Things Fall Apart

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. W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919

I’m coming late to the party: according to Wikipedia, lines from this poem were trending in late 2016, as Donald Trump emerged, first as a serious contender for the Republican nomination, eventually as the President of the United States. The poem, written in the aftermath of World War I and in the midst of continuing bloody troubles between England and Yeats’ home, Ireland, speaks well to any situation where things appear to be falling apart.

This is not a piece about politics, current or otherwise.

Yeats’s poem begins with the image of a falcon and falconer: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer; /Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …” Spiraling up and out in ever-widening loops (gyres), the falcon loses contact with “the centre,” and off it goes. We might see this as a good thing: the falcon sets itself free! But that does not seem to be Yeats’ point. An invisible string is snapped, and the separation of falcon and falconer represents a great loss for both.

Inevitably, some things simply do fall apart: health, certain relationships, businesses, civilizations, hopes and dreams. Sometimes it’s just the inexorable Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy); sometimes, it’s weariness or exhaustion; sometimes, it’s boredom and the desire for other things. Sometimes poor and foolish leadership, sometimes risks taken that didn’t work out, sometimes just circumstances beyond anyone’s control: “You’re fired!” or “Sorry: cancer” or “Meteor impact!”

Things fall apart because something happens at or to the center.

Consider a time when things fell apart for you in some way. Maybe it was burnout, a health or relationship reversal, or the apparent dying of a cherished dream. The “falling apart” experience can also be deeply de-centering. When we feel “centered,” we have the resources to address ourselves to life’s many and unending challenges; when we lose our center, things fall apart for us.

Much of our personal growth and development are spent in search of a center; we’re like planets looking for the right sun to orbit. A sun-less planet might be “free,” but will also be a dead planet. We begin in our families, we are centered there, but then we move up and out. We center ourselves on our studies or our job. We spend some years orbiting a star called “do what I want.” We “get religion” or pursue being “spiritual, but not religious.”

We often find that none of these centers can hold us, and things fall apart. No one wants to hire someone because she majored in ____; the job never becomes a “career”; a marriage fails; our children break our hearts; beloved people die on us; or death comes knocking on our own door.

It’s even harder in our modern self-driven world. We have been convinced, or have convinced ourselves, that there is nothing outside the Self to which the Self is accountable: not family, not biology, not tradition, not religion, not ethnic or political allegiances. Only the Self is sovereign; only the Self is central.

So we experience a lot of anarchy, both in our souls and in our worlds; much innocence disappears, often beneath bloody tides.

Of course, if there is nothing outside the Self, there can’t be much inside the Self. If there is nothing outside me by which I am summoned, to which I must give answer—not love nor justice nor goodness nor beauty nor truth—than the Self has nothing with which to build itself. In the face of a vast, meaningless, uncaring, pitiless cosmos, what can my tiny Self possibly say or do for itself? For a planet to have even the possibility of life, it needs light, it needs energy, from somewhere or something outside itself.

Who truly can be named among “the best” when genuine conviction about what is best is seen as impossible? All we are left with is passionate, but ultimately conviction-less, intensity. Is it possible that we who see ourselves as among the best, ever turning in our own widening gyres, could actually be among the worst?

“Repent,” Jesus said, “for the kingdom of God is upon you.” Creation is not organized around you, it is organized around Love. It is Love that generates all things, and Love that sustains all things. All things will be judged in the light of Love: what will you love, and why, and how? Will you love what Love loves, in the ways and to the degrees that Love loves?

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” John’s Gospel tells us, referring to Jesus. The Greek word for “dwelt” is “tabernacle,” related to Israel’s “tent of meeting” during her wilderness wanderings. The tabernacle, the “tent of meeting,” was the forerunner of the Temple in Jerusalem. These places, tent and later Temple, were understood as the meeting place of heaven and earth, the meeting place of God and humans: the center.

But tent and Temple pointed to something beyond themselves, to God’s actual presence in the midst of God’s people. God cannot be contained in human-made structures, but in Christ, Paul told the Christians in the ancient city of Colossae, all God’s fullness dwells in bodily form: the center that holds all things, and holds all things together.

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