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After the storm

Usually, at New Year, I write to friends and colleagues to share a thought and a wish for the coming year. This year, I couldn’t. I was lost for words. When this happens, I often seek comfort and direction in the words of others. This time, the text to which I turned was the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ (1859) A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair ...

Dickens’s words resonated both with the turbulence I was experiencing in my professional life and with the noise and uncertainty filling the news. I shared Dickens’s words with a few colleagues but couldn’t bring myself to add to them any of my own.

Three weeks on, the turbulence is subsiding. I left the job at which I’d worked for over two decades and I’ve been busy this week saying goodbye and thinking about what I’m going to do next.

Those who know me best greeted my decision with congratulations. More distant friends made encouraging comments about the opportunities ahead. Many made direct or oblique reference to the familiar etymological claim that the Chinese word for “crisis” means “danger + opportunity.”

I have often wondered whether this claim stands up to scientific scrutiny. I am no expert in comparative linguistics, but I have just enough general knowledge to suspect that the translation of Mandarin characters into English concepts isn't that simple.

Recently, when a thought like this occurred to me, I would think to myself, “I must look that up sometime,” and quickly move on to something less interesting and more urgent. This time, I had nothing more urgent, so I looked it up.

Sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed. And the pleasure I got from following my curiosity where it took me awoke me to the opportunity I have now to do more of what I enjoy - wondering, learning, pursuing fleeting thoughts and connections, and trying to make sense of ideas and people I encounter.

As Dickens continued: “... we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …”

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