Building, One Year at a Time, One Day at a Time

Two poems, one by William Butler Yeats and one by Mary Oliver, offer sharply different images of life. Both are realistic, but one is frightening while the other is reassuring. Let’s have a look.

It’s easy to be apocalyptic about the world’s present condition—something like that expressed in “The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats. (A portion is below.) He saw the horrors of “The Great War” (called “World War One” after another “great” war) as confirmation of his apocalyptic vision in which earth was destined to undergo such horrors every 2000 years.

"Song of the Builders," by Mary OliverAs if to confirm his fear, World War Two brought even wider catastrophe to humankind. And seventy years later, 2016, a year of murderous war, terrorism, and the ascendancy of autocratic governments hardly gave us reason for optimism.

Nonetheless, I believe it is possible—and even necessary—to take a brighter view. 2017 is only a number, but it marks the beginning of another revolution of the earth around the sun, another year in which spring will surely come, a year of threat but also of promise. It will be a year in which most people in my country will have gainful employment, and a year in which many people will live satisfying lives. Moreover, we can hope that some true leaders step forward to help us to a better future.

But I believe the close up view is more important for us than focusing on what the big picture may hold. To be sure, up close the misery of others seems even more severe than from afar, and up close, those causing harm to others may look even more reprehensible. But up close, one can listen to the person who hurts, and even listen to the person who causes hurt. One can learn.

And up close, you can take in hand one little piece of reality and build:
build a little bridge to people who are shunned;
build a little strength into someone who is weak;
build a little understanding between different people.

From "The Second Coming," by W.B. YeatsSo let us start with what is near. Let us read to a child, pick trash off a sidewalk, say a kind word to a stranger. Let us take the risk of reaching out in some new way.

With each such action, we turn some small piece of reality for the better. We can do it today and tomorrow and again the next day, one act at a time, for the entire year.

Mary Oliver, in her wonderful poem, “Song of the Builders,” says “Let us hope it will always be like this, each of us going on in our inexplicable ways building the universe.”

We don’t need to despair. We only need to act. Then, no matter the size of the edifice we create, we will be among the builders.

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