Minister’s Musings Among the Mountains – Rev. Alex Holt Week of March 2

“May you live in interesting times.”

I wonder if people remember this phrase above?

‘May you live in interesting times’ is an oft-spoken term that is alleged to be a proverb from ancient China. It certainly sounds wise and appropriately cryptic. It can be meant in many ways and often said as a warning of trouble and danger ahead.

Unfortunately, it is neither Asian or ancient. The history of the term takes it no further back than about 1939. Robert Kennedy used a version of the expression when he gave a speech in 1966:

“There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.”

On one level it’s deeply disappointing that a famous ‘ancient’ and inscrutable phrase isn’t actually very old. We could admit it is inscrutable and can be understood to be interpreted in many ways. Why disappointing, then? It seems to me that we put a particular value on ‘things’ that are passed down from antiquity. Antiques are one example. The Zen temple bell we ring at Westside every Sunday is about 200 years old and was likely a bell at a Zen temple perhaps in China, Japan or Korea. No one knows its history but we do know it makes a beautiful sound every time it’s rung. It has added ‘gravitas’ because of its age and its authenticity.

We could have a long argument about the inauthenticity of the ‘may you live in interesting times’ statement. We could even debate whether its use was cultural misappropriation (even though it wasn’t). I can imagine people becoming passionate defenders or detractors of the statement’s value. One side would proclaim that since it’s not an ‘authentic’ ancient statement from Asia it therefore is without value and should be ignored. Another side might just as forcibly argue that the statement is true whether it’s ‘antique.’

I wonder if that debate is meaningless. Is the statement valuable or not? Does it express some of the conundrum of being human and how we deal with the world?

Yes, we live in dangerous times. No, it really doesn’t matter whether a statement is an ancient Asian (or anyplace else) phrase of wisdom. Does its message apply to us anyway? How do we at Westside respond to such a saying? Can we look at living in interesting times as a positive rather than a negative?

What do you think?

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