America is in a dark place. I care for patients whose lives have been ruined by COVID-19. More than 300,000 have died from the virus. Homicides have surged nationwide. More than forty U.S. states report an increase in opioid-related deaths. Domestic violence is a pandemic within a pandemic. Children are floundering. One in six Americans is hungry. This is not even to mention our social and political divisions. As the Irish poet W. B. Yeats put it one hundred years ago, “the centre cannot hold.”
Indeed, the center cannot hold. The world is falling apart. If we are to emerge from December’s darkness with any flicker of hope, we must determine what narrative gives our lives coherence. When everything else falls apart, what holds us together? Sometimes the path forward requires us to look backward.
When Yeats wrote his 1919 poem “The Second Coming,” nearly 9 million soldiers and 13 million civilians had just died in World War I. The flu pandemic of 1918 lasted two years and killed another 17 to 100 million people worldwide. Yeats’s wife, expecting their first child, nearly died from the virus. Death and destruction were dizzying. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer,” wrote the poet. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” The world felt then—like it does today—as if it was spiraling out of control.
What prevents the gyre from ever expanding? What might hold it all together? “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand,” Yeats insists. For some, the “Second Coming” bears the promise that the ascended Christ, born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, will return to earth to undo the wrong. A hero, perhaps, or a savior.
But Yeats’s was not that sort of vision. His lifelong fascination with the occult drew him elsewhere. With the help of his wife, rumored to be a spiritualist medium, Yeats channeled messages convincing him that history cycled every two thousand years. The Christian era was thus drawing to an end. A new epoch would begin with another birth in Bethlehem—the birth of a rough beast with pitiless gaze that lumbers toward the City of David. Yet the poem offers little assurance that this beast will hold the center. In the end, “The Second Coming” offers no hope.
Despite its description of irreparable brokenness, the poem has captured the public imagination. Excerpts from “The Second Coming” have appeared in scholarly books, popular articles, and political speeches. In the first seven months of 2016, the media quoted Yeats’s poem more often than in any of the past thirty years. Its message resonates: Things fall apart. But Yeats offers no solution.
Or does he?
On a closer reading, “The Second Coming” hints at good news precisely because of what has not happened. The poet’s channeled predictions have not come to fruition. The last hundred years cannot be reduced to spiraling entropy; history does not cycle every two millennia; and the rough beast that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” has not arrived. This last point holds particular relevance for the Advent season—when so many fix their gazes on a manger in Bethlehem.
From the Latin word adventus, meaning “arrival,” Advent marks the start of the church year in Western Christianity. In this period, Christians both prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth and look forward to his second coming. It is no accident that Christmas coincides with winter solstice. St. Augustine explained that Christ’s birth is remembered on the year’s “shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.” During the darkest days and longest nights, Christians anticipate the arrival of a child who, they believe, will one day return as a savior king.
For the more than two billion Christians worldwide, these two meanings of Advent give coherence to the narrative of their lives. Life is marked by sorrow. And, yes, things fall apart. But the story of Advent offers hope—a hope that does not disappoint.
On this, the darkest day of the year, may we be confident that the light will soon begin to increase.
L. S. Dugdale is a physician and ethicist at Columbia University and author of The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom.
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