with my own inner demons. It was a place that allowed me to escape the pressures of other’s expectations, and a perch from which to reflect in wonder at the position of humanity in general.

This palace of repose, my ‘Fortress of Solitude’ as it were, my get away for when I wished to put aside reality like some semi functional childhood toy, centered me and allowed me to orient myself to the world and other people through reflection on what all the cumulative rushing about amounts to in the grand scheme of things. Without this hide-away and the sheer awe that it always held for me, I would not have emerged from the turmoil of adolescence with the firm sense of self I have today.When I was a young teenager, something inside me chafed at the thought of obsequiously submitting to the authority figures in my life. I turned to rebellion in an effort to repulse those that sought to keep me in line. I disregarded all the warnings of my elders, despite their best intentions. Responsibility became anathema to me, even though I had been taught by my father at a very young age that satisfactory completion of all obligations was an essential part of manhood. My speech became crass, and shock value became more important to me than sincere beliefs.

My need to be the Devil’s advocate in every situation was so great, that it began to alienate those close to me. My friends stopped calling; my parents no longer involved me in family discussions or group outings; and, my teachers ceased to expect me in class. As those I cared about grew more distant, I began to think that I had been abandoned. I refused to see that I was the one turning away from them. Feeling alone against the world, I began to hide from it, running away for days at a time. It was during one of those exoduses that I found a place where I felt comfortable, and I returned there frequently as it became a more and more important fixture in my life.

I still remember the first day I came upon that burnt husk of a church house and its small attendant cemetery. Having been involved in yet another pointless argument with my parents, I fled from their house, only to find that my angered footsteps had taken me into the outskirts of a large wooded area, quite a distance from my home. The twilight sun cast heavy shadows upon the carpet of leaves and fallen branches, both in varying states of decomposition. The brisk autumn wind foretold of a swiftly oncoming evening. Despite my shivering, I refused to turn my footsteps back toward home, and stubbornly proceeded deeper into the ever more imposing trees. All was deathly silent except for my own muttered curses and accusations against my parent’s “unfairness” in their latest edict.

My need to be the Devil’s advocate in every situation was so great, that it began to alienate those close to me. My friends stopped calling; my parents no longer involved me in family discussions or group outings; and, my teachers ceased to expect me in class. As those I cared about grew more distant, I began to think that I had been abandoned. I refused to see that I was the one turning away from them.

So absorbed was I in my self-righteousness, that I didn’t see the broken fence post until I had tripped over it. The impact of the soft soil served to arouse my ire further, that is, until I had surveyed my surroundings. I found myself in the front yard of what seemed to be an abandoned church. A large cross adorned the front of this squat, ugly building. The blank windows gaped at me like the eyes of the blind, and the doorframe, lacking a door, seemed a yawning maw prepared to swallow me for the indiscretion of disturbing what must have been a truly ancient building. Steeling myself against boogiemen, (the thought of drunken teenagers being a more prevalent danger hadn’t occurred to me until much later) I walked through the open doorway to find myself still outside.

The imposing front face of the church was all that remained of the original structure. The side walls ceased being wall and became sloping piles of rubble after extending only six feet or so from the front wall. The back wall, if it ever existed, had long ago decided it was fed up with the other three, and packed up all traces of itself and departed. Occasionally glimpses of the original hardwood floor peeked through the branches and leaves strewn about. The sky was a miasma of red and deepening purple hues as the last rays of the sun filtered down through the canopy of leaves, unimpeded by a roof. From the “inside” of this structure, even in the failing light, black char marks and other evidence of a long dead fire stood out in stark contrast to the drab gray interior. A single pew, turned on its side and leaned against the front wall was the only piece of furniture that hadn’t already been hauled away. Without the obstruction of a rear wall, I noticed that behind the church, there were perhaps thirty or forty headstones, some of which were toppled, all of them too weathered to be read, huddled up to what must have been where the rear wall once stood. Little did I know that when I had stumbled upon it while exploring a heavily secluded section of this well known state park, that this odd location would become a “home away from home”.

I returned to this place many times throughout the course of my early and middle teen years. Telling myself that I liked it because no one else would be comfortable in that foreboding atmosphere, I sought out my ruined church whenever I felt angry or confused. The fact that such a place, a church no less, a symbol of ultimate authority, could be brought low by something so mundane as a careless match, amused me immensely. Being there, away from everyone else, only subject to my own whims, comforted me, made me feel safe and complete, much like the feelings most have about their families, or their homes. I would lie on the single pew and look out over the headstones, reflecting upon what brought me running here time and time again.

For a time, this macabre version of a preschooler’s tree house validated my wish to be alone. The cemetery was a symbol of where all those I perceived as my adversaries would go. They would be lost for all time in conformity. I told myself that history has always favored the misfit, the outspoken, and the rebel. Over time, the tombstones became a silent testament to the efforts of humanity in general. Gradually I began to question the value of rebellion. I started to ask myself, “It this is what it all comes to in the end anyway, why do I try so hard to be different?”. By this time, I had decided that it wasn’t authority I was running from, but an overwhelming fear of mediocrity. Close upon that reflection was the realization that in pushing away those that I cared about, I was doing myself a grave disservice. I don’t remember how many tears were shed as I sat on that pew, my knees drawn up to my chest, staring out over the tombstones that now, instead of encouraging my spite, accused me for a coward. My silent, stone co-conspirators against the world now seemed to chide me as one does a rambunctious child. They seemed to say that it was I who would be forgotten and unmoored. They implied that it was I who would end up an empty husk, alone in an impassable wilderness of my own devising. When my face eventually dried, I looked around the hollow building for what I thought to be the last time, and as I walked away diffidently toward the home of my parents, I resolved to make amends with them and enjoy the time with them that I had been allotted.

I recently returned to that old church. I couldn’t tell you why I went back.

As I sat in that all too familiar pew and looked out at the same blank tombstones, I silently gave thanks to them for being there. I immediately felt silly of course, but the thanks were due all the same. Too many people never find themselves in this life, and without a guide, they remain in a state of confusion throughout their breathing days, attempting to make a mark on an uncaring world as they grapple with the very fundamentals of relationships regarding other people, and with reality itself. Though it may be odd that my guide and confidant was inanimate, and a burnt building no less, that place gave me a grounding point with which to explore my own existence. It enabled me to see physically how hollow I felt inside, despite how much I thought to refute it. Through my bond with this place, I was able to come to grips with the futility of my actions, and was able to see that there was nothing to rebel against. So as I sit here and put this experience to words for the first time, I look around my surroundings.

I see the comfortable furnishings of the house I own. I smell the expected aroma of my girlfriend burning what I had hoped to be an edible dinner. Upon my computer desk is a photograph of my family and myself, smiling happily as we gathered together for this past holiday season. Finally, and most importantly, I see myself in the mirror across the room. I have done well in this life so far, and as I open my eyes each morning I savor the sound of the world awakening around me. Without the help of that long forgotten church, I fear for what my life would have become. So although you may still not appreciate how I could become so attached to a burnt building and an old cemetery, to me, that building was the author of my current attitude. I look at each new day with a hope and contentment that I would not have dreamt possible in my teenage years. Without the intervention of that same old church and graveyard, I would never have become the person I am today. So I write again, without a twinge of embarrassment, that I thank that church for existing, and for helping me through my turbulent adolescence into my present state of happiness and content.