This article by Dr. Luke Kim is part of a series designed to teach families about Korean culture. For a listing of all the articles in the series, click here.
Palja means "fate" or "destiny," and is derived from terminology used in fortune telling. In the traditional Korean and Asian societies, a person's role and life status were essentially predetermined, not only by one's gender and birth order, but also by one's social status, role, and the position accorded by one's family status and heritage. Individuals had little control over their lives. Using the modern psychological terminology, one's locus of control is not within oneself, but in the hands of fate and destiny.
How were people to cope with their misfortunes of not their own making? They were to accept their fate with a stoic, fatalistic, or religious and philosophical attitude: "That is my palja," "that is my fate." In the old days, acceptance of one's own palja was probably the only option available.
Going along with fate through non-action, and accepting the nature the way it is, is the essence of Taoism. This is one of the strong reasons why religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism, and the philosophy of Confucianism have appealed to, and thrived among, so many Koreans.
Religions help people cope with woes of life and accept their palja more readily. But now better educated, younger generations do not adopt stoicism and fatalism as did older generations. Nonetheless, because historically Koreans have suffered a lot, the idea of palja has a firm hold among Koreans.
With the beginning of the 20th century, people all over the world developed such a strong confidence and faith in the advancement of science and technology that people thought that humankind can chart the course of nature and can solve all the problems at hands with science and technology. I think the arrogance of science has emerged. In recent years, however, people began to realize the limitation as well as potential destructiveness of science and technology.
People begin to have more awareness of ecological issues and respect for nature. Earthquake, natural calamities, the unchanging viciousness of human nature, unsolved medical disease, such as cancer, immune disorders, genetic factors in many diseases, etc., all point to the power of the nature, in spite of the scientific efforts to harness and control the nature. Even in the U.S., people are now beginning to talk more about fate, acceptance and surrender. The rapid increase of conservative Christian movement and the popular books, such as "Care of the Soul" reflect the new mood and awareness of the limitation of human's own power and self-sufficiency. Palja is still alive and well.
Luke Kim, M.D., Ph.D. is a clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California School of Medicine. He is a board member of Friends of Korea organization in Sacramento, California, and a friend and supporter of Korean Quarterly newspaper.
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