I spent the weekend out-of-state with a friend, an annual trip in which we celebrate our February birthdays (and our spinsterhood) over the Valentine’s Day weekend. The drive to and from offered a lot of time to think, and I found my mind drifting to Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia undergraduate who is currently detained in North Korea.
North Korea’s state-run media reports that authorities arrested Warmbier for committing a “hostile act” against their government. In the crazy-pants logic of the Hermit Kingdom, that could mean anything: leaving a Bible in a hotel room, exchanging pleasantries with an unauthorized person, or folding a magazine with the crease across Dear Leader’s face. In Warmbier’s case, he was hauled away by armed guards at the airport on January 2. No one knows why, and no one has seen him since.
The US Department of State’s travel warning about North Korea could not be more clear: DON’T GO. The North Korean government can disappear people for no reason, and unknown thousands–perhaps millions–have perished in state-run detention camps. A recent United Nations report alleges myriad, ongoing “crimes against humanity” in the DPRK, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
Add in some primitive technology and a little famine, and you’ve got yourself a vacation paradise! What a great exercise of privilege to imagine such a place as a tourist destination rather than a hell on earth.
Why did Warmbier go? That’s the part that interests me. He is a super-achieving, well-travelled, politically active 21-year-old from a prosperous Ohio family that can afford to send him to UVA out-of-state. He’s on the dean’s list, serves as his fraternity’s Alumni Relations Chair, and likes vintage clothing. He is an athletic, white man of above-average height with a full head of hair. By every measure, he has the world at his feet and a bright future ahead. Why risk it on a five-day excursion to one of the scariest places on earth with a tour company that brands itself as “the budget North Korea tour operator?” Is this an example of hipster irony run amok?
I suspect that Warmbier was drawn by the sense of risk and the caché associated with defying expectations. I can identify. As I contemplate blowing up my life–quitting my job, going back to school, starting out in a difficult, less lucrative career on the bottom rung in my late 40s–I am carefully parsing my motivations. Part of it is that I am unhappy in my current job, and I feel like I am entitled to be satisfied at my work. Part of it is that I want to be of service to people in a way that academia will never allow me to be. Part of it is that I am specifically drawn to nursing because I know people who have entered that profession late in life, they seem happy, and I admire their accomplishments. And part of it is that I like the idea of it–the audacity, the unexpectedness, and the courage it would require. I relish the thought of telling certain people, seeing the incredulous looks on their faces, then dismissing their objections in the ultimate peace-out, mic drop moment. And I revel in the essential narrative arc, because it is ennobling and empowering: I had the Golden Ticket of a tenured position at a Research I university, and I walked away to take care of sick people.
Put simply, it’s a better story than the one I am living.
When Otto Warmbier told his friends, parents, and professors that he was going to visit North Korea over winter break, they undoubtedly expressed surprise and concern. I suspect they asked him “Why?” in tones approaching exasperation. I suspect that he answered glibly with something like “Why not?” or “Because it’s there.” Perhaps he was also honest about his desire to do the unexpected, to have a coveted experience defined by its uniqueness, and to demonstrate his courage in venturing to a place few would dare to visit. But did traveling to North Korea make him brave, or merely foolish? As Nigel and David point out in “This Is Spinal Tap,” it’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.
Did Warmbier have doubts? He must have. But he powered through them, having committed to a narrative of success in his mind that affirmed, in advance of the outcome, the rightness of his choice.
Do I have doubts about the path I am on? Absolutely. Why do I continue?
Some of it is practical: I’ve already paid the tuition, so I might as well finish the class! Some of it is strategic: Nothing is firm, and I am merely giving myself choices to be executed at a later date. Some of it is joy: To my great shock, I LOVE learning about the human body! And some of it is pure stubbornness and pride: I’ll do it because I said I would.
That’s the part that scares me. I hatched this plan, I discussed it with others, and I have excited my friends about an alternative narrative for my future. I don’t want to let anyone down, least of all myself. Having shaken up my life like a snow globe, it’s awfully anticlimactic to just let the white bits settle back down to the bottom as though nothing happened. It would take tremendous courage for me to walk away from my career and return to school (nursing or otherwise), or even just to take another kind of job. But it might take even more courage to fully consider those options, and take steps to make them viable, only to settle on living out the rest of my life in the status quo.
I don’t know what will make me brave, let alone happy. But I do know that sometimes the greatest act of courage is not doing something. Otto Warmbier demonstrated nerves of steel (but scant common sense) when he boarded that Chinese airliner destined for Pyongyang. Heading back to Charlottesville without seeing the Hermit Kingdom would have required a different sort of bravery–a self-awareness and confidence that allows us to appreciate what we have, endure the ignominy of leaving a challenge unmet, and cut our losses without regret.
It’s the kind of bravery you acquire by living–enduring–to see middle age. If we enlisted 40-somethings with mortgages and acid reflux for military service, instead of kids with bad judgment and big dreams, there would be no more war.
* The title of this post is an homage (not a critique) of my friend’s blog, Learning to Be Brave. She has an amazing story, she’s an amazing writer, and it is worth your time!