Things Fall Apart

January 19, 2009

Talk for The Journey
Santa Fe, NM

Last week Gwynn Ifill opened her Friday evening program Washington Week, by describing all the problems facing the new administration. “It will be the worst job in the world,” she quoted a TV comedian, “so they are giving it to a black man.”

Unemployment is rising to its highest levels since the Second War; unions that might have been protectors of the working man in the 1950s have been marginalized in American politics, housing foreclosures are entering into a second default stage, having already been bailed out once, they are now failing a second time. Democrats cry out for an FDR-like stimulus but Republicans still want Reagan-like tax cuts. Obama tries to satisfy them both and the press which has more to gain from conflict than harmony, stirs dissent and turmoil on Capitol Hill.

Russia shuts off gas supplies to Rumania, Hungary, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, with a single stroke. Putin simply turns the switch. The gas is gone! Oh, sorry, he says, I only meant the Ukraine, not Italy. Switch again. The gas is back on to the powerful, but the weaker countries linger in freezing cold and before the crisis is over, Putin has maneuvered Russian observers into the Ukraine. Ukrainians are not pleased. They remember how Stalin in 1933 took over their grain supplies, denied them their own grain and starved perhaps as many as 7 million of them. Cycles of brotherhood and enmity lure the traditional breadbasket of Europe into a centuries-long chess game of dodge and feint, advance and retreat.

“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,” wrote William Butler Yeats, in 1920 during another time not unlike this.

Israelis tire of living in terror and so invade Gaza. They nod toward public opinion by trying not to kill civilians but assume that all the grown up men that they have killed were terrorists, or friends of terrorists, or would-be terrorists, and the more they attack, the more this is true. They have engaged in a strategy that generates and increases the very problem they are trying to resolve. Hamas, predictably responding as if betrayed, vows never to surrender and goes on firing random rockets into civilian quarters in Israel. Now the situation on both sides is blind fury, blurring the edges of reality and trampling reason. Soldiers shoot relief truck drivers. Hamas sympathizers blow up buildings in Paris, London, Sweden. 

Three,or it might even have been four thousand years ago, Moses said to his followers: 

"Who is on the Lord's side? Let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.

And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men...." [i] 

Thus in ancient times the descendants of Abraham fell upon and killed the descendants of Abraham, and today, these thousands of years later, the descendants of Abraham fall upon and kill the descendants of Abraham.

“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,” writes William Butler Yeats, in the aftermath of another great war and today, as in 1920, one can hardly remember when so many things were falling apart at once. 

Yeats wrote:

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre 

[a gyre is a sort of spinning circle]

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. 

Today, all over this country, for people whose retirements are premised upon investments in mutual funds or stocks the market has lost 35-40% in the last year. Or a friend called me last week to say that her rental properties in Florida, purchased years ago when she was employed and to provide for her retirement, were emptying out and she did not know how she would continue to live. She was having a hard time getting back into the labor market.

My friend and two million others who lost their jobs in the last year are in the meat grinder and my friend said to me, ‘Who has the answers? Where do we turn for answers?” 

Raw capitalism is not the answer. The ideology that unrelenting individual greed provides for massive public prosperity was delusional. It has failed. Greed is a natural driver but it is not naturally more productive of wealth than health, or stability, or education, or government regulation of fraud. All these are more productive of wealth and security, but all these need assistance from government akin to the assistance that the government has generously for generations given to oil companies, and airlines and farmers. Government can do health, and can do bridges, and can do education, and can do retirement insurance and job insurance and raw capitalism will only do this for you if you can pay for it, and of course, not everyone is born with the ability to pay.

Militarism has been our answer too. Militarism and empire: create a global security system for our economic interests, most especially including oil. But militarism, whether on our part in Afghanistan or the Israelis into Gaza, generates martyrs and fury and martyrs and fury generate more terror, and that in turn generates more fury and on and on, since Moses. That military might and extermination of evil could be the path to security is as delusional as thinking that capitalism solves all problems.

