The photo above is William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
“The Second Coming”
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?”
I find there is something visceral about Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming”, his use of words and phrases that reach into my gut, grab hold, and demand my attention! His poem has been often quoted when people write about social change. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” These lines seem to perfectly describe events unfolding today. Yeats wrote this poem after the end of the First World War, a time of great social and civil unrest. The poem captures more than just political unrest and violence of his time. “Its anxiety,” wrote Nick Tabor “concerns the social ills of modernity: the rupture of traditional family and societal structures; the loss of collective religious faith, and with it, the collective sense of purpose; the feeling that the old rules no longer apply and there’s nothing to replace them.” How apt was his description!
The Saturday Evening Post (July/August 2017 issue) celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love by reprinting an earlier article published in September 1967 “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” written by Joan Didion. They included a photo of Didion in San Francisco from the original article. I find the faces of these young people serious and intent in a way that argues with what I have come to expect from the generation that eventually became the counter culture hippy movement.
Didion wrote “The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those who were left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.
It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the year 1967, and the market was steady and the GNP high, and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose, and it might have been a year of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant I decided to go to San Francisco. San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves “hippies.”
Last week we witnessed “children” gathering again, this time in Washington D.C. and across the country, to express their anger and frustration for the senseless shooting of students and teachers in a Florida school. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere. The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Drowning the ceremony of innocence! How perfectly Yeats described something that seems to describe so appropriate what happened in Florida. “How many times” these young students asked, “can we stand by and watch our classmates killed in school?” God, what kind of adults are we if can listen to such anguish and not be moved to act? But I am beginning to wonder if we have lost our adulthood, if we have become so polarized by our politics, bought and paid for by special interests, that we have gone deaf and will never find the courage to act even in defense of our children. The fabric of our political and social life has never felt so close to tearing apart. Will the center hold?
Full disclosure, I have a lifetime gun carry permit and in some circumstances I carry a gun for personal security. The first time I took gun safety training was when I was 12 years old at the insistence of my father because I wanted to go deer hunting with him. Although I eventually learned I didn’t enjoy killing animals I have enjoyed marksmanship, developing proficiency at target practice. I am not a supporter of the NRA’s political position. In my experience having lived in Minnesota and North Dakota (the state with the most guns per capita yet the fewest gun deaths), most gun owners are very careful with guns.
It was only after moving to Indiana that I encountered a different form of gun owners, people who brandished big pistols as if they somehow equate with genitalia. It disgusts me to see misguided people who post internet photos of their baby daughter holding a semi-automatic rifle; or listening to those who belligerently insist it is their second amendment right to own a gun no matter how irresponsible they act; or to read the bumper stickers on their trucks saying something about prying their gun from their cold dead fingers. I think the first should be considered actionable child endangerment; the second a poor argument for not to amending the constitution based on current needs for guns; and the third as the sentiment of misguided idiots.
It requires a written test, a proficiency test, regular renewal of registration, proof our eyesight is adequate, and a photo Id for us to legally drive a car. I think gun ownership should require no less. The second amendment was not written to give a pass on responsibility for gun ownership. When it was written most Americans needed guns for survival both for hunting and the protection of their home. What are our needs today? Hunting is still a viable reason. Home and personal protection are still viable reasons. Ranchers carry guns for good reasons. I am not in favor of taking away guns. But they are dangerous tools and owners bear responsibility for their use and safety. I think we have ample reasons for demanding gun owners accountability. The students made a good point, they have the right to go to school without fear of being shot. Every parent wants to believe their children will be safe at school, that they will come home when school is done.
Unfortunately even if we were to enact tougher licensing and restrictions it will not prevent suicide by gun, which is the most common form of gun related death in the U.S. More than 65% of guns deaths are self-inflicted. Sad but true. Taking away guns will not protect us from mass killings perpetrated by mentally disturbed people. How many times in the last 12 months have we heard news of a disturbed person driving a car into a crowd in order to kill people? Suicide is a manifestation of despair. Mass shootings are a manifestation of insanity. But I also know that my views don’t fall at either end of the argument. I’m sure I will either be condemned by the left because I own a gun or condemned by the right because I believe gun ownership should be better controlled. The only people we are going to hear are those screaming from the fringe.
Where is the center and what happens when it cannot hold? Richard V. Reeves writes that “Without a middle class, the upper class concentrates wealth and becomes ever stronger. The lower class becomes disenfranchised and susceptible to rightwing nationalists. Moderates tend towards the middle, looking at issues from both sides. Extreme views fall outside of the middle. Fanaticism occurs at the fringe of social views.”
