Accusatory, nightmarish and alarmist visions front-page our printed newspapers, transmit from our airwaves, and blanket our digital world. We are informed about corruption, exploitation, bigotry and a long list of other malfeasance in the corridors of local and national political and corporate power. Communication is often vulgar, hypocritical, and intolerant. Whether by post-truth fake or what claims to be factual news or by the prevailing mood of the times, we are told that things have fallen apart, that “the center cannot hold.”
What is different about life now than at other times in America’s history (or any nation’s history)? The ability of newly minted social and older media to spread, via the Internet, inflammatory rhetoric to billions of people 24/7. What is not different is the fact that seamy, sordid things and very cruel things have always lurked behind the glitter, pomp and complacencies of our lives.
That the times are divisive and emblematic of devalued Enlightenment principles concerning reason and truth, once expected to guide our brute instincts toward serving the public good, is one thing. That we allow such times to intimidate and unsettle us, to separate us from our own principles as well as our civility, utility and hopes for achieving our country is a bad thing. A bad thing, but not unexpected.
Human beings are not born humane, cultured and autonomously responsible. We are not blessed at birth with an unwavering care and concern for what is right, noble and compassionate or with the nerve to act on these decencies when the bandwagons of finger-pointing, doom and despair would have us do otherwise. To civil and rational possibilities we must be tutored and trained and of their bold expression we must of ourselves demand.
In other words, each of us in America is subject to the burden of our transformation from naked primate to autonomous citizen. It is our means to owning and achieving our country. We pay the price of ownership via the studied acquisition of autonomy.
Responsible autonomy is a creative feat, a moral obligation and an independent accomplishment because it requires that we wrest control every day from the lower, brutal and head-in-the-sand order of our natural instincts.
If we don’t embrace the transformative behavior that defines our national experiment in autonomous citizenship, we are likely to come out seething, looking for someone to blame for our anger. Or we hide in plain sight as if our complacency and general ignorance about nature and history were not a key part of the seriously and perpetually unfinished business endemic to the conditions and circumstances of nationhood.
The poem by Irish poet W.B. Yeats from which I took the phrase “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,” appeared first in 1920 after the end of World War I, an ill-purposed, greed-inspired war that took the lives of 40 million people. Yeats’ passionate rhetoric was meant to capture the contradictions inherent in the historical process and the poem’s alarming imagery has been cited nationally and internationally every time conflicting beliefs and interests reach a boiling point.
But as I said, the social and moral problems that constantly destroy the possibility of a decent life for so many of us have always existed. However, they excite these center-cannot-hold crises of confidence only every decade or so. For those of us not at the effect of these miserable and unjust conditions, the persistent undercurrent of anger and instability now upsetting our lives is absent. In other words, we wake up and smell the coffee only when we do.
At the best of times and at the worst of times what you have to contribute to this nation, this world, is your responsible autonomy. Your center can hold. It can live strong and vibrant in your philosophy and skill with the competent practice of autonomy. Your presence of mind and the standards by which you conduct yourself can provide you with an uncommon ability to manage your own obligations and accountabilities and to contribute to the lives of others.
These practices can make you a rock and a beacon for what it means to be free, equal and just, even amid the intending-to-incite din that now characterizes the general temper of our nation.
Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes. Visit autonomyandlife.com for more information.