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Falcons and Falconers

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

This does not end well. Putin’s foolhardy invasion of Ukraine is a zero-sum game, and there is no way out but down through the muck and mire of the lessers of any number of evils: a full-throated scorched earth destruction of Ukraine; a cornered Putin with nowhere to go but nuclear; a protracted war with hundreds of thousands dead and a fractured global economy with a crazy man still at the helm of the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet. And this is not pessimistic assessment. It is, increasingly, the consensus among the experts.

The other day I joined a special zoom teleconference on the Russian/Ukraine crisis, hosted by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. His three guests were Mary Elise Sarotte, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and an expert in international relations; Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former U.S. Representative on the NATO Council; and Fiona Hill, former Senior Director for Europe and Russia at the United States National Security Council and of the world’s leading experts on Russian and Putin. To a person, they all feared the possibility of a nuclear war, though on the bright side, none thought it was probable, which is what they’re trained to say. And who can blame them? Predicting nuclear war is kind of conversation-stopper. I mean, where exactly does the conversation go from there?

I am reminded of the first stanza of William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

These lines have been an oft-repeated poem for obvious reasons, though it speaks especially to our present situation, and because it does, it does not bode well for us. These are dark times, and they were already pretty gloomy before Putin’s war. But now we all sit on the sidelines, feeling impotent in the face of such evil. We can – and should – protest; we can – and should – support the Ukrainians in their defense of their country; we can – and should – pray for peace. But none of this negates the possibility -- nay, the certainty -- of more human suffering.

I was thinking of evil on the way to Home Depot with my son, Will, today, and it occurred to me that, at its essence, goodness expands while evil contracts; indeed, it contracts even as it expands. Think of the evil of Ukraine war. Its effect is essentially one of contraction: contraction of freedom, contraction of human happiness, contraction of democracy, of diplomacy, of hope. And it spreads this contraction as it expands. The evil of the Corona virus works much the same way. It spread like crazy, and as it did, it contracted life, and our liberties, and any reasonable pursuit of happiness. Trump’s presidency has had a similar effect. It spread hate and lies and conspiracies like a wildfire, and its destruction of American democracy has been extensive. I think of the modern eugenic movement, which, while pretending to expand our lives, actually serves to contract our souls. By making human identity essentially a grab bag of preferences, we have destroyed the old boundaries and frames that helped to establish a sense of order for the human condition. Now, in the misbegotten name of freedom, we can be anything we desire, but by making our individual identities relative, we have left our collective identities in chaos. In pursuit of who I am, I have lost all ways of knowing who you are. And I’m not even sure if you is singular or plural.

For nearly 20 years, I would pose to my classes this question: Are we entering a new period of enlightenment or a new dark age? Putting aside the obvious limitations of such monikers for a moment (the so-called “Dark Ages” weren’t, after all, always that dark, and the so-called “Age of Enlightenment” wasn’t always that enlightened), we are left with the essential question I posed to my students: are we heading into largely happier times as a world (ala Stephen Pinker, Bill Gates, and other peddlers of uninhibited human potential), or are we on the brink of a New World Order that compromises the basic dignities of humanity, continues to threaten the causes of freedom and morality, and exercises little restraint when it comes to our wholesale disregard of the clean air and water vital to life on this, our cosmic home? The trajectory doesn’t look good.

This is where my faith comes in. And not necessarily a faith in some cosmic rescuer who will come down at my beck and call to right all the wrongs I see and solve all my problems. After all, I may be the wrong that needs to be righted, and I may be contributing to the very problems I want vanquished. My faith is in the Omega of human history, Jesus Christ, who will have the last word, and with that word will restore all things. Whether that happens before, during, or after a lot of human misery is anyone’s guess. But the restoration will be complete, even as it may be catastrophic. Even our virtues, after all, will be burned away in the light of heaven.

The world may be getting darker, and by all accounts, seems to be headed in that direction. But a light still shines, and as a long as it does, no matter how faint it might be, my hope endures. I will continue to look for the light where I can find it, will listen for the voice of the Falconer where I can hear it, and will celebrate such findings when they happen. This present darkness may not end well. I don’t see how it possibly could. But Love will reign anyway, come what may.

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