No Shoes, Please: Thawing in winter

It was astonishing to watch a delegation of both South and North Korean athletes entering PyeongChang Olympic Stadium together for the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony. Notwithstanding worldwide concern over the possibility that President Donald Trump and Dear Leader Kim Jong Un are on the precipice of a nuclear showdown, the Korean Peninsula found a way to communicate and reunite. Amazing.

I’m a sucker for symbolic gestures, though I am aware they often ring hollow. This one, however, didn’t, at least not for me. I thought the South and North Korean athletes looked genuinely happy. Of course, mere participation in the Games is thrilling in and of itself. But as problematic as the North Korean regime has been for decades, and as juvenile and bombastic as the rhetoric between U.S. and North Korean leadership has been of late, I can’t help but think that their jubilation was sincere, and that positive seeds were sown when the host country of the Olympic Games embraced representatives of the Hermit Kingdom as part of the family, indeed, as part of the global community.

At the very least, tensions were eased, except for those plastered on the sour face of Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, when the U.S. athletes marched into the stadium. Ditto for the body language of Mike (and Karen) Pence, who was the only high-ranking official in the dignitaries box who refused to honor the host country’s delegation by remaining seated.

Those Debbie Downer moments aside, it seemed like the ice was broken in a small but highly public fashion. Apparently, South Korea has taken matters into its own hands, ignoring the name-calling tweets and menacing threats, and going the diplomatic, olive-branch route. Well, bully for them.

Peace – world, regional, interpersonal and inner – is always everyone’s goal, but it often turns out to be no one’s responsibility. We take sides, set up terms and conditions, and then stand our ground until the other side gives in. As a result, when peaceful negotiations don’t occur, it becomes someone else’s fault. But stalemates are a huge waste of time, and sometimes a little grace sprinkled over the situation is required – even when grace is the last thing anyone deserves.

This is especially true of North Korea, a country led by an immoral regime whose status and achievements have always been created at the expense of its own people through brutality and corruption. And yet, South Korea reached out anyway, and offered something of value to its repressive neighbor – respect, validation and cooperation.

I don’t know if these Olympic Games are the start of something big with respect to the Korean Peninsula. But I have to applaud the generosity of this year’s host country. It’s not easy to offer an undeserving party a boon, a kindness or an honor. You might even expect to get a bit of criticism for doing it.

But there’s not a person, country or situation that doesn’t deserve grace if for no other reason than that none of us does. I often forget this, which is the irony of claiming my own name. I forget that moral failings and character flaws are part of the package, part of the experience. As Jane Fonda once said, “We’re not meant to be perfect, we’re meant to be whole.” And sometimes to become more complete and humane, we need a helping hand, or need to offer one to someone else. This year, the Olympic Games reminded me of that – the beauty and necessity of grace.

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