Part of the title of Professor Elyn Saks’ memoir about living with schizophrenia, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, comes from a poem by William Yeats. The first half of the title is found in the beginning of Yeats’ poem called “The Second Coming.” What comes is not pleasant.
The poem is not easy to understand, especially if the reader does not know about Yeats’ personal beliefs. In his philosophical explanation about mankind and world events he likened history’s movement to two spirals, also called gyres. (The falcon he refers to also moves up in a widening spiral before it strikes its prey.) His poem starts with the gyres and quickly disintegrates:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; “
Whatever the complete meaning of Yeats’ somber poem, Saks can relate to the third line. In her book, she said schizophrenia comes upon a person like a slow fog which increases until:
Consciousness gradually loses its coherence. One’s center gives way. The center cannot hold. The ‘me’ becomes a haze, and the solid center from which one experiences reality breaks up like a bad radio signal. There is no longer a sturdy vantage point from which to look out, take things in, assess what’s happening. No core holds things together, providing the lens through which to see the world, to make judgments and comprehend risk.1
If Your Mind Cannot Hold
How frightening , to lose one’s mind—to lose the ability to reason, discern, and understand the world you live in. For a religious person, to also lose a sense of God or sacred writings. For a lover of God, to lose the ability to rest in the peace and grace found in Christ. Without solid mental faculties to comprehend people, places, and things, where do we stand?
With the falconer.
Within this poem about anarchy and chaos and the pitiless sun, a seed of grace nestles. (I don’t think Yeats intended to infer hope, but a heart of faith seeks it like water.) “The falcon cannot hear the falconer,” he wrote, but that does not mean the bird will not find its way home. Neither does it mean the falconer has lost sight of the bird. Some falconers attach a telemetric device to their bird so they will not lose the animal’s bearings. If a man goes to that extreme for a bird, how much more will God do to keep hold of us?
Someone Holds Us
When a man or woman trains a bird of prey the process takes a long time. The bird does not have feelings of love or fondness, like humans do, but learns that the owner meets all its needs. As one falconry website states:
“The falconer’s commitment to the hawk is deep. He (or she) must serve the hawk’s every need in terms of providing food, shelter, exercise, chances to hunt, and health care. The free-flying hawk has many opportunities to simply fly away and return to the wild. However, most of the time the hawk recognizes its bond to its human partner and voluntarily returns time after time to the falconer’s glove and the care he provides.”2
Unlike birds, we experience feelings of love. God’s love for us draws us to himself and enables us to love him. Birds act by instinct and opportunity, but we act on much more. Even when our thoughts and preserving instincts become scrambled, by heart we know where to go.
But, if we become “too far gone” physically and mentally to have any bearings whatsoever, what then?
“My times are in thy hand…” said David (Psalm 31:15). Many scriptures help reveal the heart of God toward us in those debilitating times. In all our times. We might experience great fear and pain, yet we will not become loosed from God’s hand. People will release us or turn their backs on us, institutions will let us go, the chaotic world Yeats describes will fail us, but:
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your right hand shall hold me.” Psalm 139: 7-9
“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me. The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” Psalm 138:7-8
“The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Deut. 33:27
“I give them eternal life and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” John 10:28-29
So few scriptures do not adequately sum up God or any aspect of his character. Since you’ve had enough ability to read this, read more – scripture, and ask questions. Go to someone whose mind you consider sound, whose heart you consider tender, Christ-like. Read, study, and ask now, while you can, so you can face your days with assurance.
Be of good courage, dear reader. What will happen if your mind becomes fragmented or “lost?” God’s faithful love endures forever and he will carry you in his everlasting arms.
1 The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks (Hyperion, 2007).
2 “Basic Training,” Ohio Falconry Association. http://www.ohiofalconry.org/about-falconry/basic-training
To read “The Second Coming” and an analysis of the poem, see http://www.yeatsvision.com/SecondNotes.html