We are witnessing opposition from the edges, the hollowing out of our social institutions and norms. Speaking as a moderate I can’t help but wonder if our Republic will hold. Americans seem to think we can treat Democracy with careless neglect and it will still continue to serve us. We act as if we are entitled to citizenship, when in fact it requires hard work and sacrifice. It is painfully true “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” And the worst occur at the narrow fringes of our social views.
At the heart of a conservative is a person who wants to preserve culture and tradition. Where it goes wrong is thinking only one form of culture or tradition is valid, thinking people shouldn’t be allowed to choose. At the heart of a liberal is a person who believes in personal freedom. Where it goes wrong is thinking that society should pay the consequences of bad choices, thinking people should be free to choose but not suffer from their mistakes.
Neither authority without freedom of choice, nor freedom of choice without accountability will work. Both ideologies are dangerous when people who hold them think they have the right to impose their views on others. Our national debate has devolved into one side convinced the other is going to destroy our country, while the other side is convinced they are the only ones who are right. Neither view will resolve the political rift that has grown in our society or help us to get beyond it. Whether a person is Liberal or Conservative, educated or not, affluent or poor we all must learn to come back to the middle, to compromise. The severity of the problems we face is likely to mean that no one gets what they want.
Take for example the issue of repairing our civil infrastructure. It was built in the 1950’s and served our growing economy after WW II. It was paid for with taxes from working class Americans at time when oil was cheap and jobs plentiful. This is no longer true today. Now our infrastructure is falling apart because of decades of neglect and deferred maintenance, and no one can agree on what form of infrastructure improvements would best serve us for the next 50 years. I prefer renewable energy, public transportation, and fewer roads serving the needs of personal automobiles. But the real question we must answer is “what can we afford?”
Our interstate transportation system was built to connect our cities and towns, allowing goods to flow easily across our country. It is what helped our economy thrive and turned our country into consumers. Consumption created jobs. Jobs were and continue to be needed to live. No jobs. No life. So can we reduce consumption and still maintain jobs? Our economy survived the 90’s because of personal debt and cheap imported goods. But goods are no longer cheap (unless you don’t fully account for all their costs), critical resources are being depleted, and the environment is losing its ability to regenerate resources. What jobs will we find and what share of resources will they provide?
The bills for our past consumption of fossil fuels are come due and climate change is going to control our future whether we like it or not. Climate change is accelerating the damage to our infrastructure. It is going to continue degrading no matter what President Trump promises, or no matter how much deficit spending Congress approves. So how should we approach living with decaying infrastructure that we can’t afford to repair and replace? How much of the dwindling resources available can we confiscate in order to meet our future needs? What do we owe others in society, future generations, or the other species we are driving to extinction?
What will we do when the only bridge that connects our small community to the main highway system is again damaged by landslides? What will we do when the next hurricane floods our home for the fourth time? Will we demand our government repair them? Can our nation afford to spend hundreds of billions of tax dollars each year rebuilding infrastructure that will continue to be in danger from hurricanes and floods? Do we want to waste precious resources rebuilding an outdated system that served us during oil boom years but is inadequate for our needs today? Can we demand people to move, provide assistance, but stand by and do nothing if they choose to stay and are wiped out again? Consequences are hard to live with.
Some would argue we can afford to do many things if we reduced military spending. That may be true but the question remains how much of our freedom are we willing to give up to protect our national security? Good point in case is the last presidential election and Russians amplifying social division within our country though social media. How do we stop it from happening again? Are you willing to shut off your internet, close your social media account in the name of national security? Perhaps their meddling wouldn’t have worked if the cracks hadn’t already been there. So how do we repair the cracks? How do we relearn communication skills with people who think and feel differently than we do? What happens when society can’t meet our needs, when social problems are exacerbated by the growing economic inequality in our country? It is easy to think raising taxes or borrowing money will solve our budget deficits. Borrow money and bill will come due someday. Raising taxes is only going to be possible if we elect an entirely new government.
Currently we have a broken health care system and an unsustainable food and agricultural system. We are being held hostage by the healthcare and insurance industries. We are forced to work at jobs we hate in order to receive health insurance. We dare not quit because we can’t afford to pay the obscene amounts we are charged for medical care. How insane is this? We are at the mercy of corporations that profit more from our sickness than our health. They have no incentive to make our life better. But most people are too busy struggling with today’s new emergency to adequately deal with yesterday’s or worry about tomorrow’s. We have even less time for politics.
