By S. L. Huang
“May you live in interesting times” is often said to be an old Chinese curse.
It is not, it seems, either old, Chinese, or a curse. It’s more likely someone labeled it that way to make it sound woo-woo and exotic (which is tremendously exhausting).
But I kind of wish it weren’t an apocryphal story.
Because I want interesting times. Many of us do. But I want to choose my own.
When I was a kid, I was the ultimate in tree-climbing, fence-walking fearlessness. The type of kid who would often court “scrapes,” as Anne of Green Gables would have put it. I was constantly scolded and called down from trees, walls, or standing on the monkey bars of swingsets.
(I indignantly chafed under these regulations. Now that I occasionally watch friends’ kids, I can only imagine the panic my non-parental-units must have experienced when they caught sight of my antics with the sure horror that they were about to return a tiny corpse to my family.)
My mother, grasping at some safety rein, once begged me to at least wear a bike helmet when I climbed on things. A few hours later, she exited the back door to see me fifty feet up at the top of the sycamore tree. “What?” I said, when she had recovered from her near-heart attack. “I wore a bike helmet!”
Happily, I never fell three stories out of a sycamore tree.
But when I was eleven, I started getting sick. Just after I turned twelve, I was diagnosed with cancer.
Like many children, I used to imagine I was a book character. I’d have fabulous adventures. I’d get hurt. My life would be in terrible danger! And then I would emerge victorious.
Cancer treatment, however, was never the right kind of life-threatening to be fun. I’d never dreamed of being the hero of someone’s contemporary YA disease romp.
Instead, I used to imagine I was being experimented on by aliens. That helped.
I’ve paraglided, wakeboarded, rappelled down buildings, galloped horses, swum with sperm whales, jumped off thirty-foot platforms, and been lit on fire. I’ve backpacked through rainforest and gotten lost at high altitudes. Skydiving, hang gliding, and getting my pilot’s license are all on the list.
I choose to take risks to my health and safety. For fun. I’d be pretty ticked if anyone ever told me I couldn’t.
A decade and a half after the first time, I got cancer again.
This story doesn’t have a moral.
I’m also a martial artist and fighter. I willingly put myself in positions where I’m getting hurt and where I’m inviting people to do violence against me, albeit in a controlled way.
I’ve gotten deep bruises and cut lips, sprained joints, been elbowed in the face. Once I got kicked in the chest so hard I couldn’t breathe for about sixty seconds.
I keep going back for more.
I like to think that if we had a perfect world where we’d eradicated all nonconsensual violence, we could still enjoy competitive sparring. Matches we enter into with the power to walk out. Places where we voluntarily give up our control and release our civilized expectations that we won’t be hit in the face.
I wonder at the psychology of it, though. Do we hunger for this only because of our fears?
I don’t think being a fighter makes me less afraid of being assaulted in real life than many other people are. The very real fear of villainous people, of being held powerless, trying to fight back and failing . . .
No secret part of me desires to be that type of protagonist.
On a meta-level, I sometimes step back and consider how much I enjoy violence. Not only in my hobbies, but also in my entertainment. I’ve been an action movie junkie all my life, long before I ever started making them. I watch every cop and forensic show on TV. My own books are intensely violent, stirring through worlds of mercenaries, criminals, and serial killers with extreme delight.
And I’m not talking meaningful, historical types of violence, but instead madcap, rousing R ratings only for entertainment’s sake.
Perhaps it’s a power fantasy fueled by my own adult fears. Perhaps violence taps into something primal in my brain, an excitement about humans facing off against each other.
Or maybe there’s no reason. Maybe I just think gunfights and explosions and stunt choreography are deliciously cool.
Or maybe … maybe it comes back to this idea of consent.
I’m allowing the story space in my brain. I’m drawing out the welcome mat for the creators and popping my popcorn, and I’m inviting them to take me on this journey with me, one of pain and danger, telling them it’s okay if they emotionally punch me in the face and trusting the thrills and emotional catharsis will make up for it. And on a more abstract level, I’m aware the actors and writers and stuntpeople and everyone else who contributed to this piece of media—they, too, stepped into this shared reality of their own will, and can step out if they so choose.
We’re all choosing to experience this story of electrifying violence together.
We live in interesting times now. I never would have chosen them. A nightmare march of bigotry, a climate rising to kill us, real-life children dying at my country’s borders . . . I wake in the night strangled with anxiety, and I yearn for my era to be one of boredom.
In interesting times, emotional escape is more important than ever. I don’t know how much sense it makes, that I flee the real-life horror of human suffering to replace it with fake blood and fictional fields littered with bodies invented only to be broken.
Maybe it doesn’t make any sense.
But something in me thinks it’s made of the same fabric as slamming the door to the hospital and running hard away so I can climb to the top of a sycamore tree or leap out of an airplane.
I’m fleeing the mayhem I’m cursed with, and taking a huddled breath from it to make my own.
The mayhem we choose. The mayhem we create.
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