Even the millennia-old dualistic idea that good vs. evil is the way of the world is delusional. The world is more complex than that. Purely evil characters were perhaps men like Pol Pot, or before him, Hitler or Stalin. But today we are not dealing with any such characters and the evil is more apt to arise from massive envy or wounded pride or ignorance or anger at being ignored and these are conditions of whole populations, not just those of one man, or one religion, or one ideology. They do not arise from one bad man, and, unfortunately, they cannot be solved by one good man, alone.

Yeats described our civilization as it was in the 1920s, looking for some new or second coming. He was standing in the deserts of Egypt as he wrote, seeing the great Sphinxes, stretched out in the sand, figures with faces at least 4,000 years old:

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand. 

The Second Coming! 

But then Yeats sees a sphinx moving in the sands and imagines not another Jesus but some stony beast coming as the Savior, maybe a dictator in savior’s clothing.  

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?  

I do not think that today we will give in to the temptation of the rough beast, or choose another savior. Obama cannot be a second coming. A strong leader, a wise leader, is good. It is probably even necessary. But it is not sufficient. Something more and better is needed than a great leader. 

A psychologist by the name of William Sheldon once wrote that deeper and more fundamental than sexuality, or deeper than the craving for social power, deeper even than the desire for possessions, there is a still more generalized and more universal craving in the human make-up. It is the craving for knowledge of the right direction—or orientation.[ii] Above all, we seem to always want to know in what direction we are going.

And so we have looked to these ideologies of the past, capitalism, militarism, or the triumph of good over evil because they gave to us a heading into the wind, a sense of what great journey we were on. But now, today, we are finding that these directional signs are in some foreign and inapplicable language, as if we were headed into a forest and the road signs were all in ancient Greek, and the places they pointed to were Canaan or Sumaria, or cities like Priam’s Troy, or Oedipus’ Thebes, places no longer of any relevance to our lives. From Genesis, to Homer’s Iliad, to the grand nationalistic trumpets of El Cid and Napoleon, to the military visions of world order from Hitler to Stalin or George W. Bush, these road signs that have gotten us to this place are no longer working. They are no more reliable guides to safety than stock derivatives, or hedge funds or credit default swaps. The guides we have been following were all blind. 

As a result, our distress is even greater than economics or power or our personal trials. It is all of these. But it is also a profound sense of disorientation, not knowing which way to move now, or which step is in the right direction.  

The answer to this disorientation lies surely much deeper than in a program for health insurance, or the recovery of social security, or a stimulus package. Surely, if justice and the pursuit of justice have been on men’s minds since Moses, and the confusion has been rocking the ship of our modern minds at least since Yeats in the 1920s, we are not dealing with just a problem of a democratic program or a republican program.

We are in the midst of a chaos far more profound. 

We are in the midst of a chaos of the deepest kind; it is a chaos of faith.  

Don’t speak of faith to Unitarians, you say, and surely not to spin-off groups that are even more iconoclastic than normal Unitarians. Don’t speak of Jesus the Christ, or faith in the Resurrection. And I will not, because that is not the faith that I mean. 

Before the institutionalizing Christian church preempted the word faith, the teacher, probably Jesus, told stories to suggest ways to respond to the crisis when things fall apart. When one pores over these stories one comes to the conclusion that what Jesus meant was not to believe in him personally as the way to salvation but to explore a state of mind that creates a being-ness that he called the kingdom of God. We might call it a state of inner lightness of being. This state of mind is so baffling and so abstract, and so unrelated to property, or money, that most of western society has rejected it.

Sharon Salzberg, a distinguished Buddhist teacher, has written a wonderful book about faith in which she describes her own temptation to reject herself and her aversion to the life she had herself led. She describes the mind that she was in, the mind that is not faith by quoting from a Charlie Brown comic strip:  

“Lucy is sitting in a little booth, a DOCTOR IS IN sign prominently displayed. She tells Charlie Brown, ‘You know what your problem is, Charlie Brown? The problem with you is that you’re you.’ 

Crushed, Charlie Brown asks, ‘Well, what in the world can I do about that?’ Lucy responds… “I don’t pretend to be able to give advice. I merely point out the problem.”[iii] 

That’s the Lucy mind. I just see the problem and have no idea what is the solution. 

