Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” 

Those lines from William Butler Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming,” are familiar to many. If you’re not acquainted with it, here’s the opening stanza:

 Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

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.

 It doesn’t get better, I’m afraid. The poem ends with “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” Very apocalyptic. Not very hopeful. Then again, he wrote it in 1919 following the very apocalyptic World War I.

But even if you’re not familiar with the poem, you’re probably familiar with things falling apart and the center not holding — in your own life and the world at large. Because that is the human condition. Anyone reading Yeats’ poem, in any era, would likely nod and say, “Yep, that pretty much sums up our time.”

It sums up every time. Things always seem to be falling apart and the center never seems to hold — and our greatest fear is that mere anarchy will be loosed upon our world. That is the uneasy tension we live with — that chaos could overwhelm order. Our movies play upon that very fear, presenting the latest version of the eternal battle between evil (chaos) and good (order). Good usually carries the day because it is too upsetting to have it end any other way. The news media, unfortunately, seems all too willing to exploit those fears, reporting the latest threats to order with breathless solemnity or sensational exaggeration. ISIS and related terrorist groups represent our current great angst because they threaten to undermine the nation states of the Middle East, where things always seem to be falling apart and where Bethlehem may yet give birth to some rough beast, its apocalyptic hour come round at last.

In Europe, meanwhile, it is the Greek economy that threatens to unravel European economic unity. 

And we also find it in Washington D.C. where our center of government has been rendered ineffective by those dedicated to making it so because they see centralized governance as an oppressive force that must be weakened.

Even on the local level, events can unsettle us, Peter Traczyk’s death being the most recent reminder. I never met him and don’t know what caused him to take his life, but he was at the center of things and by all accounts doing good work there, connecting, collaborating, and building bridges of consensus, helping to make our school districts stronger and facilitating intergovernmental cooperation.

Oak Park has a stronger sense of community than most municipalities and when someone at the heart of efforts to keep that community strong suddenly, inexplicably takes his own life, we are shaken and can’t help wondering if the center will hold, if things might be falling apart. Anxiety levels spike.

Does the public have a right to know why he did this? No, we don’t. The family’s privacy takes precedence, if indeed anyone knows. With suicide, friends and loved ones are often left haunted by a terrible mystery. 

But it doesn’t reduce the public’s desire to know since we’re all affected — because in a strong community, we’re all connected.

So this might be a good time for a more upbeat reading of Yeats’ poem. Is there any comfort to be found in things falling apart and the center failing to hold? There is, but only if we accept the fact that it is the natural course of things.

Human society has always lived at the intersection of chaos and order, which certainly has its painful, destructive dimension. But it also has a creative side. Chaos is not always evil and order not always good. It is not a duality to be overcome. It is a tension to be lived with (and through). 

We are also learning to live with decentralization, which falls somewhere in between.

Every center falls apart because it has inherent flaws and must fall apart because of them. But with every falling apart, a new center forms because we are ordering beings. We cannot help ourselves. We evolve and adapt. That is our nature.

It may be small consolation as it’s happening, but things never fall apart permanently. The world doesn’t end. We know from long experience that a new order will arise from every falling apart. If we learn from the experience, the new center will be stronger.

The bad news is that centers never hold. The good news is that new centers always form. That is the creative tension in Oak Park, the United (sometimes) States, the Earth, and the cosmos itself. It is the very nature of God — or our evolving notion of God — who combines elements of destruction and creation in one great mystery.

So we do not have the luxury of putting total faith in our “center,” whatever that might mean for us. Neither should we cower in terror that things might fall apart. We know they will.

But the world is not ending. 

A new center is already forming.

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