After Things Fall Apart: Now What?

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falconer cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”

- W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

These words have been uttered, and perhaps changed utterly by the fact that they have often been appropriated to modern-day political contexts. Tony Blair, for example, used the term to decry the risks of populism overtaking Europe. The often alluded to poem has been overused for politics, but it has also been used extensively for famous books in the English language, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Nick Tabor of The Paris Review called the poem the “most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English.”

But will that stop me from taking and pillaging from the poem for my own gain? Absolutely not. Because what the “center” is different for each society or each individual person. In 2008, Elyn Saks published a memoir titled The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, a book journaling Saks’s experience through chronic schizophrenia. The center, at a core, is a sense of stability, which is different for each individual.

We all have a center, and we all know the saying to hold onto the constants in our lives that won’t change. And what happens if that center breaks down, as has been the case in my life of late? My friends and I have at times likened my experience to watching a home be destroyed by a tsunami, not being able to do anything to stop it, and being left with the pieces after it’s done.

Life changes, but as I like to see it, life evolves. In the words of psychiatrist Abigail Brenner: there are “six recognizable stages accompanying any transition: loss, uncertainty, discomfort, insight, understanding, and integration.” But first, after the center does not hold, comes a time of unknowing. This is when you find out who you really are peeled beneath all your masks and layers.

I had a conversation with my minister, Stephen, about my recent commitment in surrendering and trusting in the will of God and put him in the driver’s seat rather than try control things on my own. There was one question I had fundamentally in my confusion about the quest.

“If I’m going to trust God and put him in the driver’s seat, how do I know what God wants?”

The answer I received, from Stephen’s response and my own thinking about the question, is that you don’t know when you surrender. That’s kind of the point, and it took me a lot of pondering and meditation to make my peace with that. I know from my past that God’s ways and plans make sense in the future — it just takes time, and takes a whole lot of patience. Above all, it takes belief and faith.

Naturally, the annoying insistence of many believers not only of the Christian faith but of all religions and faiths arises. “Things should be fine, as long as you trust enough. Things should be fine, as long as you believe enough.” And I’ve tried that notion, but it is a drastic oversimplification of any situation of hard circumstance. The fact is that it’s okay to be lost, it’s okay be venture in the grey area and the uncertainty once that center is broken.

Sure, maybe the center did not hold. Mine didn’t and yours might have broken apart too. Our senses of stability gave way to consuming chaos, but now, especially now, being comfortable in the chaos, in the lost-ness of life is imperative. I need to remember the words of one of my more favorite writers, freelancer Brianna Wiest, that “good things tend to happen when you stop trying so hard to make them happen…The work you end up doing in your life is almost never Plan A; it’s Plan B, which is what you started doing when you gave up on what didn’t come naturally.” I find, much like Wiest, that the more I try to do something and force it, the more it eludes me. Also, the advice that comes to “just not think about” something is very counterintuitive — that’s all I can focus on.

Without a center, it’s tough to force yourself in a direction. After all, where are you going? “Work becomes hard when we have to force ourselves to do it, and we have to force ourselves when it’s inherently uninteresting or unappealing,” Wiest continues. Her article is oriented on achieving success through a law of least effort, that the best things in life come to us when we least expect them to. I am not a very success-oriented person (and ironically I’ve found myself the most successful doing so), but she has a point when she says that “success starts with us…We don’t have to force it. We don’t have to compete for it. We simply have to respond to it.”

I would like to echo the words of my peer, Noah Lorey, when he wrote that sometimes he felt in college and writing for Odyssey, that “I feel as if I’m drifting on an open sea.” The drifting feeling Noah describes is “not [being] bogged down by a storm or in danger of drowning, just drifting relentlessly. It’s a sort of gentle unease.” Yes, I’m proud that Noah added to Yeats-ian oxymoronic fashions, as the “gentle unease” rings much like the famous phrase at the aforementioned Yeats poem, “slouching towards Bethlehem.”

It rings against my natural inclination of some sort of heroic or even biblical adventure into the promised land. Instead, at all points now, I am just drifting and just slouching towards where I’m going next, and that doesn’t mean daily rigors aren’t hard or overwhelming. By all means, they are and are still. My internal existential struggles, still, are not very visible to the outside observer and person who engages with me on a daily basis.

Does complete surrender to my high God mean that I lay back and “just chill” as I lead my life? No. There’s just another voice now, something in the back of my mind, that comes from the heart, that’ll tell me to lay off when I’ve been too hard or demanding on a friend, that tells me to pursue something interesting my friend shared about their personal life a little farther, that pushes me to explore what I’m doing and what’s meaningful more and more.

When Robert Frost was asked if poetry was a way of escaping life, he responded the opposite: “Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.” Complete surrender without my former center doesn’t mean that I’m escaping anything, that I ignore life’s struggles and give myself to another kingdom. No, it means that this, too, is the voice that takes me one step closer, towards taking life by the throat.

Written by

Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of “The Wire,” God’s gift to the Earth. E-mail: ryanfan17@gmail.com

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