“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” W. B. Yeats
Doesn’t it feel like we’re living this profound line from that famous poem by Yeats, “The Second Coming”? Well, perhaps that’s because the poem was inspired by another pandemic, the Spanish flu (1918-19). The death rate among pregnant women was an alarming 70% in some areas; Yeats’ pregnant wife unfortunately contracted the virus and almost died.
Arianna Huffington, founder of Huffpost and Thrive Global, wrote earlier this month, “We’ve lost touch with the center.” Have you felt that at times? Prior to the March shut-down? Running here, there: working, shopping, attending social functions, catching flights. Always busy, always searching. What are we searching for?
So, while we’re all desperate for social interaction, these past weeks have been a fantastic opportunity to return to centre. And while we may be cross with modern China for their slow and sneaky response to the pandemic, their ancient Taoist tradition of yin-yang offers us a lost piece to life’s puzzle. Throughout life, most of us have enjoyed an abundance of yang – masculine, fast, active, aggressive. What we need is more yin – feminine, slow, passive, yielding. As Lao Tzu, founder of the Tao, said, “thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub; it is the centre hole that makes it useful.”
In her inspiring article “We Are Never Going Back”, Huffington refers to our current situation as a “crucible”. If the word sounds biblical, it is: Proverbs 27:21 The crucible is for silver, and the furnace for gold; but man is refined by his praise. Meaning? The result of great trial by heat leaves precious metals poised to be made into jewellery; the result of great trial by praise leaves a human poised to reveal a precious character. Or . . . not.
We’ve all known men – or women – overly attached to praise and the resulting haughtiness and enlarged ego is not something you’d call precious. Preciously annoying is more like it.
We’re seeing this play out among world leaders in this trial by pandemic:
*UK Prime Minister Johnson’s response is called “arrogant complacency” by Metro News
*Brazilian President Bolsonaro calls the coronavirus “a little flu” and an economic threat
*the US President* sees it as an economic threat as well, while promoting the unproven drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure
While the coronavirus is indeed a ginormous economic problem the world over, putting money over human lives is wrong. And ignoring the advice of experts in epidemiology – as Bolsonaro and the US President* do – is both selfish and reckless.
But the crucible Huffington refers to is this Oxford dictionary meaning: “a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new”.
What is wrong with something new? While man’s “progress” has allowed many the world over to enjoy fulfilling lives of relative luxury, at what cost has this been to other sentient beings and to the planet?
And just look at the glaring societal gaps this pandemic has exposed! In Canada? Eighty-two per cent of Covid-19 deaths have been in long-term care homes. “The Canadian armed forces report found instances of insect infestations, poor hygiene practices, and neglect, among other concerns,” BBC News reports. “Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the document was ‘gut-wrenching’.”
And this is ironic, yes? While well-paid CEOs of large corporations might sacrifice bonuses during these trying economic times, it’s lower-paid workers, like grocery store staff, maintenance people, truck drivers, and so on, who are keeping the economy going while hospital staff are literally keeping people alive, often without proper PPE.
Huffington mentions another ancient source of wisdom, the Hindu epic Mahabharata, which chronicles three kinds of life a person may lead:
*a life of inertia and dullness with no goals and achievement
*a frenetic life full of busyness and desire
*a life of goodness
Dullness sounds pretty, well, dull. And it’s good to be busy, but being busy for the sake of busyness? Not enough. Goodness? That sounds good, huh?
I listened to a great podcast the other day, aptly called “Holding it Together When Things Fall Apart”. Dan Harris interviewed Pema Chodron, an author and meditation teacher who lives in rural Nova Scotia. Chodron talked about a friend who was struggling with some serious financial issues due to the pandemic. He said he was going to spend a week thinking it through and then spend another week meditating on it, getting into his body and just observing. Can you guess which one provided the most relief? Hint: it was so excruciating, he did not make it through a full week of thinking it through.
Getting back to Lao Tzu, he observed that the centre hole (nothing) makes the wheel useful, the space within a clay vessel (nothing) makes it useful, the holes (nothing) cut for windows and doors for a room are useful: “therefore profit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there.”
Due to our capitalistic societies, most of us know all about the quest for profit, a positive bottom line. In this halted pandemic time of great nothingness let’s be okay with what is not there, happy in the knowledge that there is great usefulness in stillness. A stronger, kinder centre is being forged.
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