I was extremely happy when Damien Williams agreed to become a contributor here and submitted this piece for our relaunch. In his own wonderful style, it pulls together classic lore, poetry, mysticism, and pop culture for a fascinating meditation on this blog's core theme.
“It is said that what is called 'the spirit of an age' is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit gradually dissipates is due to the world's coming to an end. For this reason, although one would like to change today's world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation.” - Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, 1716
“. . .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," William Butler Yeats, 1920
And then there is, of course, the ever-popular I-Ching Hexagram 23 (~1,000 BCE), aptly titled Breaking Apart:
This pictures a time when inferior people are pushing forward and are about to crowd out the few remaining strong and superior men. Under these circumstances, which are due to the time, it is not favorable for the superior man to undertake anything.
The right behavior in such adverse times is to be deduced from the images and their attributes. The lower trigrams stands for the earth, whose attributes are docility and devotion. The upper trigram stands for the mountain, whose attribute is stillness. This suggests that one should submit to the bad time and remain quiet. For it is a question not of man’s doing but of time conditions, which, according to the laws of heaven, show an alternation of increase and decrease, fullness and emptiness. It is impossible to counteract these conditions of the time. Hence it is not cowardice but wisdom to submit and avoid action.
We have always lived in the breaking times. We have always felt that every period of major upheaval is the end of the world, the final days, the utter Apocalypse, come at last. And we're right. Every major shift of perspective ends the world in which we lived, and brings to bear a completely new perspective. In fact, most often that perspective is necessarily new, because the only ones who survive the shift (or collapse, as some would have it) are those who can adapt to the radically altered contexts in which they find themselves.
As ever, we must adapt, or we will perish, and this isn't news.
This is the brute truth of crisis, whether it's a personal apocalypse, or a cosmic revealing; all that changes is how many of us are aware of the prevalence of the changes, and whether we begin to try to carve some kind of pattern of change out of the process (more on that at a later date). The hazard of these periods of our renewed recognition of this constant upheaval, however, lies with the possibility of us throwing up our hands and saying,"Oh what can we do? It is the end of the world!"
When we look critically at them, Breaking Times are exactly as David wrote: periods of change, growth, and becoming. These times are full of cataclysmic crises, full of war, and death, and personal loss, but they are also full of opportunities. The opportunities to learn new skills, to create something in light of the lack, to build something not just on the ruins, but out of them. Like making ink out of phoenix ashes, we have the opportunity to encapsulate and honour what went before, even as we build and design something new, something "better"-- or at least better suited.
But building a world to adapt to crisis doesn't mean that we necessarily become harder, harsher creatures. Remember: If all times are breaking times, then all times are opportunities to grow. If we only ever became harsher, our societies would look rather different. I think of the difference between Shane and Rick, in AMC's adaptation of The Walking Dead (which is the only mass media exploration of the zombie trope I've enjoyed since Shaun of the Dead; more about why this is, at a later date): while the one man becomes more brutal, willing to kill, willing to destroy any and everything which might threaten the survival of his tribe, the other seeks to retain a sense of humanity, even while swarmed by inhumanity.
The process of trying to hold on to some shred of the way things used to be, in the face of utter destruction, belies the nature of the person who woke up into this world-- who turned around one day and saw that the world he knew was not just in danger, but completely gone. And what happens to him is a direct result of this.
If we are to thrive and engage the opportunities of these times, we need to remain aware of their content, of their possibilities, and the ways in which they are changing, but we must also never forget that this is not the end of the world. It's only the end of this perspective on it.