More joy in 2024: move down in the world, not up

By Lydia Sohn | Special to the Courier

The new year is almost here. Soon you’ll be inundated with emails and advertisements urging you to move up in the world: pursue a bigger paycheck, elevate your health, manifest your dreams.

I want to say the opposite. Move down in the world. Literally. Touch the soil, roll the grit between your fingers. A little higher, can you name at least five different species of trees or flowers growing around you? And just above that, what about the names of five neighbors? Stop there, don’t go any higher.

I am the daughter of first-generation Korean immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 1980s with small bank accounts and big dreams. Moving down was not something we did. My parents juggled full-time schooling and multiple jobs as wait staff, cleaners, and interns, before setting up their own neighborhood pharmacy in Cerritos, a business that brought in a high six-figure revenue.

The very first home we lived in was a studio apartment where I could touch the kitchen cabinets from my bed. Now my parents live in a large home set on an acre in the Claremont foothills. But they climbed the ladder only to find, in the famous words of Trappist monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, there was nothing at the top. It was only the colors of her garden flowers that cured my mom of her lifelong depression; the scent of her granddaughter’s head that filled her with giddiness.

Looking back, my parents’ lives show two distinct parts: before they started gardening and after.

I kept up their initial immigrant pace, leaving for college, climbing ever upward, even as I returned years later with a husband and two kids in tow to live with them at the start of the pandemic.

One lazy fall Saturday afternoon several months ago my 4-year-old daughter asked me to help her make a flower soup. We grabbed a couple sand buckets we use at the beach and dawdled around my parents’ garden, clipping whatever flowers caught her eye. The colors of crimson, forest green, and bark danced together in a glass bowl, “a magical fairy potion,” she called it. Our activity was so soothing, like a restorative massage. Nothing could have pulled me away from that moment, not a holiday in Paris or a Taylor Swift concert.

But each time my daughter asked me to clip a flower, she did this thing that embarrassed me. She asked, “What’s this one called? What’s this one called?”

Most of the time, I was stumped.

“Mom and dad,” I asked them for the first time that day, “could you share with me the names of the flowers and trees in our garden?” Their faces went blank. Just when they had given up on me, I gave them hope.

Lemon balms, Yarrow dressed in that mustard yellow I love to wear, the live oak tree my brother and I pitched in to buy for my dad’s 50th birthday but I haven’t looked at since, salvia sage flowers so pink and fluttering in the breeze it felt like they were flirting with us.

My dad, who began the tour exhausted, grew in energy as he shared about our land I’d previously taken no interest in.

My kids, who resisted the tour at the start, didn’t want to go back inside the house afterwards, preferring instead to hang out on the ladder leaning against the jujube tree and snack on its ripe fruit.

Most of us believe uprooting ourselves and seeking more is part of making a better life, almost a duty. This blinds us from the abundance here and now, treasures dormant, awaiting our appreciation: our neighbors (human, animal, and plant), the workers in our local shops, the mountains just behind us.

What might happen if you released the pressure to make New Year’s resolutions? What if you no longer fixated on increasing your income, acquiring more, moving up? What if you decided instead to be present, to relish the journey rather than its material results? Panic might seize your body at first. Then, after a few days and some deep breaths, your body might settle into relief, joy even.

Lydia Sohn is a minister, writer, and a longtime Claremont resident. See what she’s up to at


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