We live in a world that lives by the rule of impermanence and I find myself fascinated by it. It is that fascination of those things we both fear and awe. For example, I am unreasonably bothered by the idea that our sun will burn out to the point where it will no longer be able sustain life on earth in about a half a billion years (for perspective, about 2,500 times the amount of time that humans have been on earth), and yet I am also completely fascinated by the ephemeral nature of things. I am completely intrigued by the book, The World Without Us, and the TV show “Life After People,” seeing how everything we find familiar would cease without humans to maintain or nurture them.
Impermanence looms large in our consciousness. It is easily an instigator of the kind of anxiety that lives just around the corner of your awareness. The knowledge that the touchstones of life – your family, home, belongings, environment – are in a state of decay and disappearance can leave you feeling untethered, fearful and filled with preemptive grief.
I have been immersed in the transitory. I recently said goodbye to my role as a Girl Scout leader. I’ve been with these girls for seven years, through most of their life, many since kindergarten. I’ve seen them grow and change and begin to become the people they will be. It was time; there was no doubt about it, and I was ready to move on and devote my energies elsewhere, but the melancholy that I felt at the end was surprising. Here was something that had become somewhat of a burden, but during that last time together, as I encouraged each girl to push her limits and expand her potential, and celebrated each small victory, I realized what I was losing.
The ephemeral nature of things need not be only a source of anxiety, fear and grief. It can be a balm and a comfort. If we did not recognize the transient nature of physical pain, heartbreak, anger and grief, we would find it unbearable to live with them. You might find yourself saying, “I feel like this will never end” – but inherent in that statement is the knowledge that it will end, even if it ends by transforming into something else.
For impermanence does not mean the complete cessation of something; it means the cessation of it in its present state. It means change, and that is a constant. Children grow and then age. Mountains are worn by wind and water. Iron rusts. Experience becomes memory. Grief becomes anger, anger becomes resolution, and resolution becomes clarity.
I have been watching my mother struggle with more than six months of pain and frustration as something that was expected to be a pretty straightforward surgical event became a challenging, reality-altering travail. She has been a student of the double-edged sword of impermanence. She no longer lives with the debilitating pain she has suffered from for years, but she has to relearn how to walk and is quite dependent on others while she does so. She is heartened by every small mark of change, and is, therefore, fed by the promise of impermanence. Yet, she fears she’ll never be able to be mobile in the way she would like when she can only see her plateau, and that change is nearly panic-inducing.
There is comfort to be found in knowing that this, too, shall pass. But if you are to fully embody this face of impermanence and reap all the benefits from it, then it is required that you also embody and accept, and eventually embrace, loss, change and the fleeting nature of our experience.
The fear and distress associated with change and loss, or its anticipation, comes less from the transition itself than from the suffering you impose upon yourself by failing to acknowledge and welcome it. If you look at many religious shrines, you will often find flowers placed there. Yes, they look lovely and gladden the heart, but their real purpose is to remind you of the ephemeral nature of all things and to be able to rejoice in it here and now.