May you live in interesting times.
The phrase is supposed to be an English translation of an ancient Chinese curse, though it’s probably of much more recent (and western) origin. Whatever its roots, on first hearing it sounds like more of a blessing than a curse. After all, who would really want to live in boring times? But its meaning as a curse is clear to anyone whose life has been turned upside down by the large forces that can unravel whole nations and cultures: war, plague, hunger or economic upheaval. They make people wish for the stability and certainty that might not seem very interesting in historical retrospect but are in fact much more pleasant to live through.
We are now officially living in interesting times. Today the stock market fell by almost 800 points in reaction to Congress balking at the mind-blowing price tag of a bailout. Why would anyone think this debt-ridden and greed-driven economy could go churning on forever? My current favorite quote on the topic sounds as though it comes from some irate curmudgeon shaking his fist at the current news: “The budget should be balanced; the treasury should be refilled; public debt should be reduced; and the arrogance of public officials should be controlled.” In fact, it’s from Cicero, who lived 106-43 B.C.
It’s a weird time to be living through, since we have no idea at all how far the unraveling will go. Maybe in a few weeks everyone will dust themselves off and carry on as though nothing much has happened, but I doubt it. And wherever we collectively land, it is a time of high anxiety. People are losing their homes, and tent cities are already springing up in some towns. People without a job watch their chances dwindle, and a lot of others whose jobs seemed secure a month ago are waking up at night in a cold sweat. People who thought they could live comfortably on retirement savings can see those savings evaporate into thin air. And as the economy tanks, it’s pretty easy to predict that what’s left of the safety net for the most vulnerable will just disappear.
Those of us in parish ministry are each at the center of a little circle of stress, as our troubled people turn to one another and to us for a word of comfort. There’s not much that we or our congregations can do to impact a global economic crisis (but for God’s sake VOTE FOR CHANGE!). But there is a whole lot we can do to sustain one another in an age of anxiety. We can remind each other to take a deep breath, and look up at the sky so we can see that it isn’t falling. We can gather in worship, and in our smaller circles of study or support, sociability or labor, remembering to speak a calming word or add an extra kindness to what we’re doing. We can bind ourselves solidly to a particular small ship and its crew, in the faith that together we will work out ways to weather the storm. We can stay centered, sane and peaceful in our spiritual practices. And one day we will look back together from a safe distance, and shake our heads as we remember how interesting the times were back then…