Poet David Whyte on Our Turbulent Times
(The poet David Whyte is one of the most astute articulators alive today of the complexities and vulnerabilities we face every day in our troubled, turbulent times. This essay arrived in my inbox early this week. Broad reaching, deep, more humanistic than political, well worth reading, contemplating, allowing inner paradigms to shift as needed.)
CHARLOTTESVILLE: The Signature of Our Time
– by David Whyte
There is every reason to despair not only from the tragedy of Charlottesville, but from all the present events that march across our screens and that seem completely out of our control, but there is every reason to hope that with attention and discipline and a more profound understanding of the fears that undergird hatred, we can bring ourselves and our societies, back into the realm of choice.
First, the easy part to address, our despair: the world at present seems to be a mirror to many of our worst qualities. We could not have our individual fears and prejudices; nor our endless wish to feel superior to others, nor all our deepest flaws, more finely drawn and better represented in the outer world than are presented to us now in the iconic figures and even the weather patterns that dominate our screens and our times.
Our present despair takes many forms: a torch lit procession carried by those who wish to illuminate nothing but their own prejudicial view of others, Donald Trump, a man with the worst qualities of the ever present adolescent, that live unfortunately, deep down in all of us, but terrifyingly, are now placed into a position of power and prestige, where they can do incredible damage – a damage magnified by the sense that he actually represents the opposite of despair for a significant part of the US population: then our oceans swimming in a refuse that almost all of us, environmentalist or not, order from Amazon every week: then on our screens, poor migrants, fleeing the consequences of our corruption and our climate, swimming through those waters onto the shores of the privileged: now Kim Jong-un, as the crazed part of us, when, without a moral compass, we first get a gun in our hands -and the literal, overarching despair, of our everyday skies – the weather becoming more extreme every year – seeming to work in concert with our penchant for individual extremism – and given the same unconscious boost from our unheeding everyday actions.
As for our technological frontiers with space: many of our fantasies of exploration seem nothing more than immature masculine fantasies of escape from the necessary heartbreak and vulnerabilities of the conversation we need to have on this earth.
As to hope, there is plenty of it, but hidden beneath a reflection that seems necessary to outline all of our very worst flaws.
This is a time for us to learn self-knowledge, which is always an examination of our blind spots, our vulnerabilities and our flaws as much as our virtues. Nevertheless, despite the inherited human difficulties writ large across our heavens and our screens, we have never lived in a time, when more people as a proportion of humanity have been as well fed or housed or presented with astonishing possibilities of which their ancestors could only dream. Looking at my daughter’s face I would not want her living in any other time in the whole of recorded history than this one; she has more opportunity, more chance of being treated with respect in her work than any of her long line of struggling female ancestors going back before the Neolithic. She lives in a world of feminine autonomy that Jane Austen, only two hundred years ago could only imagine. It is only a matter of time, if we follow through on this conversation, before most of her less fortunate sisters in the world have the same gift. Taking this last example alone, fully fifty percent of humanity has a more dignified, more empowered, more respected future than ever before. The present pseudo-science from a Google engineer, even if it hovered within stretching distance of the truth, ignores all the equivalent disabilities of the masculine in the world it has shaped, it is representative of a last rearguard shot before we embrace the reality of women taking a full place in the shaping of our society. As to the natural world, it is not all bad: in the North of England where I grew up, all of the polluted rivers of my childhood have been cleaned up and are beginning to burgeon again with life; Bald Eagles soar over my present house near the Pacific Ocean, where there were none just decades ago, and very personally; in this very personal human life, looking at the portrait looking back at me on my desk, my mother could come back today and experience none of the prejudice she would have felt as a young Irish girl on first coming to England in the fifties.
Despair or hope aside, the great, underlying question of our time is whether our human identity, with its admixture of fears and prejudices, courage and generosity; shaped by millions of years of pressure, and brought to its present domination over the planet and its inhabitants through an almost virtuosos ability to see itself as separate and superior, can overcome its instinctual and until now, seemingly necessary tribal prejudices, and survive significant aspects of its own essential nature, into a future that is made by courageous choices, and not by our inherited and deeply instinctual fears of the world and of others.
Looking out into a galaxy seemingly empty of signals from intelligent life, it is a fair question to ask if the emptiness signifies, not the absence of intelligent life, but the inability of any civilization to live beyond the present technological threshold upon which we now find ourselves. We could therefore, either be about to disappear in the next century, or, as spur to inspiration, survive a transition that no other intelligent species has yet managed, at least in the near universe.
