Poets can be prophetic at times and they are supposed to tell the truth at all times. William Butler Yeats did both when he wrote The Second Coming in the aftermath of the First World War.
“Turning and turning into widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned...”
What was true then may ring more true now. I think of those lines each time I hear another account of a mass shooting where weapons of war are loosed upon the streets of contemporary America. At each report of innocent children and defenseless people being cut down by the nihilistic rapid fire of hate, I feel the ceremony of innocence being drowned again. And the recent shootings in El Paso and Dayton came in such rapid succession that it felt as if the blood dimmed tide was loosed upon us all.
An old idea states that it is the same to live in a tragic time as to be in a tragic place. There is truth in that also, as we are all wounded by the cold-hearted, cold- blooded killings that plague the entire country. The gun violence and mass shootings are an attack on humanity itself. They devalue all of our lives, leaving us in a devalued world where the sanctity of life itself has become endangered. Something must be done to stop these massacres. For, they will not just continue, but will grow greater, both in terms of frequency and levels of human tragedy.
We all increasingly suffer the condition where “the center cannot hold.” The hardline polarization of political parties says that, the attempts to dehumanize people of color says that, the growing number of people feeling fear and anxiety on a daily basis says that. The center cannot hold in the face of all the uncertainties about the future coming from the threats of climate change, as well as the sense of worldwide cultural upheaval.
Under the weight of collective pressures and growing anxieties, those who are more mentally or emotionally unstable can feel pushed closer to the edge. From there, all it takes is some reckless rhetoric to push them right over. When it comes to gun violence and mass shootings, it would appear that instability is growing more intense in young men, and especially in young white men.
We are in a battle not to “make America great again,” but to make all people human in the eyes of each other again. We are wittingly or not in a struggle for how to be truly human in this time of worldwide insecurity. We are in a fight against the alienation and isolation that fear can generate and that hate can harden.
As most people have figured out, “make America great again” also implies make America white again. It also expresses a longing for a particular kind of masculinity that needs to feel superior to others, especially women and people of color. Donald Trump is not the direct cause of all this mass violence, but he is a model of the lack of self-knowledge and absence of true empathy that makes this kind of cold hate possible. Whoever has a great need to dehumanize others has lost or failed to find the ground of decency and humanity within themselves.
In psychological terms, a superiority complex involves both the pretension of being superior to others as well as an underlying, deeply troubling sense of inferiority. So, the desperate beliefs in “white supremacy” cover up a lack of genuine self-knowledge and a deficit of meaningful personal identity. Under the false cover of supremacy, an inner morass of inferiority and resentment can turn, not just to anger, but to nihilistic forms of cold hatred.
By now, the first question many people ask upon hearing about the latest mass shooting is not who did it, but how many have died. Most often the shooter turns out to be a man, most likely a young man, more often than not, a white man. The most recent shooters were a 21 year old and a 24 year old with seemingly different motivations, but both with similar descriptions to other male shooters: loner, disaffected, troubled.
Many of the shooters have a history of terrorizing and abusing women, as is the case of the Ohio shooter, who shot down his own sister. A Facebook posting by a former classmate said that “he was a classic glorifier of violence.” He had threatened many classmates, but his violent tendencies were dismissed under the adage that "boys will be boys." The problem is that troubled boys can become troubled men unless some awakening occurs. The trouble is that what modern societies try to dismiss as a phase that boys will outgrow is actually a crucible in which the values and the continuity of a culture must repeatedly be forged.
Recent neuroscience seems to suggest that self-control can be more limited in men, especially in young men. The part of the brain that stimulates anger and rage appears to be larger in men and the part that restrains aggression tends to be smaller in men than in women. This does not absolve men of blame for violence. Rather, it means that society has greater responsibilities when it comes to the transition of boys into men. It means that giving power, and especially powerful weapons to men, requires that there also be a capacity to handle human passions and be even-tempered when under pressure.
The volatility in young men cannot simply be denied or explained away. Ideas like “toxic masculinity” can point to part of the problem, but are not likely to lead to the kind of understanding and healing needed to truly temper the extreme emotions that increasingly lead to violence and abuse, but also to mass shootings, and viral forms of terrorism.
