OK, everyone. Take a deep breath. Exhale slowly. Repeat as necessary.
You likely have heard the phrase “May you live in interesting times,” most notably quoted by Robert F. Kennedy in a speech in Cape Town, South Africa in 1966 and described as an ancient Chinese curse. Its ongoing popularity lies in the fact that what appears at first blush to be a blessing implies the opposite when you consider the possibility that the “uninteresting” times of peace and tranquility could be more desirable and life-enhancing than the “interesting” ones of challenge, strife, insecurity and doubt.
With all due respect to Mr. Kennedy (and certainly not intending to be an apologist for China), the phrase is neither ancient nor Chinese. According to the website Phrases.org, it originated in the 20th century as “May you live in an interesting age,” first recorded in opening remarks made by Frederic R. Coudert at the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science in 1939. I vastly prefer the original phraseology.
The current age, and 2020 in particular, has become a bit too interesting for my taste. I recently felt the need to get away from everything and everyone to clear my head and try to regain some sort of perspective on the pandemonium (pun intended) surrounding us all. So, like Thoreau, “I went to the woods,” in my case to a fish and game preserve on the top of a mountain in northwestern Connecticut, “far from the maddening crowd.”
Growing up near the Adirondack Mountains, I spent quite a bit of my time outdoors. The woods are like home to me. I knew what to expect. I found the unexpected.
Sitting down at a favorite spot with a beautiful view of a large pond surrounded by densely wooded hills, I let myself relax. The air was clear and still, and the woods were quiet, though not silent. The more I relaxed, the more I noticed the little details. The sounds of squirrels foraging in the leaves, the mirrored reflection of the trees in the water, the occasional rise of a fish, the hawks and eagles soaring and circling lazily yet with purpose.
The trees were mostly bare of leaves, tall and spare and devoid of the color they had boasted just weeks ago. In that condition, they revealed details of the surrounding landscape hidden from view during the leafy season. I saw what appeared to be miles and miles of rock walls, dry stone fences running back and forth and up and down in patterns and in places and for purposes I could not fathom. The closer I looked, the more revealed itself: stone foundations of buildings long abandoned; the barest hint of old logging trails leading seemingly to nowhere; strange 30-foot flat, circular imprints in the forest floor (not alien landing sites but old charcoal hearths); and everywhere, the symbiotic interplay of stone and trees, with the latter springing almost impossibly from cracks and fissures in the former.
Eventually it dawned on me that I was being taught a lesson, given a message I really needed to hear.
The worries of today are like the leaves on the trees. They come and go, in fairly predictable cycles, and when in full bloom, they obscure the view of other realities of a less transient nature. At times they stridently demand our attention and occupy it fully by being so urgently colorful that we see nothing else. Yet, in time, they will fall away and ultimately be forgotten.
The leaves mean little to the squirrels, except to the extent that they help the trees produce nuts. Squirrels have dichromatic color vision, which means that they cannot see the difference between the green leaves of summer and the red leaves of fall. They are oblivious to the foliage changes that entrance us humans. They are content enough to forage and spend the winter months snugly in their dens.
The fish don’t even see the leaves, and so live untroubled by their arrival, change or departure. The hawks and eagles find them troublesome in terms of seasonally blocking their view of the forest floor, and presumably are pleased when they are gone.
It would be hard to imagine that any of these animals spend much of their life energy worrying about the leaves.
We humans consider ourselves to be the top of the food chain, far superior in most ways to the rest of the animal world. We have managed to adapt best in terms of survival (well, maybe cockroaches outdo us there) and excel in manipulating the resources of nature to our advantage. Why, then, do we insist on spending most of our waking hours anxious and worrying about everything, including things we can do nothing about?
Another breath. Release. Repeat.
This Thanksgiving, I am going to try really hard to focus on the less transient aspects of my life, following as best I can the advice of St. Paul -- “my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honorable.” Notwithstanding our differences and difficulties, our divisions and challenges, we are a good people, blessed to live in a great nation. We still enjoy the freedoms the Pilgrims came here to find 400 years ago. Those freedoms require constant vigilance and protection; let’s all take a moment to reflect on them. They are the foundation stones of our democracy, the walled barriers against tyranny and oppression, the green saplings sprouting from rock. They are so much easier to see and appreciate when the leaves of distraction have fallen. And when we clearly see and appreciate how much we have to be thankful for, we should be in a better position to come together as a people to heal our divisions and unite in the common effort to bequeath these blessings on generations to come.
Let’s shake some trees!