We go from one crisis to the next, and history continues to repeat itself. The opioid epidemic rages yet we can’t see it for what it really is, self-medication of seemingly unending emotional pain. What we need to do is stop acting as if the same actions will bring us different results. Why do we think pain medicine will help when the underlying emotional causes still exist? How many people are still being prescribed opioids even though we now know how addictive they really are? This is what it looks like when the center cannot hold, when problems multiply because we are unable to address the underlying issues.
The outer shell of our culture and society still remain but the middle ground is gone, hollowed out from the ends. What institutions can we depend upon? Marriage, family, government, religion…nothing seems to serve our interest or remove our apathy. Change seems to be coming at us faster and faster and one wonders if the center will hold. We are social creatures dependent on social bonds that are fraying. We cannot plan for what is to come because the future is uncertain and our past coping methods fail. We don’t seem to recognize how hollow our institutions have become. We still think we can depend on them to carry us.
How can we adapt to living with uncertainty, living one day at a time without worrying we won’t have enough to satisfy tomorrow’s needs? Few people are comfortable living pay check to pay check. And what if we have no paycheck? Who will take care of us? We have grown complacent about the abundance of our lifestyle. In a world of fast food and fast tweets, on time deliveries, and stores filled with surplus goods we feel entitled. We deserve the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Perhaps we can live the American Dream, but we’ve forgotten it was only accomplished with hard work and sacrifice.
How hard are we willing to work? How much are we willing to sacrifice for family, culture, and community? Because without them what is there to work for? What does equality mean if it’s every person for themselves? How do we find a center, a home base, a sense of knowing where we belong when institutions fall apart and nothing that once seemed true remains? How do we reconstruct our sense of social belonging and purposefulness?
I believe that one of the reasons our social institutions are degrading is because we seldom make an effort to converse with “real” people. We have dissociated ourselves from real social interaction. We comment on the internet and think of it as socializing. We tweet things we would never say to someone’s face but have no shame in publishing it for everyone to read. We are more concerned that others should like our recent Facebook picture than if we shame, insult, or bully people on the internet. We are losing our perspective on what is civilized behavior.
Recently I sat in a waiting room and every other person (across a wide range in ages) sat looking at their phone. When was the last time you recall talking to a stranger while you waited in line? How often do we feel alone even sitting in a room with other people? Are you afraid if you don’t check your phone every minute you’ll miss something? Is it any wonder we feel separated from others, when we spend the majority of our social time interacting with faceless, nameless people on the internet? I’ve read that as many as 30% of Twitter accounts are bots, not even real people. Perhaps it’s time we acknowledge that social media is anything but social.
Our worldview is formed by corporations that want us to see things a certain way. We experience society through the internet, the computer, our smart phone or T.V. and we seem to have forgotten that this electronic media-driven view of the world is controlled by corporations that profit from our misery as long as it keeps us consuming their products. What do we know for certain is real?
When the center cannot hold it is a frightening thing for our mind. Our mind wants knowing. This equals that. This means that. But perhaps the world is not structured the way we imagine. Perhaps the world is simply the unfolding restless energy that never ceases changing. Perhaps this is how life evolves. History tells me that humanity has been in jeopardy of destruction before. We survived the terrible failure of modern society that resulted in two world wars and inspired Yeats to write his famous poem. Is this time different? Will we survive this failure of society to respond to the threat of climate change? Maybe yes, maybe no. We can imagine all sorts of reasons for failure, but can we imagine reasons for success? Perhaps we will never know. It is not easy to think when the center does not hold. It is a form of vertigo convincing us we are falling. But now and then the only option is to let go, to simply fall, and just do what today requires.
Take a breath. Let it out. Move on. Relax the fear that grips your mind. Feel the space you occupy and how it connects with the world around you. Let go of the idea that you are separate, different, higher, lower, better, or worse than anyone or anything around you. Hold onto the feeling of being present with whatever is in front of you. Ultimately it is up to each of us, with or without a world wide web connection, to seek solace in the space we inhabit. It is up to us to find and create “home” and keep said space comfortable, share it with others we call family.
Maybe if we learn to let the day unfold, to be present with whatever is happening right now, and stop letting fear of the unknown control us. Maybe if we learn to be respectful of our neighbors, to listen without judging, to consider with measure and patience. Maybe if we find reasons to have faith, hope, love, and yes, charity. Maybe the center will hold.