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A Guide to Living in Interesting Times

A Guide to Living in Interesting Times January 4, 2022

“May you live in interesting times” is not an ancient Chinese curse, but as we’ve learned first-hand over the past five years (and especially over the past two) living in interesting times is no fun. Perhaps it would be better to call these “unprecedented times” as some have decided they’re not all that interesting.

Whatever you call them, here we are. Beginning the third year of the worst pandemic in a century with no end in sight and no agreement on how to proceed. Regressive politics in much of the country and much of the world. Supply chain disruptions and the worst inflation in 40 years.

And for those of us who pay attention to such things, an increase in the currents of magic. That creates its own peculiar set of interesting times.

Those of us who’ve been talking about Tower Time (under various names) for the past 12 years or so are not surprised by its persistence. Disappointed and sometimes discouraged, but not surprised. We were warned that this wasn’t going to be an event – it’s an era. One crisis will fade and another will rise. One head of the fascist hydra will be cut off and another (or two, or three) will grow in its place. We’re not going to wake up one morning and find that it’s 2015 again (and to be honest, 2015 wasn’t all that great).

We don’t have to like it. I certainly don’t like it. But we have to deal with it. And as always, the best way to deal with a problem is to study it, see what worked in the past (and what didn’t), form a plan of action, and implement it. Then review it regularly and make adjustments as necessary.

This is one of those posts I’m writing for myself as much as for those who read it. I already know this. Probably you do too. But it helps to remind ourselves of where we are, what’s likely to work, and what will add to our frustration.

Just keep moving

This was the title of my last regular post of 2021. It’s what the Gods I follow have been telling me over and over again. Whatever else you do in interesting times, keep moving.

Keep doing spiritual practice. Keep maintaining your relationships, in this world and between the worlds. Keep taking care of the mundane things that support your life and your work. Keep dreaming your dreams and keep grabbing them where you can.

None of us can keep moving non-stop. Proper rest – physical, emotional, and spiritual – is essential. But after you rest, get moving again. That’s the difference between living your life your way and having life happen to you.

Don’t count on the government to save you

Many of my friends are mocking the CDC’s new, lessened recommendations for quarantine, testing, and other Covid countermeasures. I understand their dismay, but they’re missing the point. As the CDC Director said, the new guidelines “really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate.”

The various Covid regulations and guidelines have never been about what will keep you safe. The ones issued in good faith have been about trying to convince as many people as possible to do the things that will improve the odds at the margin – often with little concern for costs vs. benefits (and I’m not talking about money).

The ones issued in bad faith have been about pandering to the prejudices of the political base of those issuing them.

Not even the most cautious and conscientious political leader in this country has the stomach to actually enforce serious restrictions, in large part because a significant percentage of the population would have to be violently forced to follow them.

I don’t like this, but this is reality, and so I deal with it.

Pay attention to the recommendations. Pay attention to the statistics. Ignore the conspiracy theorists and ignore those who still believe that if everyone would just follow the rules Covid would go away.

Unless there’s a medical reason why you can’t, get vaccinated and boosted. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it greatly improves your odds of staying out of the hospital – and out of the morgue.

Beyond that, if you have low health risks and a high tolerance for risk, you may find the guidelines overly cautious. If you have high health risks and a low tolerance for risk, they’re completely inadequate. Figure out what works for you. And whatever you do with the guidelines, follow the regulations – especially on an airplane. Confrontations just make things worse for everyone, including you.

What is true of Covid is true of everything else. Remain an engaged citizen, but don’t expect electing the right candidate or the right party to make things right. As much as I hate sounding like a Libertarian, you’re going to have to make things right for yourself.

Don’t expect an apocalypse to make it simple

Covid isn’t an extinction event. Climate change is already making life more difficult and deadly, but it’s not going to drive our species extinct either.

There is a certain attractiveness to the end of the world, whether literal or figurative. It makes things simple. No need for politics or jobs or rent or anything. Just find enough food to live on. Or, as many contemplated in my Cold War youth, die quickly in a nuclear attack.

We don’t get off that easy.

Eventually we all die. But you probably won’t die any time soon, and even when you do life will go on – just like it always has.

Expecting an apocalypse (in any meaning of the word) is wishful thinking that distracts us from doing the things that will make life better for ourselves and for those around us.

Know your goals

What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want out of life? What do you want to do, to have, to experience, to be?

After “just keep moving” comes the question “in which direction?” There are times when all that matters is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. But other than in those dire circumstances, we need to know where we want to go, because that will help us figure out what we should do.

Interesting times make long-term planning difficult. This has been one of my biggest personal challenges through this whole thing. And figuring out what you really want is hard under the best of circumstances. But it’s also necessary.

