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   'May You Live in Exciting Times'


‘May You Live in Exciting Times’


The actuality of life is never enough; if we're not actually engaged in fight or flight, we escape through song and legend.
May you live in exciting times” runs the ancient Chinese curse. The Chinese much preferred peace and security to the turmoil of warlords and mercenaries.

But young males in particular yearn for excitement and adventure. And if not for the actual adventure of brawls and fistfights, at least for the vicarious excitement of gangster rap, action movies, video games, and staged wrestling. The human brain craves titillation, the argumentative noyeax of our simian ancestors. And when something stimulating isn't going on, we create it. Our thoughts turn naturally to freewheeling make-pretend.

This is the inspiration of art. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the human mind is bored by inaction. We cover the blank space on walls with pictures. Dull time is filled with dance and drama. The tribal shaman was not only a magician, but also a storyteller, recounting the epics of gods and ancestors. Kids everywhere say "tell us a story." The actuality of life is never enough; if we're not actually engaged in fight or flight, we escape through song and legend.

Religion is the greatest of all human escapes, cosmic theater. Man is not content to be a mere animal walking the earth. He must be a spiritual being whose soul is worthy of God's sacrifice, the drama of crucifixion and resurrection. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, the Divine Comedy. And whatever religion he chooses for himself, they all have the same element of high drama, which oftentimes is realized in actuality, movements, conversions, inquisitions, pogroms, religious wars.

How different is man from his lowly brethren, the animals! They are so eminently practical, so down-to-earth. Evolution has made them so well adapted to their circumstances, there is almost no nonsense about them! Some may seem almost like creatures of fantasy to us, so imaginative, with their fins and flippers and mating dances and peacocks' tails and butterflies' wings, but always their apparent art is only a fabrication of survival and all their thoughts are dedicated to that end.

But the evolution of man and the rise of civilization were something else. As if with upright posture and hands to grasp and tools to play with, man abandoned his old animal practicality and evolved a swollen, balloon-like brain, bursting with ego and imagination and fantasy and nonsense, the urge to excitement and stimulation that humdrum nature could not provide. It created palaces and pyramids and cathedrals, monumental structures and intricate ethics, beliefs and cultures which shaped his vision of life and brought the new cultural species of mankind into violent conflict with each other. What began as simple recipes for the good life evolved into Jihad, Holy War, manifestations of aggression as stagey in their way as the battles of “Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker,” or the savage entertainments of the Coliseum.

In man, nature moves into fantasy mode. And although his life also has its practical side, the needs for food, sleep, shelter, mobility, companionship which drive his technologies, these practical manifestations are also adapted to serve the need for fantasy and excitement and make-pretend so well provided by television and movies and computer games. The producers of television programs know only too well what is needed to keep audiences tuned and advertisers happy: excitement, stimulation, car chases, explosions, shootings, something constantly happening, or the viewers will switch channels. They offer a way of life neither active nor contemplative, but rather lived vicariously in a video world passively plugged in and turned on, neither doing nor thinking. Meanwhile the traditional fantasy world of religion is augmented by television preachers who see the new consumer society as yet another of Satan's inducements to corrupt the faithful.

Nowhere is this clash of cultures so evident as in the denunciation of western materialism by the Islamic fundamentalists, where America is seen as the Great Satan undermining with “Baywatch” and Coca Cola the conservative traditions of their own long-established fantasy world. In the human species alone, it seems, fantasy is worth dying and killing for.

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

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This story was published on December 4, 2002.
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