My Truest Hope

A successful engineer relies on faith and forgiveness to conquer depression.

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Posted in , Jul 20, 2012

Hi-Dong Chai

One of my most treasured possessions is a small, framed photograph. It is a simple black-and-white picture of an elderly woman. Her eyes are closed, her hands clasped, her head bowed. The woman is my mother, not long before she died at age 92.

I keep the picture in my home office, on a windowsill beside my computer, where I see it every day. You could say the story of that photo is the story of my life. It is especially the story of a dark and frightening time in my life, when I nearly threw everything away.

My mother saved me then. Or I should say, her faith saved me. All her life Mother never stopped praying. At last I discovered why.

I loved my mother deeply, but for most of my life I did not follow her example. I did not pray like she did and I did not live to love others.

From the moment I arrived in America as a teenager I worked. Hard. I became an electrical engineer at IBM, then a college professor. I married an American woman, Phyllis, and raised a son and daughter. I owned a house in San Jose and a cabin in the mountains. I played golf.

By the time I reached my fifties I was proud of my accomplishments. My family had been penniless refugees during the Korean War. Now I was a successful American.

Everything changed one morning when I woke up and noticed something strange at breakfast. My coffee had no taste. Did Phyllis switch brands? I wondered.

A few days later in class I raised my arm to write on the chalkboard and felt faint. My arm dropped to my side. My students stared at me. “Must be getting old!” I tried to joke when I recovered myself.

Soon everything I ate and drank had no taste. I lost interest in teaching. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. A fog settled over me. My life, which I’d worked so hard to achieve, suddenly felt like a struggle. It had no taste. It seemed utterly pointless.

My doctor gave me tests but found nothing. As I was leaving his office he handed me a pamphlet. Depression was the title. The moment I got outside I crumpled up the pamphlet and threw it away. How insulting!

In Korea, where I grew up, depression was considered a sign of weakness, even insanity. Besides, what did I have to be depressed about?

True, I’d lived through hardship, but so had almost everyone in Korea in those years. My older brother Hi-Seung died after being conscripted into the Japanese army during World War II. My father, a Christian pastor, was taken away by invading North Korean soldiers and never returned. My family nearly starved during the Korean War. I waved goodbye to my mother from the deck of a freighter carrying me to America when I was just 16.

But I’d put my family’s wartime trauma behind me years ago. My father worshipped a no-nonsense God and he expected us to do our duty, to endure without complaining. I’m not depressed, I told myself. I will get better on my own.

I didn’t tell Phyllis about my symptoms. She worked as a nurse and was very involved at our church. Our kids were in high school and college. They had busy lives. Why burden them with such nonsense?

I managed to get up and go to work each day. Yet the fog over me thickened. My routine felt draining. My success meant nothing.

One weekend I drove alone to our cabin in the mountains. To my own surprise I found myself sitting on the floor with a knife in my hand. Who will miss me when I’m gone? No one.

At the last minute I remembered my father and became frightened. He had been very clear about what happened to people who disobeyed God. I looked around the cabin. What are you doing, Hi-Dong? Get out of here!

I returned home and admitted to Phyllis what I’d almost done. “Hi-Dong, why didn’t you tell me?” she cried. “How long have you been feeling this way?”

“A few months,” I mumbled. I felt so ashamed, consumed by guilt and remorse and self-recrimination.

“I’m going to make some calls,” said Phyllis. “We’re going to find you a psychiatrist. We are going to get you help.”

Phyllis had to force me to go to my first appointment with Dr. Cavanaugh. I answered his initial questions like one of the robots my IBM colleagues had worked on years ago. Then he said, “Tell me about your parents.”

I stiffened. “My father was a pastor. He died when I was young,” I said. “I don’t have many memories of him. I will tell you about my mother.”

“Okay,” said Dr. Cavanaugh.

So I talked about how every morning I awoke to find my mother praying. She made me breakfast and we said prayers before I went to school.

My father didn’t earn much as a pastor so Mother took in boarders. She sewed all our clothes, including school uniforms for me and my three brothers and two sisters. When parishioners from the countryside churches where my father preached came to visit, she welcomed them, and the chickens and other animals they brought. She fed them and gave them advice.

She talked to God out loud through the day; he was a constant source of love and support. Only once did I see her pain. Passing Hi-Seung’s room one day not long after he died from his war wounds I noticed someone inside. Mother.

She sat on my brother’s bed clutching to her chest the small box with his ashes. Her face was anguished. Yet even then she was not weeping. Even then she was praying.

“Mother moved to America and lived with my sister in Cupertino. She died two years ago. She is gone now. So that part of my life is over.”

“I see,” said Dr. Cavanaugh.

He told me my depression stemmed from keeping my feelings inside about my wartime trauma in Korea, triggered most likely by my mother’s recent death. In subsequent sessions he encouraged me to “feel those feelings” and talk them out.

I did as instructed, but I didn’t see the point. Feelings are of no use in engineering. Besides, hadn’t Father taught that God desires obedience? Not giving in to emotions! Not weakness!

One day Dr. Cavanaugh said, “I’ve noticed something, Hi-Dong. You’ve told me a great deal about your life. But whenever I ask about your father you say very little. Tell me about him, whatever comes to mind.” For a long moment I sat there, silent. Dr. Cavanaugh waited.

Reluctantly I began to talk about my father, how dedicated he’d been to his work, how loving yet strict he was at home. “I loved him but feared him.” Why did I feel so uneasy talking about my father? At last I came to the day the North Korean soldiers took him away.

“I had gone with Father to tend our community garden,” I said. “When we got home we saw two soldiers talking with Mother at the gate. ‘We are holding a meeting to talk about what will happen to the churches now that Seoul is part of North Korea,’ the soldiers said to Father. ‘Please come with us.’

“Father did not look frightened. He only said, ‘I have not had breakfast. Let me go inside, eat and change my clothes.’ The soldiers said, ‘That will not be necessary.’

Father and Mother looked at each other. Father looked at me. Then, with the soldiers on either side, he walked back out the gate and down the road. We never saw him again. I was thirteen.”

I stopped. I realized my cheeks were wet. I buried my face in my hands. I felt Dr. Cavanaugh at my side handing me a tissue. “I didn’t do anything to save him,” I sobbed. “I didn’t do anything…”

At last the tears subsided. An image came to my mind. I could see it as clearly as if it were right in front of me. A black-and-white photograph of Mother praying. My nephew had taken the picture shortly before Mother died.

I thought of all the times I’d seen her praying. The time I’d found her clutching my brother’s ashes. Who was this God Mother prayed to? This God who was always there, not to judge but to forgive and to love? To give hope in our hardest struggles. Was that God there for me too?

In my heart I knew he was. And not only for me. Even for my father. How else could he have found the strength to go so bravely to his death? It was because he knew God would receive him with loving arms.

I did not have to feel guilty for failing to save Father. I could reach out in prayer, not in weakness but in strength.

“I think I’m ready to deal with this now,” I said to Dr. Cavanaugh. “Thank you.”

That was my final session with Dr. Cavanaugh. From that day my depression lifted, not all at once but like fog being blown off to sea. I try to live every day with peace, joy and grace.

I keep my photo of Mother praying where I can see it so that I remember the faith that sustained her through untold hardships. And if dark thoughts come, I turn, as my mother did, to that faith in a light that brings us through our darkest hours.

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