“May you live in interesting times.”
The phrase is supposedly a Chinese curse, something you say to your enemies as a semi-threatening farewell. Despite the fact that it’s not actually Chinese but an English creation and mis-attribution, it still stands as a small, lingering phrase of fear and menace. No one wants to live in volatile times. Like saying someone is “late” when they’re dead, “interesting” is a nice, sanitized way to describe change, upheaval, and conflict.
Lately I’ve been thinking about and hearing this curse everywhere: “We now move into what will promise to be interesting times.” “These certainly are interesting times.” “What interesting times we live in.”
“Interesting” has come to embody all the fear and anger and hate boiling in our society right now. It’s a bit hard to take in, honestly. I studied in New Zealand last semester, and when I was recently talking to a friend I made there, he asked me how America was doing. I said there are literally protests every day. It’s seems a bit surreal to say that, like I’m living in a film reel or in a strange alt-history novel. I still can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that this is really happening, that I’m living in “interesting times.”
But then I researched the phrase and found this: Around the turn of the 20th century, the British politician Joseph Chamberlain, in reportedly the first public use of the phrase, said,
“I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and, let me say also, new objects for anxiety.”
He was speaking during the peak of the British empire and tyranny, a time in which workers and women were fighting for rights, in which the Industrial Revolution was producing inventions that would eventually change how people everywhere would live, in which the U.S. was first becoming an imperialistic world power, and in which WWI was starting to loom upon the horizon. Power was shifting, technology was transforming, and people were fed up.
Any historian would tell you, current events aren’t wholly original, that history runs in a cyclical pattern, in looping cycles of equilibrium and entropy. Societies are always shifting as the forces of power and technology move in predictable pendulum swings. History does in fact repeat no matter how much a civilization advances. So, from a larger historical perspective, “interesting times” are nothing unusual.
Still, no one wants to live during a period of turmoil and tension. “Interesting times” are uncomfortable at best, lethal at worst. They often contain war and protest, economic upheaval and social transformation. “Interesting times” may not be uncommon but that fact doesn’t make them any less unpleasant to live in.But (to borrow from what Noam Chomsky said in Requiem for the American Dream) “interesting times” do result in general progress. Take the 1960s – 70s for example. It was a period of time in which politicians were using the system to play out their own illusions of grandeur and righteousness during the Cold War and where protests and riots were shaking the foundations of the country from coast to coast. While a lot of that upheaval lead straight into the disillusionment of the post-Nixon era and then into the blind optimism of Ronald Reagan, it did result in positive changes that are still with us. Women were freed from the home and minorities were on a slightly more equal footing with the civil rights amendments.
Even the turmoil at the beginning of the 20th century — the time that Chamberlain was complaining about — resulted in (white) women’s right to vote, workers’ rights, and the creation of the middle class.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to see those pieces of progress when you’re in the middle of the preceding change and confusion. My stomach still churns when I read about the events that are slowly and chaotically unfolding around me. I don’t know if and when the tension in my shoulders will ease, and I will be able to fully accept what the world is becoming.
Yet I still try to take some comfort in the perspective of the past, hoping that history will follow the path it always takes and that positive progress will happen as a result of all this. As the doctor-in-training said to me the night of the election to help calm my growing panic:
“This will be a defibrillator for change.”