“May you live in interesting times.”
I remember my father telling me that this statement, which appears at first glance to be a blessing, is actually a Chinese curse (although, there is little evidence that it originates in China). Of course, most of us would prefer to live in times of peace and tranquillity, which are notable for their lack of ‘interesting’ events. Times of turmoil are the interesting periods of history, which is why this ‘blessing’ is actually a curse.
I doubt anyone would deny that the first two decades of the 21st Century have been ‘interesting’ in the extreme. Most of us would be only too glad for some boredom about now! But what are we to do when we find ourselves living through such times of turmoil? For people of faith, the answer is simple: we pray. But there are two problems with this response. The first is that, for anyone watching, God seems to be pretty lethargic about answering those prayers (depending on how we understand God, prayer, and answers to prayer). The second is that we need more than prayer to navigate times like these. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray, or that prayer is useless (I’ll address the place and meaning of prayer in next week’s blog), just that prayer needs a context and must be accompanied by other initiatives.
Times of chaos and turmoil tend to impact what we believe about ourselves and our world. They undermine our assumptions and challenge our perspectives. And that means that, in order to live well in tough times, we need to do some significant rethinking and reorienting of ourselves in the world. That doesn’t mean we don’t include prayer as a response. It just means that even what we think and believe about prayer needs to change.
SOUTH AFRICA BURNING
As I write this, South Africa is burning. Using the arrest of our (corrupt) former President Jacob Zuma as a pretext, criminal elements in our country have ignited a wave of protests that have turned into violent riots, looting sprees, and general lawlessness. Multiple reports confirm that it is a small proportion of our population that is engaging in these criminal acts, but it is frightening nevertheless. The challenge, though, is for us to think critically about the reasons for this unrest.
It is easy to try to isolate the riots from our history. There’s something satisfying in believing that this is simply a power play for political gain by supporters of the former President. It’s also comforting to think that the perpetrators are just criminals. But I believe that there is much more going on. After centuries of institutional inequality and a decade in which corruption bled our economy dry and left almost half of our population poor and jobless, our current way of being is unsustainable. We need a new social contract and a new way of being as a society that includes, protects and provides for all.
EVOLUTION AT WORK
It is normal for us to think of events like the riots in South Africa as ‘bad’ and ‘abnormal’ and we long to get past them and go back to ‘normal’. But when we place these events in the bigger context of history and society, we begin to see a different picture. In that light, these ‘interesting times’ take on a new meaning. This is not just an isolated instance of criminality. It is a significant part of the evolutionary process that changes our society. It is a sign of the collapse of the unjust and unsustainable system in which the gap between rich and poor constantly widens. It is a reaction to the abuse of power and it is a catalyst that will force us to find ways to make justice a reality. To put it simply, I believe that ‘interesting times’ are evolution at work.
This is not a utopian vision of an instant quick fix to our social ills. Nor does it condone the violence and criminality of the past few days. But it does offer a way to interpret these events that can lead us to creative and hopeful action.
I could offer a similar perspective on the global pandemic of the last year and a half and on the heatwave currently disrupting the American northwest. Like the unrest in South Africa, these events also reveal how unsustainable our current way of being is, how much we are damaging our planet, and how global inequality threatens everyone, from the richest to the poorest. We are living in ‘interesting times’ because our planet and our species have reached a new level of complexity and connectedness and the old ways no longer work. We are experiencing the processes of life, death, and love working to move us into a new form of life personally and collectively. It will be a long time before we see what we evolve into but make no mistake, we are participating in the evolution of humanity whether we like it or not.
RESPONDING TO INTERESTING TIMES
So if we are willing to accept that these interesting times are evolution at work, what are we to do? Do we just accept that this is happening, recognise that it’s beyond our control, and do our best to wait it out until things calm down? Or do we embrace our capacity to participate in our own evolution? Do we become conscious of the evolutionary forces at work and do what we can to participate mindfully in the evolution of our world? Needless to say, I prefer the latter option. Here are just two thoughts on how we can evolve actively and consciously along with our world.
Observe the ‘Signs of the Times’
Jesus famously told his followers to see the signs of the times. Many Christians now take this to refer to the second coming of Christ (a phrase never found in Scripture). A more accurate interpretation is probably that Jesus saw the coming Zealot revolution and the violent response from Rome. So for him, ‘seeing the signs’ was about noticing the shifts and forces at work in society and preparing ourselves for the evolution to come.
In order to do this, we need to resist simplistic interpretations of events and despairing, purely self-protective, and alarmist responses. Rather, while taking necessary steps to protect ourselves, we can explore the reasons behind the events and seek to understand what the best possible outcome might be. Then we can start to act accordingly.
Live in Ways that Align with the Evolutionary Process
I am always inspired and challenged by how people respond in times of crisis. In South Africa, we have seen citizens standing together to protect one another and to bar looters from entering shopping malls and stores. This solidarity and mutual care is a significant sign of what we are seeking to evolve into. We need more of this and we need to ensure that it continues when the immediate crisis is resolved.
There is no end to the ways we can participate with evolutionary processes in our world and society. Most of these ways are known to us. We can take simple steps like recycling, minimising waste, reducing our carbon footprint, and caring for our corner of the planet and its creatures. We can give to organisations that work to alleviate poverty and train people in entrepreneurship and job creation. We can support media that hold our leaders accountable, and we can vote bad leaders out of power. We can get to know our neighbours and share what we have with those in need. All of these things that reflect the values and behaviours of the world we long for help to move evolution toward that world.
It does feel like a curse to live in interesting times. But someone has to do it. And since we are the ones who are here now, it falls to us to participate in the evolution of our society. It’s like the famous conversation between Frodo and Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. ”So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
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