Sunday, July 6, 2008

May you live in interesting times

This old Chinese proverb is said to be a curse. I suppose that may be true, but we only live in the times in which we live. History will have to be the judge long after we're gone about whether or not that was a curse.

According to Wikipedia, Robert F. Kennedy was one of the first in the United States to use this proverb at his Day of Affirmation Address to students at the University of Capetown in June 1966. The main message of this speech can perhaps be found in these words of his:

So the road toward equality of freedom is not easy, and great cost and danger march alongside us. We are committed to peaceful and nonviolent change, and that is important for all to understand--though all change is unsettling. Still, even in the turbulence of protest and struggle is greater hope for the future, as (wo)men learn to claim and achieve for themselves the rights formerly petitioned from others.

He then goes on to list four dangers that will be faced in this struggle.

First, is the danger of futility: the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills--against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. Yet many of the world's greatest movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single (wo)man.


The second danger is that of expediency; of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities. Of course, if we would act effectively we must deal with the world as it is. We must get things done. But if there was one thing President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feelings of young people around the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspirations, and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs--that there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities, no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems.


A third danger is timidity. Few (wo)men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.


For the fortunate among us, the fourth danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. 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 (wo)men than any other time in history. And everyone here will ultimately be judged--will ultimately judge her/himself--on the effort (s)he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which her/his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

I hope Kennedy wouldn't mind that I adjusted a few of his words to ensure that we are all included.

I believe that if Kennedy were alive today, he would agree that we too, are living in interesting times. And I believe that he would echo these four dangers as those that we once again face today. To me, the root of futility, expediency, timidity and comfort are all the same...fear. And so, the anecdote to these dangers is courage. But not the kind of courage that simply denies fear, rather the kind that transcends fear with our own sense of power combined with vision. As Audre Lorde said:

When I dare to be powerful - to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.

I'll leave you with the words of one of my greatest heroes, Maya Angelou.

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