During the past few weeks, as the tsunami of freedom has spread over the Arab world, the phrase above has been doing a ricochet in my head. These are interesting times, indeed. Who knows what's going to happen next? With freedom comes change, and with change comes anxiety. Like the kind of anxiety I have when I'm trying to think of something profound to say in my blog, and all I can come can come up with is this curious phrase dancing around between my ears.
I first encountered the expression "May you live in interesting times" many years ago, words of wisdom spoken by a venerated teacher on the occasion of his being fired. The hospital where I was learning to be a psychiatrist was undergoing a regime change, and the best role models were, as usual, among the first to be let go to further the hospital's mission of becoming a leader in the brave new world of psychopharmacology. I was impressed by my mentor's poise in the face of what I considered a grave injustice, as well as a major step backward for civilization.
Only later-while writing this blog entry, in fact-did I learn that this sage proverb is known as "the Chinese Curse-" and that the gift of wisdom I believed my teacher had given to me was in fact a less noble wish that I, too, could share the experience of the stormy weather that had come his way, i.e. to partake of the cup of anxiety.
The tsunami that swept across psychiatry 30 years ago, shifting gears from mind to brain, brought with it a new way of thinking about anxiety. It became a "disorder" amenable to treatment by the wave of new drugs coming down the pipeline. This view replaced the psychoanalytic psychological view that was dumped overboard along with my teacher. As a young man, Freud had proposed that anxiety was the consequence of bottling it all up . The prescription for anxiety relief, then, was to let the genie out of the bottle. But Freud, too, lived in interesting times, with Act 2 of his life taking place in the period before, during and after World War I. As an older man, whose world had been turned upside down by the Great War, Freud saw things differently. The issue was not to cork or uncork the genie, but how to manage him in a rational way.
Accordingly, he came up with a different formulation which held that anxiety was a warning signal which arose to notify us that our internal psychological affairs were getting out of hand, and that if we didn't watch out we might find ourselves annihilated, abandoned, unloved, dismembered, or all of the above- what Freud called the "danger situations of childhood." The revised prescription for anxiety relief was, in effect, a prescription for a balanced, rational approach to dealing with the sturm and drang inside of us-where id was, there shall ego be. Such an approach was to be much preferred over the alternatives for the adult human being faced with the unconscious prospect of becoming a terrified, helpless child. (World War I had been the teaching example par excellence for what not to do with your impulses.)
So there I was, a young physician, filled with a sense of injustice and betrayal by a system that seemed to be turning its back on core human values. Come to think of it, I must have been around the same age as the Egyptian physicians whose passions and sense of injustice brought down Mubarak. And as I write these very words, I finally realize what I'm talking about, because I seem to have identified Mubarak and Ghadafi with the powerful cultural Force that wants to turn our minds into brains and load us up with brave new pharmaceuticals. And every bone in my body wants to go out to Tahrir Square and protest, like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, "They may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!" And if I do that, I could wind up in one of those danger situations I mentioned(remember Braveheart).
The adult in me recognizes that this is not a mature or nuanced description of the contemporary psychiatric landscape, and that the particular villains I've created could just as easily be replaced by others who would just as readily occupy the role of Mubarak, or, in an earlier day and age, Pharoah himself. And that I may be someone else's Mubarak, not Moses, in the world of unconscious roles that human beings tend to assign to each other- if one cares to take a deeper look.
I am not sure whether my teacher knew he was cursing me when he gave me the pseudoblessing of living in interesting times. Despite my worries on his behalf, he went on to take a much better job, where he revealed that he was not as good a person as I expected-my department survived, in a way that was not as bad as I expected. And as I learn over and over, things are seldom if ever what they seem to be upon first encounter- including this blog entry. And including the Chinese Curse, which, as it turns out, isn't really Chinese at all. According to Wikipedia: "No known user of the English phrase has supplied the purported Chinese language original, and the Chinese language origin of the phrase, if it exists, has not been found, making its authenticity, at least in its present form, very doubtful."
If it wasn't for interesting times, there wouldn't be no times at all.