Last night Billy (my husband) and I enjoyed geeking out over a bit of literary analysis. We were reading a William Carlos Williams poem on the nature of modern life. Lines from the piece keep floating up in my mind today. The last few lines are perfectly haunting:
and adjust, no one to drive the car
Although this poem was published in 1923, Carlos Williams is expressing something we still experience today– a lack of center. Modernists like Pablo Picasso, Hemmingway, and T.S. Elliot were experiencing the break from the traditional models of self-understanding. Before the arrival of modernity, people judged themselves and others by local traditions, regional mores, and religious dictums. As Carlos Williams refers to earlier in the poem, the young people he sees “have no / peasant traditions to give them / character.” It seems as we’ve gained the informational freedom and online connectedness of the modern era, this loss of center has only grown more acute.
We have more news than ever but few people question the quality of reporting. We can entertain ourselves with a huge array of television shows, video games, and online cat videos–but what lasting lessons do these superficial time fillers provide? TS Elliot wrote about how “the center cannot hold” in modern life–we’re all spinning away from the anchors that kept society stable in eras past: Family. Religion. Social hierarchy.
So how do we stay grounded and centered in this modern maelstrom?
We have to be our own centers now. We have to get quiet enough to listen to what’s true within our selves. We have an opportunity here to figure out what it is that matters for each of us, according to our own experiences. And to live by what we learn from our hearts.
Our scattered modern life gives us plenty of distractions–plenty of reasons to avoid witnessing our lives, to neglect readjusting our steering, as Carlos Williams would have it. But with a mindfulness ritual (yoga, tai chi, qi gong, martial arts, meditation, prayer) we can discover the center within each of us. We can learn how to step back for a moment from the endless distractions and adjust our directions.
Rather than giving in to the incredible pace and frenzy of our lives, we can slow down. We can stop. We can listen and breathe. And we can get to know the witnessing part of ourselves, the part that sees everything that happens to us. And the only part that can act as a grounding center in our own lives.