When I was working as an intern at the Massachusetts Historical Society in 2012, my boss, the preservation librarian, told me about an old saying: “May you live in interesting times.” The story goes that it’s said as a seemingly innocuous toast, but in reality it’s a curse: “Interesting times” are full of turbulence, strife, discord; “interesting times” are the opposite of peace and calm. To be born in “interesting times” is to face a lifetime of apprehension and uncertainty.
I think we can all agree that we are living in “interesting times.”
The past four months it has felt like everything has been piling on. Every time I get a news alert on my phone I have to brace myself for the worst – especially the past few days. At home and abroad, things are so “interesting” that I would give almost anything to return to the mundane. But I have been trying, hard as I might, as spring breaks through the wall of New England winter, to see glimmers of the positive. Through the storms and the turnover of the topsoil, beautiful buds still bloom. Grass can even break through concrete. Ivy can climb up any wall. And me, too – us, too.
When I get a particularly frightening or disheartening news update, or my twitter feed is a barrage of discourse on urgent matters, I occasionally slip into an existential quandary as to whether my chosen field is the best choice for these “interesting times.” How can I defend spending my days studying ancient literature, ancient politics, ancient history? Where does this field of study find its relevance in the modern world? A question I was asked to answer over and over in undergrad was “how do you defend the importance of a liberal arts education?” Going to a liberal arts college, I felt surrounded by a friendly bubble of like-minded people who were constantly offering up tangible answers to this question. But Classical Studies is like the original, and more selective, version of Liberal Arts. It can feel so far removed from where we are now. For many people, I’m sure it is.
But the reality is, there are countless ways that my field of study is relevant. There are urgent questions to be answered in Classical Studies. While I refuse to shut myself off to the present in my pursuit to investigate the past – as tempting as that escape can be – I can also see how learning from the past can enlighten the future. The precious material we have inherited from the ancient world reveals centuries upon centuries of “interesting times.” It reveals centuries of change, transition, turmoil, and turbulence. So that’s the thing about the “curse” – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We all live in “interesting times.” We always have. Sometimes some of us get what we want in one place, while others are facing their own bout of turbulence -but the dust never really settles, not for everyone, not all at once.
I know that my PhD in Classical Studies is not likely to win me a Nobel prize or bring me any closer to enlightenment. I know that I am not likely to be the one to save the world or bring us to a sate of peaceful monotony. But I do believe in learning and teaching how to think critically. I do believe that we can learn from the past and better our future. And I do believe that it is vital to take some time to appreciate beauty in this world – and the ancient world has an overwhelming wealth of beauty to provide us, along with its problems and strife.
A few months ago I joined a small local group organized to help one another cooperate in and encourage local activism. If you want change, the best way to try to ensure it is to have a hand in it yourself. I have been more politically active in the past six months than I have for the rest of my 25 years. But it’s hard not to get discouraged when you feel like you’re fighting against an indefatigable current. This won’t ever be over. That can feel daunting. But it has never been over before, and we owe all of the progress we’ve made to the individuals that kept fighting the current.
That said, you can’t fight continuously. At the end of this post I’ve attached a few photos of a zine I made in January to provide some affordable ways to take a break if, like me, you need a lot of downtime between the fight – and some of it needs to be alone.
There is a quote from the ancient poet Hesiod’s Works and Days which says “Badness you can get easily, in quantity; the road is smooth, and it lies close by. But in front of excellence the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it.” It seems impossible that we will ever attain a state of peace. But until then, let us strive for excellence, and let us also strive to see the beauty on the hard road we take there. Let us raise a glass and proclaim: may we live in interesting times, and may we work together to improve them.