Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Given we live in scoundrel times, or as the Chinese curse puts it: “may you live in interesting times”, I have always struggled personally on the conflict between the Edmund Burke’s (1729-1797) saying: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” and the Roman Stoic Philosopher Seneca (4 BCE to 65 CE), whom I think said: “In scoundrel times good men cultivate their gardens.” In this context, I recently wrote a very personal piece on this conundrum, this conflict, that I hope resonates with some of my readers, especially my older readers.

We went to the sea yesterday and looked at the wide flat horizons of the North Norfolk coast. Afterwards, my wife told me that I sometimes fill the room with my ranting about the state of the world. About its cruel, unsustainable incompetence; the incompetence of its leaders and organizations. And it is becoming increasingly intolerably painful for her to hear me, because it is all too evident to her too. She would like me to shut up about the state of the world; just for a few years…. 🙂

Here in the watches of the night at 3am after that day by the sea, it came to me that as we age we do, like my Dad, increasingly rant about the state of the world. On the surface, it is indeed often an accurate commentary on the said cruel, unsustainable incompetence of the world, its leaders and organizations. But underneath it becomes something more like a King Lear rant about our growing powerlessness to effect any impact on the state of the world. Our loss of access to the levers of power and the fact that no one is listening to our rants. And that those with access to the levers of power do nothing of much consequence with them. Nothing to really divert the world onto healthier paths. That our rants have therefore no effect in an attention deficit, uncaring world. Which is perfectly set to continue on its path for systemic reasons over which no one, least of all we ranters, has any control.

And maybe in reality our rants are more about our own situation. We rant, we rage against our own mortality. The fact that life, which we thought a garden of branching paths, with decisions that impact our lives and the world, which is perhaps a necessary fiction for us to do anything at all with our lives; this life is actually, from the start, more like one single path: a labyrinth from birth to death with no branches that make much difference to our  essential mortality.

As the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said, we come to realize this, and as a result start to  “rage against the dying of the light”. When perhaps what we should do, is what we did yesterday which is simply to sit for a few hours in different places and look at the sand dunes, the muddy river and especially the flat horizon of the sea. Here there is no gap between how the sea should be and how it is. It just is. And we enjoyed it. We simply felt the inner joy that came from contemplating it. Maybe that is all there is to life and the raging against the dying of the light, against the cruel unsustainable incompetence of the world, a waste of our breath, a waste of the limited time we have left when we should simply pay attention to fleeting moments of joy?

Or do we combine this, with existential gestures that try to defy the situation. Always engaged as a friend of mind says. “Toujours engagé”. We should judiciously choose points for modest non-narcissistic interventions, probably on a small one-to-one scale to act as Herman Hesse’s character Siddhartha in the novel of that name ends his life doing. Working as a ferry boat man, simply ferrying travelers from one side of the river to another. A limited, but worthy service, without grandiosity or pretense to have major impact, beyond helping travelers cross the river, pilgrims on their way in life, on their own labyrinths. I guess I should look for a river some people need to cross and buy a ferry boat?

Here is Dylan Thomas; the poem I read at my Dad’s funeral five years ago:

Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

 Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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