May You Live in Interesting Times

“May you live in interesting times.” This well-known Chinese prophecy can be taken as either a curse or a blessing, depending on how you look at it. Yet its origin/author remains unknown, and the Chinese themselves seem to know nothing about it. One online source traces the aphorism to the ominous statement that “We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.”

That describes my odd lunch last week with my friend Drew and the story I relayed to him. We settled in at a restaurant that we both enjoy – more for its ambiance, to be honest, than its menu. The brick walls and wooden floors create a certain inviting, rustic warmth to the high-ceilinged main dining room whose large windows overlook a quaint, turn-of-the-century-looking section of Grass Valley in Northern California. Its narrow streets would probably never know the tensions of full-on traffic jams and its charm might only be heightened by some plucky banjo music in the background and the sound of horses clomping outside before being tethered to their hitching posts.

In some bizarre comedy of errors, it took the waitress 3 trips to get our orders right. Apparently it was a “bad-chef day.” The cook must have been distracted, adding items to both our orders that were not on the menu, and omitting some that were. Raw scallions, for one thing, don’t agree with me. The waitress assured me they were thoroughly steamed – which they weren’t. So I picked out the tiny green circles with my fork and made a perky little Lego-like pile out of them beside my plate.

Indeed, I was in that moment living in interesting times, with a dish that in no way resembled what I’d ordered. The conversation turned to my own experience of the Chinese wisdom.

“It seems everyone’s getting angry with me right now, and I don’t know why,” I said to Drew. My friend listened with attention, impatient for the waitress to bring more half ‘n half for his coffee refill.

I continued. “First, a friend got upset with me on the phone. I had to assure her I didn’t mean what she thought I meant. Then another friend, from whom I’d just had a great massage, got all stomp-y and hurrumph-y when I admitted I hadn’t followed her advice to use cold packs for a bruised  shoulder.”

“Hmm,” he said supportively. “Maybe there’s something else going on here, ya think?”

“It seems like everyone’s thoroughly miffed with me lately. I really don’t feel I deserve that kind of treatment.” Another sliver of raw scallion emerged from my tofu scramble, and I balanced it on top of the pyramid-shaped pile next to my plate.

“Well, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned,” Drew offered. “When a situation repeats itself, I often find it’s to catch my attention.”

“Could be.” We finished the meal and split one of the restaurant’s specialties, a bear claw pastry, warmed by my request in the broiler. (Personally, I avoid microwave ovens like the plague, even though it sometimes causes me to get teased  by my close friends.)

After running a few errands, I went for a swim at the health club – gratefully a mostly-salt-water pool, with less chlorine than most pools. The water, for me, is a welcome sanctuary – a place that’s safe, healing, and restorative. As was often the case, swimmers had to double up in their lanes. I chose a middle lane with a woman whose hands disappeared with notable grace into the water on her crawl strokes.

The pool felt cold at first. Half a lap later, the chill disappeared from my bones. Suddenly, my lane-mate stopped swimming. She stood upright in her cap and goggles, looking distressed and puzzled.

“You know,” the woman addressed me curtly with a growl, “you should ask permission before you jump into someone’s lane. I might have run into you.” I marveled at the paradox of human nature – how someone who swam with the lithe ballet-like poise of a dancer could harbor such ungracious emotions.

Seriously? Somebody in the pool is angry at me too?

“You’re right,” I replied, a little steamy-tempered yet determined not to show it. “Next time, I’ll do that.” I smiled at her and swam on. Within less than half a lap, I got it. This was no arbitrary chain of events. It wasn’t coincidental that I’d come to the pool to escape the angry barrage of people who’d turned on me for no apparent reason – and then ended up sharing a lap-lane with one of them. It was the perfect scenario to add to my personal “interesting times” list.

As history repeats itself, as the saying goes, I’d magnetized this particular person – angry, scowling, and impatient – to help me learn an important lesson, one that I’d attracted to myself yet again to be certain that I got the message I needed to complete my inner homework:

Is anything worth the price of giving up my inner peace?

Each of these 3 individuals presented me with the same choice: to react, to get defensive or upset, or to challenge them on what seemed a completely unnecessary criticism of my behavior. Given the circumstances, didn’t I have every right to react? After all, most swimmers simply jumped in an occupied lane and began swimming!

Instead I chose to hold onto my peace.

As I swam past my lane-mate, she again stopped, mid-lap. There she stood, catching her breath as she studied me. I responded with a smile – a genuine smile lacking sarcasm or resentment – by way of letting her know, “We’re good, it’s all good.” Perhaps she felt badly for speaking to me so harshly. My lack of reactiveness had apparently given her the psychic space, and the permission, to realize that she’d spoken with unnecessary coldness to a stranger.

The year was 1966, when Robert Kennedy delivered these words in a speech:

“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 the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”

And so, may we each learn to live, non-reactively and peacefully, in these creative times. And may all your scallions, if you wish, be lightly steamed.

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