The world is not ending.
You could be forgiven for thinking that it is. The attacks in San Bernadino and Paris and Lebanon. The execution of a child in an alley and the murders of black teenagers by police in Chicago. Global warming, and for Pete’s sake, Donald Trump rising in the polls.
You could be forgiven for thinking that these are the end days, that surely, as Yeats wrote, “The centre can not hold.”
A lot of my fellow former English majors have been turning to Yeats lately. His poem, The Second Coming is the natural choice for the world we’re living in.
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.
Clearly, this is where we are. Yes?
I think many of us are retreating. I have made more bread in the past month than I have in the past year. I am baking and cleaning and luxuriating in my new couch. Last night for Hanukkah I made an enormous thing of applesauce, made, as in peeled all those apples and cooked them. My son mentioned matzo ball soup and so today I am making him matzo ball soup for dinner. It’s like my normal instinct to nest in the winter is on overdrive. If the world is going to end tomorrow I don’t want to be in Cincinnati with Mark Twain, I want to be here, with my children.
But here is the thing we forget about Yeats. Yeats believed in a philosophy involving “gyres,” basically cycles of history. It is the opening line of “The Second Coming,” “Turning and turning in the widening gyre” and at the end of the poem “That twenty centuries of stony sleep/ Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.” For Yeats, the gyres, the cycles of human history were 2,000 years.
Because history is a cycle.
Of course we think the world is ending. We’re humans and we like things to be linear. We like there to be a food chain, and we’re at the top of it. We like there to be an evolutionary chain, and we’re at the top of it. We like history to be a march toward a better world, and because we plainly see that we are not at the top of it, we think we might possibly be at the bottom. How could the world possibly go on without me, without you, without us?
But it does.
When the volcano erupted in Pompeii people must have believed the world was ending. During the plague, people must have believed the world was ending. During the Holocaust, during the Armenian genocide, people must have believed it was all ending. During the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, Yeats believed the world was ending.
In a way it was, of course.
But here we are, living in this imperfect world.
The danger in believing that the world is ending is that it allows us to retreat. There is nothing wrong with making applesauce and baking bread. There is nothing wrong with watching TV and tweeting. There is nothing wrong with crying for all the unnecessary lives lost and spending some time paralyzed by that grief.
But the world is not ending, and so we cannot shut it out completely. We have to recognize that we are neither at the top nor the bottom of the chain.
We can find comfort in our insignificance, in the fact that the world will not end with us. We can find comfort, and hopefully a little inspiration to try and move the gyre just a little in the other direction.