Illustration by Diya Gupta

Untitled: Letter to a Professor

I want to cry but don’t know where and when. I want to comfort my friend but don’t know how to.

Mar 24, 2018

Dear Professor,
Good afternoon, Professor. Today I’m writing to you about feelings: how I feel about myself, how I feel about relationships and existence, how I feel about the world and all the seemingly unsolvable questions, issues and losses it begets.
I have been seeing my enthusiasm in college life and in class fade away. I questioned the relevance of what I was learning. But don’t get me wrong. I did not consider even a single class meaningless. Every thesis, every reading and every discussion had meaning. Then I asked myself again, what do those meanings do? I became more nihilistic and pessimistic.
With these thoughts, I contacted my closest friend who is studying in the U.S. and asked how he is doing. We were best friends in Korea for four years but we could not find the time to talk to each other, as we were busy getting used to our new environments. I had a lot to ask and a lot to say about myself, particularly about my latest predicaments. Nevertheless, I did not want to give an impression that I was struggling or that I was again thinking too much because that was the type of person I was for many years, before such personality was mediated thanks to the help of my friends and family.
After much simplification of my inner thoughts, I told him; “Bro, I’m having an existential crisis. Why the fuck am I studying?”
To my surprise, his reply was even more concise than mine.
“I was never interested in studying. I’m just doing it,” he said. I found his reply insufficient, even disappointing.
But then he said something that I have heard from my mom as I was overcoming my puberty, an axiom-like answer which I do sympathize with: “In order to do what you want to do in the future, you also have to study things that you might not necessarily like.”
Though his comment is debatable, one thing is for sure; he was talking about sacrifice.
My conversation with him brought me a different light to my struggle, one which had been turned off so long. Slowly, I began to perceive my asking questions and all the complexities of life as less negative. After all, what matters is what I make of them.
But Professor, forget it. Because everything I wrote above does not make sense. I don’t think it should make sense. It was today while eating lunch I was reminded again that my friend, whom I contacted a week ago, lost his dad. Just like the natural disasters, terrorism, hate, racism and missiles I saw in the news, I was reminded of his death by a handful of newspaper articles from one of the biggest portal sites in Korea. About two weeks ago, I received a call from my mom that my friend’s father, whom I have known for years, was sick and that she was worried that something happened to him because everyone from my friend’s family had changed their profile picture on Messenger to pictures of landscapes or pictures with my friend’s dad, with statuses that were unusually poignant and suggestive.
And today, I saw his name on the news, and though I tried to doubt his name inscribed in abbreviated alphabet letters, my eyes were quick to read the title. He didn’t die of sickness. He killed himself. The executive of the labor union was dead because of inhumane treatment by the company he worked in. And without any conveyance of grief or remorse, the abbreviated initial of his name and his department seemed to say nothing more than the fact that he will no longer be in existence. To me, it does not make any sense to now think of ways to overcome my sorrow. All that drive for change, worthy self-doubt and complexities seem irrelevant to the death of a loved one. I am engulfed with sorrow, anger, disgust and resignation. I want to cry but don’t know where and when. I want to comfort my friend but don’t know how to.
When my friend posted the photo of his dad’s funeral on Facebook and people commented on the photo to pay their condolences, I became hesitant to write anything there. I didn’t know if my comments could help or if others could really understand my friend’s inner state. And that inner state — I could not and can never figure it out.
The fact that I was in Abu Dhabi and he was in Pennsylvania seems to have contributed to widening the emotional gap between us. While some of his friends in the U.S. were able to reach out to him in person, the best I could do was send him texts or call him, which I sometimes hesitated to do.
He was my first ever roommate, in high-school and also in my life. Naturally, we spent so much time together. We ate, hung out, studied, exercised, washed and slept in the same place. Outside of our dorm-life, we were in the same football team, student council, business club and more. Just as he is my friend, he has been my partner in life.
His father’s death affected me because he is my best friend. Even though we could not see each other as much as we wanted to during the recent time of our friendship, he still takes a huge part of my life due to the influence he has given to be throughout the years. Also, though brief, I met his dad personally a few times. It was not a death of just anybody. And while a death of anyone deserves sorrow, grief and sharing of memories, I would not have been influenced to this degree if it were a death of a person I did not know well or I was not close to because as much as emotion leads to proximity, the closeness of people is what creates a bond that is difficult to break.
But don’t worry too much, Professor. I am eating. I am sleeping. I go to the gym and listen to music. I have conversations with my friends, as casually as before. I am a strong person. I believe that having ever more questions and issues in my life and around that of my loved ones should never define me as a weak person. I am trying to find myself but I know that my present struggles will not eternally fixate me into an eternally pessimistic, nihilistic or inactive person. For now, I just want to say that I am coping. And for now, I do not want to hasten my process of coping. I do not want to undermine my sorrow for the sake of say, understanding the complexities of the world or self-realization. I do not want to call either of them a priority because after all, I will need to bear with them and balance them throughout my life. What I want to say is that my focus is going to be on the former for now, and please know that this does not mean the neglect of the latter. I also do not want my friend to hasten his process of coping. No one should ever encourage him to quickly overcome his loss. Still, I am bothered by his Instagram post of him drinking five bottles of alcohol after the funeral is delayed, again, by bureaucratic and political nonsense.
I am coping, Professor. Yet, for now, I would like to ask your understanding for my silence in class for a while when issues like death or its allusion are discussed. I would like you to construe my silence as a way to absorb sorrow and to gradually prepare myself for potential encounters with numerous other equally or more grievous issues. I assure you I am going to get stronger because I need to and want to get stronger to make changes. Also, though I have never asked you this question, if you have a religion, please pray for my friend’s father. It is impossible to aptly describe what kind of person he was on this letter but for sure, he put an immense effort for the betterment of many people in Korea. Lastly, I apologize if this letter is too discursive but I sincerely hope my intention is delivered. And thank you sincerely for your understanding in advance.
Mingu Cho
Mingu Cho is a contributing writer. Email him at feedback@thegazelle.org.
gazelle logo