Larry Efird: Ceremonies of innocence

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 30, 2023

The following excerpt comes from a provocative poem by Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Though it represents only  half of his entire poem entitled The Second Coming, these lines alone could arguably present  an accurate  commentary on contemporary life in the United States, even though written a century ago in another country.

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…

— W.B. Yeats

I first discovered this poem when I was teaching the novel Things Fall Apart, by African author Chenua Achebe,to a tenth grade English class.  A crucial  line  from the poem became the title of his famous novel which focuses on  how the continent of  Africa fell apart during the  nineteenth century due to competitive Europeans wanting to expand their empires, aka imperialism.

When was the last time you thought something–or someone–was falling apart? I remember saying that when I was a senior in high school because I was quite confident that the future of our school would fall apart once our Class of 1973 walked across the stage at graduation fifty years ago. (Fortunately, due to my teenage hubris, I was wrong.)

Politicians often adamantly claim the country is falling apart if things aren’t going according to their respective party’s plan. Teachers often feel the educational system is falling apart due to a lack of funding from their state government and overemphasis on standardized testing.  Most college basketball fans who fill out their brackets for the NCAA tournament each year surprisingly  see those brackets fall apart after only the first and second rounds.

In light of incessant national tragedies, some of Yeats’s words echoed in my own thoughts recently. I asked myself, Is America falling apart? Could Yeats’s poem be apocalyptic?   Have we passed the point of no return?  In my most cynical moments (in front of the nightly news) I would be tempted to answer that question in the affirmative. In my most objective moments (while on a hike through the woods) I would say no.

Why do I have hope for America when a  blood-dimmed tide is threatening to drown our  ceremonies of innocence? After all, shouldn’t  elementary schools be synonymous with  hopeful ceremonies of innocence  rather than easy targets for violence?

Why do I have hope for America when the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity? Whom do we have in mind when we think of the best, and conversely, whom do we have in mind when we think of the worst? And where do we,ourselves, fit into that mix? And why doesn’t anyone want to listen to someone else in hopes of finding a  solution?

Why do I still have hope for our beloved country when it appears to be falling apart, spinning out of control and  dangerously whirling off course into unknown perils?  I wish I could say that all elected officials  would  put people first, not their careers. I wish I could say that all educators  would be encouraged in their efforts to  help future adults understand the importance of  global awareness. And I wish  that every person in America would choose  love  over hate. However…

Giving up  hope in America  is not an option  when threatened by   blood-dimmed tides,  those evil byproducts of passionate intensity which  are continuing with alarming frequency. Their primary purpose  is to replace hope with fear. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, We must keep hope alive. Thankfully, he was committed to keeping  ceremonies of innocence  afloat for all Americans.

Where can we find  this hope as we precariously spin closer to what could resemble mere anarchy? Religious teachings? Trusted friends or family? A therapist? Those might be the expected places to look first.

 But don’t forget about the unexpected places:  a morning cup of coffee while absorbing an ocean sunrise, the  comforting smell of pine trees on a warm day, the  reassuring kindness of a stranger when traveling alone, the joyful music of a cardinal or a symphony, the delightful chaos of a preschool  graduation, or in the caress of a gentle breeze where angels often make their presence known.

 For  in those ceremonies of innocence, you may just  find enough hope to fill  your fearful soul.

Larry Efird retired from teaching in Kannapolis City Schools.