I am not sure where or how or why the pain, and eventually the indifference, began. Ever since I had come to college, I had tried to make myself into a perfect student, friend, daughter, sister, and person. I had sought validation in my ability to manage my time efficiently, develop my academic interests, participate in meaningful extra-curriculars, exercise frequently, and receive stellar grades, all while having best friends and a social life. This was the crystallized world I had envisioned, the life I had demanded to live. I expected a life in which I was in control of all my interactions, of every impression I gave, and of all my physical, mental, and emotional states of being.
But it felt like some part of me hadn’t caught up with these expectations — this part seemed to be stuck somewhere in a blurry past, and no matter how much I had tried to get up early and run, meet friends for meals, and give every semblance of a productive, stabilized life, this part had hijacked all of me. It churned old memories and terrorized me with the idea that maybe I had nothing together. That this was all an act, that I was an imposter too skilled for my own good, and that someday everyone would find out about me.
I woke up one day wondering where my world had gone. I remembered the sudden turn of events that had left obvious cracks in my core, cracks that I had glazed over. Within the past year, my mother had abruptly sold her Korean restaurant, which she had run for ten years and was where I had first learned how to throw a baseball in the parking lot, had listened to old-time customers’ stories and advice, and had realized the painful and all-enduring love of an immigrant mother sacrificing everything for her two children. She had left for Korea with her favorite dresses in two big luggage bags, and now I could no longer go home to her every few weeks. Throughout the past year, I had worked with a realtor to sell our house, had sold our belongings over Craigslist, and had prepared for a new home in Korea. I didn’t know what it meant to live with my father again after eight years of being apart; I didn’t know how to have normal interactions with someone whose actions had hurt me. And death suddenly revealed itself as a living reality when both my grandfathers passed away, leaving me face-to-face with an incomprehensible sense of grief and the even more confusing question of how one mourns and moves on.
I compartmentalized these emotions into boxes I forced into the back of my mind, carrying on with my classes, extra-curriculars, and friendships. But an unexplainable sense of despair kept threatening my crystallized world, and I found the best way to deal with it was to close my eyes, hide my head under a pillow, and hope I didn’t remember anything when I woke up. I gradually stopped functioning. I couldn’t do any schoolwork, I couldn’t bear to see people, even those who were closest to me, and I couldn’t do simple things like walk to class, eat, and talk. Nothing was wrong, and yet everything was wrong. I submitted multiple study cards and switched my concentration six times within the first three weeks of the semester, and throughout it all I felt like I was losing the control I had once cherished. My friends supported me through this time, but I never felt more alone. I developed a fear that I wouldn’t make it to the end — that there was an expiration date printed on me. The only way to stop feeling this way was to stop feeling altogether, and I grew disinterested and desensitized to life. The emptiness at least allowed me to give million dollar smiles and laugh again, though both meant nothing to me.
I felt that because I was Christian, I should seek help from my Christian friends and mentors. “Hold onto the promises in the Bible and overcome the despair and helplessness because God died to cleanse us of our sin, and that He has already overcome all darkness,” I heard. “God saves.” “God is the only one who can truly provide.” “Surrender yourself to God.” “Let me pray for you.” “I’m praying for you.” “God sees your pain.” “Offer everything up to God.” “We are broken people living in a broken world because of sin.”
None of it registered. I recoiled from these words, which were given out of place of genuine love and concern from my closest friends, because in those darkest moments, it didn’t matter that I was saved or unsaved, or some battle had already been won. Faith felt alien, and the realest thing I knew was how the pain felt like needles digging into my skin, and all I wanted was for it to stop. I wanted God to come and make the pain stop. Eventually, I stopped asking “God, where are you?” and began asking, “Why does it even matter? Why does it matter that there is a God? What if it’s always going to be this up and down, and downs get worse?”
Six weeks into the semester I sat across from my Resident Dean, and told him I wanted to take time off from school because I had no idea what I wanted to study. But in reality, I was depressed, and I needed to take myself out of what had become an unsafe environment. I saw therapists and struggled to accept the fact that I needed help. A friend and I had planned to go on a pilgrimage walk in Spain during the upcoming summer, but I decided to go alone during my time off. I carried everything I needed for one month of pilgrimage in a pack that weighed ten pounds on my back, and left for a small town in the south of France called St. Jean Pied de Port.
I began my walk on the Camino de Santiago, a route traveled by thousands of people from the medieval ages up to now. I planned an itinerary to cover the 450-mile distance in 26 days, but within the first three days of walking, my knee got inflamed and my plans shattered. I walked until I could walk no longer, my muscles aching, the blisters multiplying, my body collapsing at the hostel after eight grueling hours of walking. The Camino was the hardest and the simplest thing I have done in my life. Wake up at 6:30am, pack my bag, walk for a couple hours, grab breakfast, walk for a few more hours, down a beer, walk, have lunch, walk, have more beer, then walk into the destination town for the day. Claim a bed in the hostel, wash up, do my laundry, cook, eat, drink, sleep. Repeat for 33 more days.
But from the minute I started following the yellow arrows to Santiago de Compostela, the end of the pilgrimage, I noticed a shift happening inside of me. I felt completely exposed. There were no grades, extra-curriculars, relationships or standards that could define me. I had left everything behind, with only a few articles of clothing and some toiletries in my pack. All I could offer to God was my body, my commitment, myself. I realized that by taking me out of school and bringing me into what became the most beautiful and the most otherworldly experience that has happened to me, God didn’t want my perfect world or a perfect me; He wanted my heart. I felt pursued — every where I turned, I found blessings in the form of people who invited me to dinner, tended to my blisters, the most beautiful fields of the greenest grass that seemed to extend forever, my own feet that continued to move, and a Catholic priest my father’s age, who I walked with for four weeks and who completely changed the way I saw my own father and our relationship. This priest taught me how to receive God’s love. I felt God’s presence in the incomprehensible sense of joy that fueled my body and my heart — a joy that I had no idea I was capable of feeling. I realized that I was not broken, but capable of feeling fully present and fully alive, something that could have only come from God.
There were many magical nights on the Camino, but I want to end with one I remember particularly vividly:
I am the only one walking as far as I can see, when suddenly I notice butterflies on the side of the road following me as I go. I keep seeing butterflies throughout the day, I keep thinking about the butterflies, and I remember a quote that had stayed with me since childhood. “Just when the caterpillar thought it was over, it turned into a butterfly.” I start crying, because I realize that’s exactly what is happening to me, that’s how my semester off, my Camino, feels — I had thought it was all over, that there was nothing left I could do, that God didn’t care. But I had realized that God was waiting to give me something greater than anything I could have imagined. Despite going to church, Bible Study, and praying with others and by myself, I had never let God into my heart. But on the Camino, I had been pushed into a position where my heart was all I had left to offer, and then God filled me with life and fundamentally changed the way I saw myself, my faith, my world.
Coming back to campus, I have realized that the struggle continues, and the despair still exists. But I know these legs have walked across a country and have walked with God, and I know that even my deepest darkness will not be dark to God, but light to Him. And with gratitude for how He has revealed Himself and worked in my life, I no longer hide my struggles, insecurities, and doubts, but rather offer everything I am — my core — to Him.
Kristy Hong ’17 is an East Asian Studies concentrator living in Leverett House.