2023 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Junior first place (tie)
first place, junior essay division
Title: Risk and Reward
If the act is righteous, so too will be the reward. Particularly in times of strife, in a world of others so egregious that greed is normalized, keeping oneself from pursuing self-interest is easier said than done, but doing so can ensure that life is full of serendipity. Such serendipity can mean losing a tool vital to one’s only source of income, but in exchange for a tool of far more quality, as was in the short story “The Golden Ax and the Silver Ax.” The protagonist, an impoverished woodcutter with an aging mother, gets more than what he bargained for because he made sure to keep his values in check. Modesty served him well.
Modesty is a gamble. There must be trust that the world will not take advantage of this lowly position that respect for authority and compassion can often put one in. When the rich are kind, it fortifies their power, but when the poor are kind, they give away power. In the story, the woodcutter is shown to be modest when he “dropped into a deep bow.” He was fully aware that Shilyongnim was a heavenly being “who could, if he wished, make everything right.” Yet, upon seeing the being who could very well give it to him, he doesn’t demand gold or silver. At this point, the woodcutter’s life is already at a loss, his prospects looking bleak. His mother is aging, his hands are clammy with toil, and he has to keep up the difficult physical labor of chopping trees down or he won’t have any money. Every. Single. Day. And now, he’s been deprived of his only ax! Clearly upset, he could have chosen to displace his anger, to take it all out on Shilyongnim. But he doesn’t. He’s able to keep level-headed, and it proves valuable, this risk of maintaining modesty.
If modesty is a gamble, the side gambling against you is probably also wanting something. So, what does Shilyongnim get? He’s a divine being and could act like a total snob head if he wants; he’s the one with power here. However, he is nothing more than sympathetic towards him. He is so caring, indeed, that he dives into murky waters to retrieve the lost ax. When he comes up the first time, he brings a golden ax, which the woodcutter denies to be his. A second time, he comes bearing a silver ax, and the woodcutter does the same. Only the last time, when he brings up the rusty old ax, does the woodcutter accept the gift and thank him profusely. Why, though? He could have taken the more valuable axes. They were beautiful. But they weren’t his. He covets not, taking only what he thinks himself deserving of. He doesn’t pretend to be something he isn’t, because that would be pretending that he’s better than someone, and that is a rather unkind thing to do. Because of this, Shilyongnim chooses to present to him a simple act of kindness, presenting to him all three of the axes, and that must make him just as happy as it did the woodcutter.
If Shilyongnim can choose to do this for everyone, why doesn’t he? It’s worth noting that someone else might have dropped those axes into the water, but Shilyongnim didn’t rise up to give them their axes, or else they would have left with them earlier. This too can be read as a result of modesty; perhaps, those previous woodcutters were greedy and thus undeserving of getting their axes back, so Shilyongnim did not come to return them. Maybe they bought the axes with stolen money. The woodcutter would be more rich if he were a thief, but he is too modest for such a deed. It is the good in the woodcutter that inspires Shilyongnim to service him, starting a cycle of good. It empowers him; Shilyongnim would help everyone if they all deserved it, but that isn’t the case.
In the world, it’s easy to slip into greed, but the story “The Golden Ax and the Silver Ax” was created to inspire the deed of staying humble and acting in kindness. A little modesty can give a person more than they bargained for. Is it worth it?