Dream. Meditate. Contemplate. Try things on for size. Figure out where you want to go. Or at least, where you think you want to go.

And then start making plans to get there.

Because if you don’t, you’ll be floundering in the sea while life passes you by.

Learn the rules (and then break them mindfully)

Life is a game and games have rules.

That sounds flippant, but it’s true. Whether you’re talking about business, politics, romance, or socializing, there are always rules. Sometimes those rules are laws that carry the weight of government sanctions. Some of them are customs and social norms. Some are “best practices” and “the way we’ve always done things.” And some are simply “might makes right.”

The rules may be clearly spelled out or they may be unstated. They may be created empirically, democratically, or arbitrarily. They may be different for some groups of people than for others.

Whatever the rules are that apply to you and your life, figure out what they are.

And then use that knowledge to your advantage.

Many times there are benefits to playing by the rules. Know them well enough and you can exploit them to your advantage. You can figure out which ones you should follow, which ones you should bend, which ones you should break, and which ones you should ignore.

Break rules mindfully.

Too many of us spend too much time complaining that the rules are unfair. Many of them are, and to the extent that we can contribute to changing them, we should.

But in interesting times, we need all the advantages we can get. And that means knowing the rules and using them wisely.

Limit unforced errors

I played competitive tennis (at a very low amateur level) for a while when I was younger. I won some and I lost some. Sometimes the guy across the net was just a better player or a better athlete than me. But sometimes I made too many unforced errors: hitting an easy ball into the net or overswinging and putting the ball into the back fence.

Sometimes life overwhelms us. Sometimes we run into bad luck. But many times, we suffer because we don’t think things through, we don’t prepare, or we don’t stick with something long enough for it to pay off.

So many errors happen in youth, when people don’t have the experience or the maturity to even realize they’re errors: in education, finance, relationships, or legal matters. Mistakes can be costly. And also, what is a “learning experience” for someone who’s rich and white can be a fatal experience for someone who’s poor and Black. Our society doesn’t give everyone the same number of chances.

And none of that changes the fact that the fewer unforced errors you make, the better your life will be. This is true at any time, but it’s critical in interesting times.

Look for opportunities

In an unsettled world, the established playbooks are of limited value. My father dropped out of high school after my grandfather died, so he could go to work and support his mother and younger siblings. He got a union job that paid a decent wage and used that to build a very stable life for himself and his family, which gave me a foundation for my life. Where would my father go to work today? Walmart? Amazon?

The bad news is that interesting times bring chaos. The good news is that chaos brings opportunities. This is clearly true for jobs and careers. It’s also true for arts, education (though more for informal learning than for our certificate-obsessed formal education system), relationships, and religion.

This is why it’s so important to know your goals: so that when an opportunity presents itself, you can recognize it – and recognize its importance to you.

The opportunities chaos brings are not evenly distributed. They favor the young, the well-educated, the able-bodied, and those with other forms of privilege. But mainly, they favor those who are observant enough to recognize them and bold enough to seize them.

Interesting times bring opportunities. Look for the ones that would be helpful to you.

Use your magic

Navigating interesting times requires using all your skills – including your magical skills.

Remember that magic works best when it’s narrowly focused on a specific target. Remember that magic doesn’t make things happen, it improves the odds that things will happen. Magic alone is never as effective as magic plus mundane action.

And also, mundane action alone is never as effective as when it’s combined with magic. Not one or the other, but both.

The currents of magic are getting stronger. That means your spells (when done properly) are more likely to have a strong impact. And as with any skill, the more you use it the better you get.

Are you still a little skeptical? Still not sure how well magic works, if at all? The best way to believe in magic is to work magic. If you do the spells properly, you’ll get results. Perhaps once is random chance and twice is confirmation bias. But by the sixth or seventh or tenth time, it’s easier to just accept that magic works. And that gives you the confidence to keep working magic, and to work it for bigger and bigger goals.

Use all the tools in your toolbox.

“Interesting times” will be with us for a long time

Covid-19 will eventually lessen, but it will never go away – the Spanish Flu of 1918 is still around. Fascism can be beaten back, but it will always rise again, because xenophobia and the lure of the strongman run deep in many people. The climate will continue to change, and not for the better.

And magic is going to keep getting stronger and stronger.

We can’t make these interesting times go away. We don’t have to like it. We just have to deal with it as best we can. And that’s best done by paying attention, observing the evidence, drawing reasonable conclusions, and making reasonable plans.

And then by acting with wisdom and persistence.

May this year bring you the opportunities you need and the courage to seize them.

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