“May you live in interesting times”
Many of us have heard this wise expression over the years. It sounds astute and supposedly it comes from Asian proverb sayings. The saying has been widely shared especially in these difficult days in America and the world. Another expression that says the Chinese character for ‘crisis’ are the symbols for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. We can find these two expressions in business circles, New Age websites and many other places online.
Unfortunately, neither of them come from Asian traditions. The first expression “may you live in interesting times’ appears to have been conceived in the ‘60’s here in America. The other expression on the Chinese characters is attributed to President John F. Kennedy from a speech he gave in his 1960 Presidential campaign. The error in character meaning is explained at this website link: https://workplacepsychology.net/2014/08/10/in-chinese-crisis-does-not-mean-danger-and-opportunity/
So, they aren’t authentic ‘wise Asian sayings of wisdom.’ Does that make them untrue in the larger context of meaning?
Both speak to the ambiguities of life. They can be a curse or a blessing.
“May you live in interesting times” was a curse when it was created in the ‘60’s. I was at a party once and overheard a conversation that went something like this:
Person 1: “I have two choices. I can sabotage the work of my manager so they look bad or I can pretend to go along with them until they make a fatal mistake and have to quit.”
Person 2: “That’s pretty harsh, don’t you think?”
Person 1: “No, the person’s an idiot and I was passed over for that job. I’ll get even.”
Person 2: (walks away drink in hand and shaking head) “may you live in interesting times, friend.”
We are living in an era fraught with terms like ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts,’ and very questionable use of quotes from famous people. It’s perhaps tempting to use such suspect words and ‘facts’ as verbal ammunition against those with whom we disagree. They then find their own versions of wise sayings and ‘facts’ that support their side.
How do we respond as Unitarian Universalists? We can ask several questions about any statement or ‘fact’ we hear and want to use. One question is “is this true?” Was it really said by such-and-such famous person? Is it really a wise ancient saying from Asia? If it is true, then fine. If not, we then ask the second question: ‘is this applicable wisdom to help us discern truth regardless of source?”
There’s a third question to ask: “do we really need to make our opinions more ‘authentic’ by citing them from famous people like Einstein or ancient sages of Asia?”
We will likely find ourselves as UU folks in situations where we want to use quotes, sayings and other information to express our opinion. It seems to me we then have a duty to ask ourselves “is this true”, “is this wise,” and “is what we are saying wisdom from our own life story and insights?”
‘Truth’ is a slippery term at the best of times. What I hope we can do as UU folks is provide a high standard of truth-telling to others as well as to ourselves. We can be examples of critical thinking at its best in an age of post-truth assertions.
As the “X-Files” nearly always said in an episode “The truth is out there.” Perhaps it is but we can be exemplars of how to choose between idealistic truth and factual truth. Might that task of discernment be part of our ministry to ourselves and the world beyond our walls?
What do you think?