I’ve returned to these words by the poet Yeats so, so many times this year. The Second Coming was written post WWII, and is interpreted as a lamentation on the decline of European civilization. A picture of a world spinning so outwardly of control that all conception of origin, tradition, faith, and belief are lost.
The period during which these words were written is not so different from our world today. Indeed, industrialism and materialism still reign supreme (especially during this time of year), but are now compounded with horrifically frequent mass murders (San Bernardino 4 days ago; Paris 23 days ago; Beirut 24 days ago, and hundreds of others just this year), loathsome religious targeting, and a level of racism that has demonstrated how far our society has yet to come – how much we have yet to overcome.
What are we doing? In thinking about the many awful realities, it does seem that the worsts’ “passionate intensity” is filling our world. But, I still have hope.
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all the flesh shall see the salvation of God”
A few moments ago my favorite mug cracked. I was unloading some things from my car – a classic case of too many things and too few hands, and one pottery mug jammed into another. And just like that, crack! I looked at my mug, let out a sigh, put everything down, and then picked up the couple of pieces fractured out. I had just gotten back home after an interfaith service of racial injustice recognition at my church that I had helped lead. More than 30 people gathered to create a space for sharing, listening, and understanding around the critical matters of race and justice in our world today, in our communities, and within ourselves. Needless to say, my mind was still digesting the experience. The service was extraordinary. Only, it was more than that.
The dictionary defines extraordinary as “adj. very unusual or remarkable.” I will agree on both of those grounds.
First, it was very unusual in that teachers, health practitioners, students, clergy, artists, lawyers, writers, and many other incredible community members gathered together in a physical space to allow an organic discussion to be born from a forum of openness, vulnerability, and the desire to connect. Why is this unusual to me? Because the discourse I’ve been privy to on the recent matters of refugee resettlement, the mass killings, and racism have mainly been within the forums of social media – Facebook, Twitter, online news, and the like. Virtually connected, physically apart. As was demonstrated tonight, nothing online can move one to tears and inspire a desire to act in the way that a physical gathering can. Nothing online can replicate the power of seeing each others’ faces, hearing the emotional tremble of words, and the feeling of connectedness and potential held within the breath of the person seated next to you.
Second, it was remarkable because of the diversity of issues and the evident sense of shared passion and concern regarding each that was demonstrated. Some shared from their experiences in the Middle East, with local police brutality, with internal conflicts due to feelings of white privilege, and with frustration because of the constancy and increasing horrific nature of each passing event. All of these stories and experiences were shared and met with head nods, soft and comforting eyes, and a silent yet powerful sense of solidarity. Special highlights include standing and holding the hands of criss-crossed arms as we sang “We Shall Overcome” and sharing quotes from leaders including Angelou, Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, the Quran, and others.
Why was it beyond extraordinary? I have never felt generational empathy in the way that I have tonight. Growing up with a father and aunt brought up in the racist South, I heard many stories of grief, disdain, anger, frustration, disappointment, and sadness from their experience with racism and classicism. My dad often reminds me at moments when I feel confused about my life’s path, that when he graduated college he had one foot on a plane to Tibet with the intention of joining a Buddhist monastery. My aunt, too, often shares stories of her adolescent confusion and resulting complexes in adulthood. Both have led incredibly admirable lives of public service, remaining hopeful that change is and will continue to happen – “the crooked will be made straight.”
When the time came in the service to read the quotes, I had the first one:
“The American Negro never can be blamed for his racial animosities – he is only reacting to 400 y ears of the conscious racism of the American whites.”
~ Malcolm X
I could barely get to the second line before I choked up, tears welling up in the corners of each eye. It’s been more than 50 years since Malcolm X spoke those words, and it is now my turn to hear and see first hand accounts of today’s persisting racism, reflect on my own prejudices, and witness daily classism that was not unlike what my aunt, father, and hundreds of thousands of others witnessed and fought against – and are still fighting against. Reading those words, I felt connected to them and to those around me, most in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, who, at my age, were fighting for the same matters of justice, hope, and peace.
In looking at my cracked mug, which is repairable with love and a bit of ceramic glue, I am reminded that our lives are not so different. The human experience is deeply complex and the issues we create and face are so deeply interwoven – but, when the layers of comfort and everyday complacency become ruptured by trauma and evil, we are afforded the ability to come together to see past nationality, color, faith, class, and all other “othering” identifiers. We have the ability to be reborn, from a place of love, kindness, and care for one another. Indeed, the Second Coming is still within sight – we still have reason to be hopeful.
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
~ William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939)
We may be beasts slowly slouching towards change, towards equality, towards peace, but our ability to be reborn – not even the most passionate and intense of the worst can take that away.