Tuesday, January 7, 2020

What Rough Beast?

This blog returns to its regular programing.  For the last several weeks we indulged in the respite of light, hope, and music of the Winter holiday season.  This morning we awake from those pleasant revels to the dark and dangerous world that took no break.  Australia—a whole continent—is an inferno.  A feckless leader pushes the world to the brink—or maybe already passed the brink—of cataclysm.  All the while our country slides towards despotism as the puny Sisyphuses in Congress labor to push the pebbles of impeachment up an avalanching mountain.

Despair, rage, and exhaustion overwhelm the best of us.  Many of the Unitarian Universalist ministers and leaders who I admire and follow were just as stricken and bewildered as the rest of us struggling mightily to find a way to offer some dim hope or a way forward to their congregations.

At the Tree of Life UU Congregation in McHenry, Illinois last Sunday guest preacher Rev. Michelle Lattanzio, one of our former ministerial interns, evoked William Butler Yeats’ bleak assessment of the world 100 years ago.

The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre 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.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

—W.B. Yeats, 1919
She reminded us that the poem—perhaps Yeats’ most famous and greatest—was written in the grim aftermath of The Great War which had shredded and spit out a generation of young men and left Europe a smoldering carnal house and a ticking time bomb of revenge and retribution.  His own country was embroiled in a bitter War of Independence from Britain that would eventually slide into a fratricidal civil war between former Republican brothers.
Yeats—an avowed Irish Patriot—dared not publish his despair in his own country.  Neither the British who still occupied Dublin or his own revolutionary allies would have permitted it.  Instead he sent it across the Atlantic to be first published in The Dial, the literary magazine founded in part by Ralph Waldo Emerson and once edited by Margaret Fuller as the voice of the Transcendental movement now reinvented as a literary magazine and showcase for modernism.
However bleak the prospects of 1919 were, somehow the world muddled through and slid into normalcy.  Yeats’s verse seemed then clever hyperbole.  But at each new crisis—world-wide Depression, World War II, the impending Armageddon of nuclear war, and now on the brink of catastrophic climate change, the poem seems more prophetic than ever.
But what can we do with such an assessment?  Does it disarm us with despair, or is there a way to grapple with it and even struggle against the possibly inevitable?

Buckminster Fuller with first model of Dymaxion House, an early attempt to create energy and resource conserving manufactured housing that could easily be assembled and errected in all sorts of climates and conditions, in 1927 after his life changing vision.
In a possible answer Rev. Lattanzio offered us the vision of Margaret Fuller’s grandnephew, R. Buckmaster Fuller.  In 1927 his life seemed in shambles, his career had gone off the rails.  He lived in poverty in a Chicago tenement with his wife and infant.  He contemplated suicide and spent a year in self-imposed silence hoping to find his true voice.  One day walking the shores of Lake Michigan and considering throwing himself in the water, he had a vision.  A voice seemed to tell him:
You do not have the right to eliminate yourself, you do not belong to you. You belong to the universe. The significance of you will forever remain obscure to you…you may assume that you are fulfilling your significance if you apply yourself to converting all your experience to highest advantage of others. You and all men are here for the sake of other men.
In an essay on Fuller’ life Celeste Adams wrote:
Fuller decided to devote the rest of his earthly existence to discovering what he, as one man, could do to benefit all of humanity. This decision was the beginning of a 50-year experiment to find the principles that ruled the universe. He wanted to apply these same principles to solving the problems that troubled humankind.
Although he had neither money of his own nor the support of corporate or government financing, he was determined to redirect the focus of humanity away from utilizing its most important resources for creating weapons of destruction. He was determined to teach us how to use these resources for “livingry,” which he described as the betterment of all human beings.
Fuller felt that if technology were used with this intention, it could create a radical change in society and “raise 100% of humanity to a level of previously unimagined success.”
A brilliant polymath Fuller did just that.  He innovated endlessly hoping that technology as expressed in things like his famous geodesic domes could make life better for all.  Eventually he expanded on that to advocate a new city based on what he called synergy—behaviors of whole systems, unpredicted by behaviors of their parts. By 1980 Fuller issued his great challenge:
We know now what we could never have known before — that we now have the option for all humanity to “make it” successfully on this planet in this lifetime. Whether it is to be utopia or oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.
Almost none of us can command Bucky Fuller’s genius.  But we can assess our own tools and gifts and apply them to the same great tasks.  If enough of us do so, there is perhaps hope after all.

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