One hundred years ago, William Butler Yeats wrote the poem “The Second Coming.” Much was happening in the world when he wrote it. The First World War just ended. The Spanish Flu pandemic had killed millions and almost killed his wife. Yeats looked at the world and saw not hope but despair.
The poem feels as relevant as ever now. The world feels in disarray. Climate change is here with no end in sight. We’ve just gone through our own pandemic which has killed millions. The rise of right-wing fascism and the fall of democracies is everywhere.
One line from “The Second Coming” that has always resonated with me has suddenly appeared in my consciousness more and more. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” What does this line mean? I think of the online discourse around politics for one, both left-wing and right, and the amount of certainty there is in people’s arguments. I am unabashedly left-wing myself. And God knows, in a former life, I was an angry Twitter head, an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing. My sense of certainty that I was right, that I had the right answers, that I knew what the world needed was frankly pretty nauseating. The self-righteousness was oppressive as my family and friends can probably attest.
Reflecting on that time now, the sense of righteousness came from a need to feel powerful. In truth, it felt good to judge and feel superior to other points of view, especially centrist or right-wing ones. Why did it feel good? I could rationalize what I felt, but to put it simply, I felt powerless in the face of all that was happening: Trump, climate change, a broken health care system, and all the rest. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, social media exacerbated these feelings. I lived in the invisible hierarchies of my mind. My self-worth was based on where I fit in the hierarchy. And to be completely honest, being left-wing was an aesthetic choice. I got to be cool. I got to talk about Marx. I was team Bernie, not boring Clintonites. In some ways, it was culty behavior. I got to be a cool kid. My politics were a way of saying, “look at how cool and smart I am.”
As I’ve gotten older, I see more clearly how the idea of “myself” is insidious, how my ego is always looking for a way to build myself up and feel powerful. And god knows, our shallow, narcissistic culture promotes this way of being. The more “self” you are, the better. Identity is treated as a fashion choice whatever that identity is.
Recently I think of this Dogen line often,
“To study the Way is to study the Self. To study the Self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.”
I can’t say I really understood this for a long time, and to be fair, I probably still don’t fully understand it. But I get it more now. The more awake I’ve become moment by moment, the less I buy into my ego, and the less I take it seriously. And the ego takes itself very seriously. It is helpful to laugh at our folly. The ego is very vain. More and more I strive to let go of my vanity, and my comparisons and see the world through Beginner’s Mind.
The truth is as I see it is that the world is endlessly complex, and that every ideology we adopt is an attempt to make sense of that complexity. Ideologies and the language around ideologies are useful. How else can we communicate our world views? But ideologies very easily become a way of building up our egos. It’s a very slippery slope. One’s idealism very easily turns into judgments and ego. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. More and more I value flexibility with thought. More and more I try to hold paradoxes in hand. More and more I realize that multiple, contradictory things can be true at the same time, that truth is far more elusive than I realize.
I’ve come full circle. I think of Zen Buddhism and the beauty of “not knowing.” There is beauty in not knowing, of seeing the world without ideas, without prejudice. Of course, this is impossible to live this way all the time. The ego is just too wild. But I think it’s a worthy way to see the world. I think of Yeats again, and I think there’s wisdom without living without conviction, in being open to life as it is.
I am still unabashedly a socialist. But I view it differently now. I think of the Bodhisattva vows and living with heart and compassion. Ending suffering is how I see the world, and I think that socialism has a better chance of alleviating mass suffering than capitalism. It’s a simple as that.