May You Live in Interesting

Epic time periods can seem almost romantic if you didn’t live in one, but how epic are they really? Depends on who you are.

There’s a memory that came back to me recently, from when I was really little, about how I envied my parents for having lived through so many historical events. I thought: I haven’t lived through any wars, have I? I asked my parents if there were any wars going on, and they said that Iran and Iraq were currently at war. So that’s what I’ll tell my kids, I figured. I can say I was alive during the Iran-Iraq war.

Even by my own oblivious standards, it seemed insufficient. I figured I was doomed to live a boring, post-historical existence—no epic global warfare, no major social events, nothing of braggable worth besides regional conflicts. My parents, by contrast, had lived through history. They must have been brave.

We all (I hope; otherwise it’s just me) believe stupid things as kids, but the increasingly bitter irony of this specific memory has been haunting me a lot lately.

My parents, children of the 1950s, spent their first few decades observing a level of historical turbulence that seems almost fictionally dystopic. Growing up in an age marred by grotesque civil rights violations, a gangster presidency run amok, and senseless conflicts in places many Americans couldn’t find on a map, the images of their daily news coverage—grainy photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Nixon, and the Vietnam war—feel more like scenes from the 19th century. It’s strange to realize that people I personally know existed during those times, and stranger still to imagine that one could live a relatively normal, boring existence in 1957, 1963, 1972. How could anything have been normal and boring in times that were so historically significant?

The headlines I scrolled through this morning will find their place in films and documentaries about how chaotic the first decades of the 21st century were.

And yet.

Every day, I think about how the world I get up to in the morning is earning historical significance of its own at a terrifying pace. I remember my dad describing war protests and Watergate; my friends will tell their kids how their world looked on the morning of September 11, 2001, or the evening of November 9, 2016. I think—a lot—about what it will be to watch, years from now, the inevitable “All The President’s Men” of the Trump years. I wonder who’ll play Clinton, Mueller, Cohen. The headlines I scrolled through this morning will find their place in films and documentaries about how chaotic the first decades of the 21st century were. Decades from now, people will look at this the way I looked at my parents’ lives, and say “Whoa—what was it like to live through all that?”

Well, I’ll say—I don’t know.

The backdrop to my typical day at the office is madness on a historical level. What’s disorienting is how ordinary each individual day actually is. There’s an unsettling contrast between the insanity unfolding around me, and my regular life, which is mercifully uneventful.

We all get the concept of media saturation and desensitization. We describe our inurement to the news—fake, real, whatever it is these days—with the same knowing weariness we apply to Mondays and computer trouble. I have the immeasurable luxury of experiencing global dysfunction as a grating, everyday normality. The government is broken; monsters are seeping out of the woodwork; war is always coming. It’s the raging backdrop to my mostly uneventful life.

My parents, like millions of other relatively privileged Americans, managed to live similarly ordinary lives, set against their own raging backdrop of cultural upheaval. They worked. They went to school. They handled academic stress, difficult landlords, and day-to-day mundanities. I spend most of my life typing replies to people, clicking buttons, and traveling between A and B. Day-to-day, the period that the next generation will remember as The Early 2000s (or the Trump Era, or the Confused Times, or however it’ll be synopsized), feels like trying to read with a car alarm going off blocks away: it’s pervasively disturbing, and colors the whole quality of the experience, but I can’t stop it and I just try to block it out.

That’s the thing. I’m not, on a day-to-day basis, affected by most of this.

My civil rights aren’t on the line. My right to live here isn’t on the line. My paychecks didn’t go away when the government ran out of fuel and hit the curb. I don’t have to worry about thugs taking offense at my faith, my skin, or my language. That, in a nutshell, is privilege. It’s not just ostentatious wealth or power. Privilege—among other things—is being able to weather a storm with minimal effort.

And when some hypothetical youngster from decades away asks me what the storm was like, I’ll have to admit that I didn’t really feel most of it. Sure, I sat in the middle of it, but I was watching from my house. Sometimes the power flickered. That was about it.

But I suspect that that is not how the current times will be remembered. Just as with the era my parents lived through, today’s mundane madness will become the next generation’s distant, barely believable Age of Confusion, and the seven-year-old me of 20XX will look at middle-aged Chris and think, “Man, what a world he lived through. He must’ve been so brave.”