Tuesday, September 7, 2010

To Live in Interesting Times

I remember many years ago one of my colleagues from the marketing department at MONY sent out an ancient Chinese blessing in an email: "May you live in interesting times." He was a friend of mine, so I didn't feel too awkward in letting him know that that saying is generally interpreted not as a blessing, but as a curse.Why would that be, you might wonder?

Well, for most of man's existence, "interesting" times involved plague, privation, rape, pillage and/or murder. In "civilized" times, you might find yourself invaded by a neighboring state or simply abused by your own nobility. Nobility being those individuals who had, by hook or by crook, amassed enough wealth and power to control their own lives (to an extent) and the lives of others around them. You are probably not descended from nobles, just as I'm reasonably certain I wasn't. Only a tiny fraction of the population ever lived a life of privilege. Everyone else served at their whim, digging in the dirt to eke out a meager living and, mostly, just hoping to be left the hell alone.

Which brings us back to our subject - if you were a peasant, a laborer, a slave, a conscript or anyone who wasn't a "wheeler and dealer" at the upper crust of society, you wanted your life to be as boring as possible. You'd celebrate a few festivals and holidays each year, you'd get married, and you'd make your obeisance to your cultural deities, and the rest of your life was hard, backbreaking, brutal work interspersed with moments of blind terror when the elements raged or disease spread through the community or word came that some band of marauders was going to come take what little you had - your food, your girls, or your life.

You have to really think about that sort of life - the sort of life that a thousand generations of your ancestors and mine had to endure. Did endure, in fact - at least long enough to procreate, or we wouldn't be here today. You have to really think about it to appreciate how different our lives are today. I have a garden, but it's terrible and I'm terrible at it. It's certainly a far cry from my great-great grandparents hoeing in the dirt of central Italy, hoping that their crops produce well enough to feed everybody. Because if they didn't, they might die. No food pantries, no welfare, just, "Sorry, papa, it looks like one of your children has starved to death. Hopefully the crops will be better next year." I'm so indifferent to my vegetables that I often forget to water them, and when the weeds get out of control I give up and wander off. I mean, what the hell, right? It's not as if most of my family will eat a vegetable anyway.

But our lives are different. So different, in fact, that we don't recognize a serious curse when we see one anymore. We crave excitement now. We appreciate a distraction from our dull, mundane lives. Because we know it's probably not going to affect us in any meaningful way. We have legions of reporters, journalists, pundits, talking-heads, hosts and personalities who can fill up the entire day with "interesting" stories about things that are going on in the world. We love it. We eat it up. Because we know that the bodies they found in Mexico or the victim in the auto accident or the soldiers killed in Afghanistan are not us, and aren't likely to be anybody we know. Even when something major - something really big - happens, it's still not the Huns riding in and burning our homes and carrying off our women.

Take September 11th, for example (the 9th anniversary of which is this coming Saturday). It's one of the biggest things to happen to our country this generation, but how much did it really change YOUR life? If you lost somebody in the towers or on one of the flights, you have my condolences. If you went to Iraq or Afghanistan, or lost someone there, you have my gratitude for the service. But for most of us, the principle impact has been annoyance in the security line at the airport. Likewise with diseases, insects, lawlessness, and most other calamities that could - but no longer do - plague the first world nations. We live in an era of almost unprecedented peace and prosperity. Compared to most of our predecessors, we live like lords, at least in terms of our access to food, comfort, healthcare and luxury. It's truly impossible for us to imagine what it was like to be alive in the past, unless, perhaps, we've visited a country ravaged by war or suffering from a lack of basic services.

The good news is that it gives me something to write about. It's easy to make a world that's familiar and at the same time horrific - just take modern society and then remove those aspects that make it peaceful and pleasant. Collapse the infrastructure and then show the people living among the ruins. In the truest, most awful sense of the word, those would be interesting times

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