Monday, March 14, 2016

Things Fall Apart

William Butler Yeats

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

In 1919, Yeats wrote this powerful poem. It is one I read initially in high school and have returned to many, many times in the intervening years. There is a terrible truth here that continues to resound through the almost century since its creation.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am an optimist. I believe in the essential goodness that exists in people, but I am not naive. I also know that we are capable of cruelty, both casual and intentional. The words Yeats wrote so many decades ago could have been written today: the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. 

Every moment on the news, something emerges that reinforces Yeats's message: the primary debates, the anti-immigrant actions in Europe, the US justice system that continues to apply itself unjustly, the secret deals and manipulation of the financial and political systems. All around me, I see a culture that celebrates greed and the concentration of power at the expense of human connection and community.

"I've got mine; screw you" seems to be the anthem of the moment. And for those who don't have, it's "I deserve mine; screw you."

Has it always been so? Yeats's poem seems to suggest that the world in 1919 held the same evils, so maybe I'm being overly sensitive, overly concerned. I live in the US where the average standard of living is still among the highest in the world. Technological marvels have extended lifespans, enabled travel, promoted communication and self-expression, so why am I so afraid?

On a macro and a micro scale, I see the power of rage to incite hatred. The Republican front runner is reveling in the violence his speeches encourage and his supporters seem to be empowered by it. This is mob mentality at its worst. I may not fully support either of the Democratic candidates, but at least they are not mocking the size of one another's genitals.

And it's not just politicians who are guilty of using language to encourage hate. Just this weekend, a high school basketball game between Newton North and Catholic Memorial turned ugly, with the Catholic Memorial fans chanting "You killed Jesus" during the game. Newton has a large Jewish population, but that's not the point. These are kids. Kids who have grown up in comfortable communities with a host of advantages that people in other lands are literally dying for the chance to have. 

There is such a profound lack of empathy on every level of society and when I return to Yeats, I don't find any comfort. Instead, I find his fear to mirror my own:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


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  1. Spectacular. Couldn't have said it better.

  2. There is so much -- too much -- over which to despair lately. I think we have to combat the darkness and hatred with as much light and love as we possess. Even when it hurts, or we have to fake it, we can't lock ourselves in dark rooms and weep. We have to keep going, keep creating, and keep inspiring others to do the same.