On Life and Death

I recently watched a Korean movie titled The Fortress. It’s a movie, based on a novel by the same name, which, itself, is based on the historical events that happened in Korea during the Joseon dynasty, specifically during the power struggle between the Ming and Qing dynasties. But it’s not a documentary. It’s a dramatization of historical events, with a focus on a single point of contention — life and death.

A little historical context would help. During the failed Japanese invasion attempts of Korea during the 16th century, the Ming dynasty sent troops to Korea for 7 years to help ward off the invading forces. Years later, with the Ming dynasty in decline, a rising power in the Manchu region was seeking to overthrow the Ming, and set up a new empire — the Qing. During this struggle, the Qing continuously pressured Korea into renouncing Ming, and acknowledging Qing as its “patriarch”. As Joseon, the dynasty in Korea at the time, refused to such terms, Qing forces invaded the nation, and besieged the Korean king in a fortress atop a mountain just south of the capital. The royal court is split on what to do. One faction wants to stand their ground and fight. Another wishes to appease the Qing, and find a way to make peace, even if it means ceding the royal heir as tribute to the Qing. This is where the story begins.

At first, the whole argument seems moot. It seems clear what the king needs to do. And yet, as the movie progresses, it quickly becomes apparent that the issue at hand is more complicated than that. It’s not a matter of a stubborn king refusing to see the circumstances at hand, but rather, it’s a matter of life and death. Does he go down in history as the courageous king who kept his word to the Ming, and died trying to defend his honor, or does he get remembered for his realistic approach to policy, and his ability to give up his honor if it meant saving his subjects?

We, too, face this question in our lives, albeit, in different wording. Are you willing to die for your beliefs? On the surface, it seems like an easy question. No belief seems to be worth giving up one’s life for. But that’s precisely what martyrdom entails. Perhaps, even military service. Police duty, political activist, even UN peacekeeping — these all require you to put your life on the line to protect what you believe. And if you think, because you don’t work in these fields that you’re off the hook, don’t, for a second, fool yourself. It’s a very different type of death, but it’s death nonetheless. Are you willing to risk becoming an outcast and become a whistle blower when situation requires it? Are you willing to do the right thing even if that means you may risk everything you have? Are you willing to give up the material plenty you command to right the wrongs committed?

Are the things you’re protecting right now, whether you’re protecting them physically or otherwise, worth it?

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