For many years, I've studied ways in which ancient cultures used practices like rites of passage and initiation practices both to awaken and to heal young people as they make the transition from childhood into adulthood. Some ancient societies imagined that human culture actually begins, and must be continually remade, in the transition that occurs from one generation to the next. Traditional cultures often realized that artful methods had to be developed to contain and shape the volatile emotions and intense energies that characterize youth.
A great example comes from the Gisu tribe of Uganda who called the animating but unstable spirit found in young people by the term litima. Also known as the “force of inner heat,” litima is considered masculine in tone, and eruptive in style.
Descriptions of this instinctive force specify a fiery emotional state that is the source of the kind of aggression that can give rise to ruthless competition and even raw brutality and violence. But there is something else. The same force of inner heat can also be the source of true individuality, high-minded ethics, as well as the courage to protect others and uphold community ideals.
Seen this way, the emotional forces and radical energies characteristic of youth are by nature, ambivalent. The inner heat of young people, particularly young men, can be the source of high ideals; but when left unguided, the same force can become a scourge of ruthlessness and violence. Since things are rarely neutral in life, leaving the inner intensity of youth unattended can only lead to behaviors and attitudes that can endanger both culture and nature.
It seems to me that there lies a deep root of the problem of violence in modern societies. For, just when young people are at their most volatile, modern culture tends to turn away, rather than engage youth at a meaningful psychological level.
Going back to the old idea that a culture must remake itself with each generation, it can also be said that young people tend to manifest and express the inner symptoms of the society at large. If the deep issues of culture and the inner conflicts of youth are ignored, and left unresolved, young people become more unstable and can become unable to navigate the inevitable crises encountered in life. Either the forceful energies of youth become tempered and aimed at nobility and genuine ideals, or those same energies will manifest as extreme self-involvement, but also as addictive tendencies and violent behaviors.
One element of the growing problem of violence in America comes from the lack of meaningful engagement of youth at the exact time when they are most volatile. Leaving them to their own devices not only abandons them at a critical time, it also makes them more vulnerable to being recruited into dangerous ideologies that offer immediate empowerment and a way of belonging to a belief system or movement. Add to that potentially toxic mixture the easy availability of powerful weapons and the modern tragedies of both suicide and mass killings become more possible.
Turning to another traditional culture, the ancient Irish had a saying: "You don't give a man a weapon until you've taught him how to dance." In other words, a different kind of learning is required before someone can be truly trusted with social power and potent things like weapons. If a man does not know the wounds of his own soul, he can deny not just his own pain, but also be unmoved by the suffering of other people. More than that, he will tend to put his wound onto others. He may only be able to see the wound that secretly troubles him when he forcefully projects it into someone else, in forms of abuse or violence.
So in the old culture-making idea, in order to properly bear arms a person must first become disarmed, as in becoming vulnerable and connected to something meaningful and supportive of life. The idea of forging the temperament of young men took precedence over the idea of simply giving them weapons at a certain age. The tempering of the souls involved discovering what kind of anger each might carry and learning about the inner line where anger turned into blind rage. Becoming tempered also meant immersing in the sorrow of one's life and thereby being in touch with the grief of the world.
The ancient Irish also had the idea of a walkabout in which boys became men, partially by learning from nature, but also learning the nature of their own volatile passions and wounds from early life. In order to learn the language of emotions and vulnerability, all of the young men would learn poetry. The idea was not that they would all become great poets; the point was that everyone has some poetry and some beauty in their soul. Until a person knows their own heart they can't know much about the hearts and souls of other people.
Learning to dance is a metaphor for opening a person's mind and heart to more creative energies and to life enhancing qualities. Becoming part of the dance means being grateful for the gift of life and feeling part of the rhythm of existence, and the song of one's own soul. Learning to dance, rather than march along or drag oneself through life means finding an awakening to the dream of one’s soul. Dancing in that way means contributing some wholeness to a world that too often seems about to be torn apart with violence and with conflicts that might engulf the entire Earth.
An essential test of any culture involves whether it can find an imagination greater than violence, brutality and greed. When the ceremony of innocence becomes drowned again, we have to deny the part of ourselves that wants to retreat from the agony of life. We have to struggle against the forces that would dehumanize any of us and find ways back to the center again, where the humanity and the nobility of everyone can be recognized and nourished and blessed.
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