When Things Fall Apart

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“The Second Coming,” a poem WB Yeats composed in 1919 and published in 1920, is one of those poems whose influence was not limited to his contemporaries. Despite its shortness with only twelve lines, the poem has been a source of inspiration for successive generations of writers and artists with its apocalyptic message: Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. When Yeats composed this poem, the World War I was coming to an end, with negotiations for the peace agreement between the victorious Allies and the defeated Central Powers going on at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and 1920. While the Conference was going on, Europe and other nations of the world were still struggling to cope with the Spanish flu pandemic. As a matter of fact, US President Woodrow Wilson, who was at the Paris Peace Conference, was one of the notable individuals who came down with the Spanish flu in 1920, though he was spared from becoming a victim of the pandemic that is said to have caused some 40 million deaths around the world.

As the words describing a chaotic situation, many authors have adopted ‘things fall apart’ as the title of their books. Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author, uses these words as the title of his novel published in 1958 to describe how the traditional way of life of a Nigerian tribe was disrupted and uprooted by the arrival of European colonialists and Christian missionaries. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Polack, both senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, use the same words in their 2007 book, Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War, to describe the chaotic civil war that was threatening to spillover into neighboring countries. The same words were also used by Ramaa Vasudevan, an economics professor at Colorado State University, to describe the chaotic financial markets that followed the Great Crash of 2008 in her 2013 book, Things Fall Apart: From the Crash of 2008 to the Great Slump. Since ‘things fall apart’ for individuals as well as for communities, nations, and international organizations, it comes as no surprise that Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun who is the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, also incorporates these words in her 2000 book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, to describe individuals trying to cope with their chaotic lives.

What about the world of 2020, one hundred years after Yeats published his “The Second Coming”? Are not things falling apart amid the chaos and dread that are spreading around the world with the COVID-19 pandemic? There is no end in sight as far as the number of people afflicted with this disease, with the total number of patients worldwide exceeding 30 million and the death toll approaching one million. Ironically, one of those victims of COVID-19 was Cristina, an American pop singer who released a song titled, “Things Fall Apart,” in 1981 and died on April 1, 2020 due to complications from the disease at age 61. Indeed, we are reminded each day that things are falling apart on many fronts: the health care system, the transportation network, the supply chain of raw materials and goods, the mode of human contact and communication, and so on. The words, ‘things fall apart,’ are popping up here and there in commentaries and opinion pages to describe the chaotic situation of the world in the era of COVID-19.

What are we to do when things are falling apart all around us? Is the Second Coming at hand, as Yeats suggests? Looking at the societal tensions around the world caused by different groups of people exhibiting different patterns of behavior in response to the COVID-19 crisis and other crises like the racial conflict, the refugee problem, and the climate change, it is tempting to agree with Yeats that “The best lack conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” There is no question that the post-COVID-19 world would be different from the pre-COVID-19 world in terms of the way we conduct our lives. We know, of course, that change and transformation, whether radical or gradual, are always taking place in the world around us. From the Buddhist perspective, what we need to do is to seek peace and happiness in the world of no-coming and no-going, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, namely, in the world of here-and-now. In other words, our spiritual journey is not about seeking the Promised Land in the East, or the Pure Land in the West, but about practicing in the present world full of chaos and fear. As Pema Chodron writes in her 2000 book mentioned above, “Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path.” (Pema Chodron, p. 10) There is no need to look for signs of the Second Coming, for revelation is already within us, if we care to look deeply.