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Things Fall Apart

I haven’t kept up with the news for years. Years and years. My long-suffering husband helps by giving me highlights and summaries. He knows that a childhood heavily seasoned with End Times Prophecy and an unfortunate draw toward dystopian fiction sometimes combine with breaking news to send me into an emotional state that closely resembles panic. In the past, I have entered occasionally into a recent story or event. I’ve talked it over with friends and thought about this or that perspective. Then, after days of processing, I’ve taken a step back to remind myself that the world is bigger than the conflict I see in front of me.

This year, there’s been no time for processing. The need to care for my children and my community and the desire to engage as a citizen of this country have forced me to keep an eye on current events, but one horror follows so close on the heels of another that I cannot catch my breath. I am daily overwhelmed by shock, fury, and grief. I try to discipline myself, to take the reins of my imagination; I turn to look out the window or whisper a prayer, and sometimes before I’ve completed my exhale, panic is gnawing the edges of my mind. The words of W. B. Yeats rise like specters, and they are no longer poetry but the anthem of a certain doom. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The news cycles, the unfolding lies, the relentless brutality—they spin so fast it seems inevitable that all the bits and pieces of the world I knew will be flung into oblivion. We can’t go on as we have. The center cannot hold. I am frightened.

Time and again over these last months, I have asked myself what I should say or do in response to what I see. I’m already afraid of saying the wrong thing, of speaking too soon, of failing to see other perspectives, of attempting to say again what has already been better said. I wonder which is the greater problem: my words or my silence. Things are changing so fast I don’t have time to sit with them and learn from them. Where do I begin when some new thing is perpetually beginning, and it’s big and loud and urgent, and the other thing I was contemplating doesn’t matter anymore? Anyway, what’s the use? My children like to dip their hands and feet in buckets of water and make prints on the wood of the deck. My words are like those prints: distinct for a moment and then gone. Things fall apart while I watch and wonder what to do.

I wonder, for example, what Yeats meant when he said, “the centre cannot hold.” What is the center? I’m somewhere in the middle of my life, pulled between one generation and another, often frustrated by extremes at both ends. Behind me is a generation whose parents were traumatized by war, who experienced the horrors of addiction and neglect. I see in them the longing for ideals, for leaders in faith and politics who can be trusted. I respect their determination, but I fear that they have tried to elevate too many things to the level of “center.” A center that includes a spotless American history and an irreproachable structure of human authority cannot hold. But I sense in that generation a terror of the anarchy that might be loosed upon the world. They have seen more of it, perhaps, than I have, and it’s not the kind of thing you forget.

On my other hand is a generation who suffers from no illusions. Their perspectives have been shaped by scandals. They have seen the corruption that bred in darkness lanced like boils and exposed to the world. Is there any such thing as integrity? Does anyone tell the truth? Is there any human institution worth saving? I feel their disillusionment, and their refusal to take things at face value is a strength. But I sometimes sense in them a recklessness that would declare there is no center, that the only truth is what each of us in our blindness and desperation wants to believe in this moment. Nihilism has its allure, but I cannot feel at home in such chaos.

So I return to myself, somewhere in the middle, and to the question of what I am to do. I have thought many times this year of a book I read in 2018 called The Great Emergence. The author, Phyllis Tickle, suggests that every five hundred years the church goes through a period of transformation. She cites The Great Reformation, The Great Schism, and the emergence of monasticism as support for her argument, and she even points out that every major shift in church history has been accompanied by a plague (!). It was a fascinating little book in 2018. It offered a bird’s-eye view of what might be happening in the world, and it comforted me. It has been a greater comfort in 2020. As ludicrous as it sounds, I feel as if Phyllis Tickle took hold of my hand and did not let go. Her words have been a source of consolation in a season of constant transition and pain.

Whatever can be shaken will be shaken, but only because it was never an unshakeable thing to begin with. Stated more plainly, the center will hold. Helena Sorensen

This year I’ve been keenly aware of my need for comfort. I have returned to familiar stories in order to experience the comfort of anticipated endings. I have relished the comfort of food, of warmth, of routine. I have ached to be held, to hear a trusted voice murmur words of reassurance while I weep. The truth is, the world is in transition, and it is not a little shift from one year to another or one era to another. It is the transition a woman experiences in childbirth. Transition, in that sense, is a move from the time when you count the minutes between contractions to a time when there are no minutes between contractions, when you run out of chances to breathe, when the birth of something new is close at hand. I have experienced transition twice, and on both occasions I resolved to be brave and calm. I planned to focus my mind and control my emotions. On both occasions, I failed. I panicked. The pain was too big to hold, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

In those moments, what I needed most was a midwife. Her role was minor. She played no part in the conception or growth of my children, and they were born as a result of natural physical processes; but when the crucial moment came, the midwife was there for me. She told me what was happening as it happened. She reminded me that the pain would not last forever. She assured me that what I was experiencing was a normal part of the process of birth. She held my hand while my son and my daughter came into the world.

There are as many ways to serve and give and speak and fight and heal and build as there are unique human expressions of God, but, to answer my question, it’s possible that one of my roles is to stand inside the tension, to encourage one generation to let go of anything that is not the center while inspiring another generation to believe there is something worth holding onto. I can remind us all (starting with myself) that there’s no need to worry about unshakeable things. Whatever can be shaken will be shaken, but only because it was never an unshakeable thing to begin with. Stated more plainly, the center will hold. We are receiving a kingdom that cannot be moved. It is held together by a circle of relationship—by Father, Son, and Spirit. The Center is within us, reaching out to everything we encounter. It surrounds us, reaching inward to everything that’s broken.

So much is being shaken, and the pains come without pause. It’s a frightening time to be alive, and I know you’re as scared as I am. Take my hand and hold it tight. Something new is being born, and we have reason to hope.

The Center will hold.

“Our hearts are heavens And our eyes are light-years deep, Sounding Your will, Your peace, in its unbounded fathoms: Oh balance all our turning orbits, till that morning, Upon the center and level of Your holy love: Then lock our souls forever in the nucleus of its Law.” —Thomas Merton


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