Sometimes liberal democrats think like Lucy. A lot of times, Rush Limbaugh is like that. Ironically, they sometimes share that aversive mind. Sometimes—perish the thought—even Unitarians are like that.  

Jesus was probably aiming at precisely this preoccupation. It is said that on one occasion a palsied man who was lowered down through the roof and Jesus told him that he ought to get up and walk. They had to carry the poor fellow up on to the roof and lower him down in front of the teacher because onlookers and the curious blocked the way through the door. So they climbed up on the roof and lowered the man down through a hole. Jesus says to him, words to the effect: Man, you went to a lot of trouble. Anybody who goes to that trouble has got to have something going for him. You know what, You’re OK. Go ahead, my man, get up and walk. And the man got up and walked out. 

Jesus sees the man’s faith and tells him to walk. He does not say, “I have cured you.” He says, in effect: “Your faith is the source of your cure.” And he did not say, “Your faith in me.” He spoke much more of the fellow’s internal state, his willingness to try, to go to extreme measures, to trust that somehow, something would work. That is going from pessimism to intention. “I will, by God, make the effort!” And so the palsied man made the effort. The power of his intention is what got him to his feet and the teacher simply affirmed that in him. Let him know that it was there in him all along. He had the intention to live. So he got up and walked out.  

My friend who has lost her rentals and therefore her income is doing that. She is not allowing herself to go lie down in despair. She is not flat on her back moaning. She is doing everything she can to stay alive. That’s faith.

Now most intellectuals have interpreted faith in modern times to mean encouragement to sit on a chair that is not there. Have faith, brother, sit on the air and the chair will appear. To most of us that is unwise. Too big a risk. So intellectuals are wary of faith, at least in the magical sense.

But maybe faith is something different than sitting on the chair that is not there. It might mean that in times of great doubt, when wars are raging and the pundits are climbing all over themselves with blame and uncertainty, with Lucy mind, when markets are falling and jobs are dissolving, that in times of such chaos the most important survival tool is to be awake, to have our eyes open, not just for what produces death but for what produces life. It might mean that when all the options are uncertain, the best choice is not to go into paralysis and do nothing, but to choose the nobler hypothesis and do that. Choose the best option and instead of reciting to oneself how bad the chances are, do everything within one’s power to make that option come true. Choosing the nobler hypothesis is like Barack Obama saying, “I don’t know for sure how we are going to solve this thing, but I believe that trying is better than not trying and I am going to try with the very best people I can find. In this administration, he says, it is the people with Lucy mind who should step to the back of the bus. We are going forward as if we can do it. 

Yes we can. 

That is faith.  

Choosing the nobler hypothesis would be to say that if the situation gets bad and we are low on money to send our children or grandchildren to college, we will teach them all we know ourselves; we will use our school libraries and our home libraries and design our own courses because we know people here, in our own town, who know a great deal about computers and science and art and literature and all they need is to be needed by us, to have a public purpose. We will give them some greater thing to do than their own retirement thing, and when we are all down and all things are scarce, we will have this common purpose to do together. Craig will teach law, and Minoan history and art, and Mary Ellen will teach education, and someone will teach world history and Hispanic history and someone will grow corn and reaching out into our community someone will ask Mirabai to sing and Zuleika to dance and Ron Darling to play the cello, and Dave Grusin to teach composition, and Chris Calvert to teach business and government. Together, out of the ashes of materialism that has burned down in its own heat we will create community again. We will learn how to survive nearer to each other and nearer to the ground.

To choose the nobler hypothesis is to choose life, to do what the plants do and to follow the sun; to do what the bees do and bring in the honey; to do what children do and love unreservedly. We can do that. Faith is to know that we can do that. Faith is to know we can do that without understanding certainly or for sure the outcome of anything. Faith is to know that within the human soul lie the two possibilities to respond to darkness or to light and that when we lie down for the last time we will lay our faces toward the light.

[i] Exodus 32:26-28.

[ii] William H. Sheldon, Psychology and the Promethean Will, quoted in The Choice is Always Ours, Phillips, Howes and Nixon, eds., Request Books, 1975, p. 33. 

[iii] Salzberg, Sharon, Faith, Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, Riverhead Books, 2002, p. 5.