The strategic, controlling mind, naming things and people to keep them at a distance; objectify them and dismiss them, has been part of the way we have survived in a very fierce world of competition and evolutionary pressure. It takes only a magnified and extreme form in the torch lit Nazi parade in Charlottesville. These people marching, feel overwhelmed by the otherness of the world and have allowed the worst proclivities of their human inheritance to come to the fore.
We have always had to name the world to make its more unpalatable qualities make sense, we have always had to believe in the names we gave it to make sense of the swirling, surrounding powers of an often, overwhelming world, even if our names were wrong, and even if other people suffered because of our names. Now the consequences of this naming and the evil it represents can be fully seen, remembered in the context of the way it shaped our last century’s awful course and most especially, can now warp our possible future. We live in a time where we are learning not to diminish otherness if we want to survive, because we are all being placed into an intimate conversation with the way we suffer when we diminish the ‘otherness’ of the world, whether it be in factional civil wars between ourselves or a factional war with the ‘otherness’ of the natural world. This foundational learning may be what marks our global transition from adolescence into adulthood.
My adopted country, The United States of America, in particular, has come to an existential, adolescent breaking point, it is at the same place as its President: faced with the mirror reflection of its own immaturity, when it only wishes to be seen as the fully perfect and powerful representation of humanity that it would like to be. Like a human being growing into the world, trying to be something it is not, the rest of the world has already seen through it. Like a mature human being it has to learn the world still wants its best and most extraordinary qualities, which are manifold, but not at the expense of having to live with its overblown unrealities. The hardest travail for Americans at the moment is in letting go of their own well massaged but false image of perfection, both of its now unworkable and extremely flawed form of government, but most especially the idolatry and false worship of its very flawed constitution and of the self-delusion that it made for itself through the writing of that contradictory document in the first place. We have to face the fact that we created this constitution of equality when one fifth of the population were in chains, would remain in chains for two further generations, and would carry their then invisible chains on into the present day. This is the foundation for a proper and mature adult conversation and perhaps for the rewriting of that, marvelous, ground breaking but very flawed document.
But the whole of humanity is just as involved in trying to grow out of its difficult adolescence as is America, including this author sitting at his desk facing the edges of his own maturity: I face my own flaws as does China, with its overweening need for social control; Russia with its governmental penchant for gangsterism, Africa and South America for their virtuoso corruption, Europe and Britain with their settled sense of cultural superiority -Australia with its merciless treatment of refugees – at the foundation of it all – each one of us is implicated in our own private, prejudicial lives, whatever culture we have been born into. For this we need to take a fierce, unvarnished look at ourselves: President Obama’s ‘most liked’ tweet of all time, quoting Nelson Mandela: that we are none of us born with prejudice, is a lovely sentiment, but unfortunately not scientifically true.
Science tells us that we are shaped biologically, very early on, to prefer the facial characteristics, the accents and the skin tones of those who nurtured us. But what is more inspiring and is also scientifically proven, is that we can learn to trust faces, learn to trust and even enjoy words that are at first not familiar, and learn to live with different tonal qualities other than those that first brought us into the world, and that this extends to the non-human world of nature of which we are also a part and which gives us the foundation of the very air we breathe. This necessary education into ‘otherness’ is mostly effected by parents or societies learning not even to name the ‘other’ people in our lives as black or white or anything in between, and that this radical act of un-naming inclusion, both in parenting and in our societies in general, might be the most central, the most difficult and the most courageous and crucial conversation of our times.
Life is fierce and difficult and gives us every excuse for defensive prejudice and easy hatred, but there is no life we can live without being subject to its griefs, its losses and heartbreak. Half of every conversation is mediated through disappearance. Thus, there is every reason to want to retreat from life, to carry torches that illuminate only our own view, to make enemies of life and of others, to hate what we cannot understand and to keep the heartbreaking world and the people who inhabit it at a distance through prejudicial naming -but – it therefore also follows, that our ability to do the opposite, to meet the other in the world on their own terms, without diminishing them, in celebration and in creating something new, is one of the necessary signatures of human courage; and one we are being asked to write, above all our flaws and difficulties, across the heavens of this, our present time.
This threshold in history, this brief time upon the planet in which we can read these words, and think about our future as if for the first time in the light of the fact that we understand everything is at stake, is a fierce and unforgiving epoch, it is at times overwhelming, at times terrifying, but at times astonishingly inviting. We seem to be asked to live at this moment in history, without choosing between being afraid and being courageous, it is after all, not only the signature of our time, not only its essence, but of all the time there has ever been in the world, the hallmark of the only time we have.
© David Whyte
has to be inscribed
across the heavens
So you can find the one line,
already written inside you.’