ER Horror… and Why I Think “Just Bear It” is so Toxic

Miss Jiwaku needed to go to the ER the other night — no worries, she turned out surprisingly okay — but we saw people in pain, and the worst pain we saw was, indeed, emotional.

There was a family in which the son had some kind of respiratory problem. He’d just had minor surgery and was recovering. His mom and younger brother had brought him in, and I can only guess that the father had been out with his buddies, drinking, because he seemed to show up all of a sudden and start shouting at people. Yes, shouting: it was a good ten minute screaming match right in front of the check-in desk, where the nurses were working, including such wonderful standbys as, “Twenty minutes! We’ve been waiting twenty minutes! How dare you make us wait!” and, to an intern trying to calm him down, “How old are you?”

(“How old are you?” seems, in such contexts, to be the local version of the globally familiar asshole’s response to anything: “Who do you think you are?” It’s a testament to the way things work here with security guards that the dad was able to stay there, in front of the counter, shouting for ten minutes, and that he was not, at any point then or after, removed forcibly from the hospital, despite his disturbing a few dozen other patients and a dozen or more staff. The security guard (and some EMTs) just sort of stood there, letting the doctor argue and hoping it didn’t escalate.)

Meanwhile, not far away from this scene, a woman wept over the child that had just died minutes before in the ER, and this moron was shouting that he didn’t want to wait anymore, it was time to go him. (“Recovery time from minor surgery? To hell with that, I wanna sleep!”)

The transformation apparent in the family was amazing every time the father showed up nearby. When he wasn’t around, they were talkative, compassionate, and very clearly close and affectionate. The son who’d had his surgery, a high school boy, was proud of having been calm during the procedure and reassured his mom that he was okay. The mom was supportive and sweet to her son, and the younger brother, while a bit distant, seemed like a normal person.

As soon as the dad showed up, everyone else in the family lowered their heads (in that way that you know, in all primates from gorilla to human, means the potentially violent member of the tribe is nearby), and spoke only when spoken to, in hushed and anxious tones.

The son essentially played a fatherly role to his drunk father, and the father acted like a teenager. At one point, he was saying, “I’m gonna go get a snack,” and the wife asked, “Have you eaten dinner?” He just said, “I dunno, whatever, gonna get a snack.” Then he came back and offered some to his son, who gently and in a very adult tone pointed out he couldn’t eat since he was in recovery. The younger son, when the father was around, fled to the nearest chair, which (not coincidentally) happened to be exactly as far from the rest of the family as possible without seemingly like he was trying to distance himself.

The dad finally decided he’d had enough, and showed up at the side of his son’s cot to announce that mom and dad were going home. The son who was in recovery pointed out that the next day was the first day of school (or, I’m guessing registration day?), and he couldn’t miss it. The dad said, “Feh! Don’t go! We’re going home. Come on…” He did not like it when his wife pointed out that their kid had just had surgery and it was wrong to leave him alone in the ER overnight. Then the dad hung around, commanding family members to do things and complaining, basically until we left.

It was very clear that everyone in the family was both afraid of, and disgusted by, the dad. It was pretty clear, too, that this was not just a new feeling based on new behaviour. When you see that sort of family, you can’t help but wonder why the wife puts up with it. This old song ran through my mind:

Which pretty much argues that regardless of whatever victimhood abused women have a claim to, they also have responsibility and are complicit in their abuse when they stay in that situation. Is that simplifying? Yes, it is… for example, the mom in the family I saw last night has crossed eyes, and is in her forties. Given the job market, given her age, given the status of women in Korea, it’d be, financially, very difficult for her to leave, even if she decided that staying was doing her and their children too much harm. So yes, it’s the system, it’s the sexism, and so on…

Except I don’t think that’s quite true. On seeing the effect the man had on the rest of the family, it’s hard not to think in terms of emotional and psychological harm. Looking at the sons talk to their father, it was pretty clear that they both hated him and the wife was absolutely miserable whenever he was around. What I’m saying is I’m not sure whether the economic difficulties they’d face absent the father would actually be anywhere near as painful or damaging as the psychological difficulties they face because they stay with him.

All of that, of course, is universal. We see it all over the world. This story could, with minor changes (like replacing, “How old are you?” with “Who the !#&% do you think you are?”) unfold in ERs all over the world.

But the next day, as Miss Jiwaku talked with a female friends she knows about a relationship gone sour — the friend’s boyfriend said an unthinkably hurtful thing to her, but she’s still with him — two things hit me: the first is that some people simply internalize a sense of not deserving better. Of course, we know this, but… what to do about it? As their conversation unfolded, it became clear that people overturn such internalized beliefs only when they themselves are good and ready. Which is quite frustrating, but also simply self-destructive. A lot of decent people consign themselves to emotional hell — and, in turn, consign themselves to largely unproductive, unfulfilling, and unhappy lives —  such adjectives also describe well the childhoods of their kids. When you multiply out the lives lived in misery, what you get is… well, I doubt many kids from such homes do things like study science, go into the arts, or even become innovative businesspeople. You get people who are permanently treading water in their personal and professional lives, unless and until they get some therapy or, perhaps, revenge on their abusive parent.

If “Just Do It” is Nike’s distillation of the American way of thinking — hey, if there’s something you want to do, get up off your ass and just do it! — then Korea’s response seems to be “Just Bear It” and that’s a revealing, and saddening, realization to face.

The other realization was that is is precisely why I think the whole “bear it” meme that is so widespread in Korea is also so toxic. Pretty much everytime someone I know is doing something against his or her better judgment, something he or she clearly ought not to be doing — working a job he or she absolutely hates, coddling an abusive or infantile parent, turning down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, or studying a subject for which he or she feels no interest — you can usually find a number of people have told the person that it’s important to “just bear it” — ie. bear with it, put up with your dissatisfaction, ignore your instincts, and do the thing you know you shouldn’t.

In any case, we left the hospital quite late at night; the family was still there, and as we left, I wondered what to wish for them. I don’t think wishing harm to people is necessarily wrong, depending on the circumstance, but any fate I can imagine would translate to improverishment for the others. On the other hand, maybe losing him in a car accident (or an amuptation or something) it’d be the most freeing moment of their lives, even if they didn’t realize it till later. It’s a sad, sad situation.

2 thoughts on “ER Horror… and Why I Think “Just Bear It” is so Toxic

  1. I’ve heard the term, “endure,” bandied about a lot here in South Korea along those same lines. Actually, I’ve been really close to enduring another year here for many reasons, but I witnessed a boyfriend’s assault (actually nearly a murder) on a girlfriend tonight that I could not step into and break up because of my low status and realized that I cannot endure another year of a populace refusing to step in and lend a saving hand for a fellow human being as it disgusts me to no end.

    However, if you ever want to see what a great father can mean to someone who truly needed one more than most of us, take a look at this documentary about a truly remarkable human being. There are “no excuses” for not doing your best after you meet Kyle Maynard.

  2. John,

    God, that sounds horrible — the assault/nmearly murder, I mean. Literally nearly murder?

    I suspect if I thought murder was possible I’d step in anyway — I don’t think I’ve managed to decivilize msyelf that much, though I did tell a newcomer friend to cross the street and carry on his way if he saw a boyfriend-beating-up-girlfriend-on-the-sidewalk, lest he be tempted to intervene and then have it all blamed on him and be deported. I know what you mean, though, and share your feelings about the level of compassion one sees here at times.

    The documentary looks good — thanks for the link!

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