Impermanence, Death, Love

From an early age, I have known that life is brief, fleeting, impermanent. I have had these experiences, these overwhelming intimations, where everything around me becomes viscous, where it becomes hideously obvious that there is nothing to cling to here in this world–no person, no belief, et cetera. Nothing. It’s just me, lost, adrift, existing momentarily between two unfathomable eternities. My life never to be repeated.

Or perhaps, to my horror, for all of this to repeat eternally–for this universe, billions of years from now, to recede at elliptical speed back upon itself into a “Big Crunch” and then begin again instantaneously in another “Big Bang,” with everything unfolding exactly as it had always. Something I also considered long before I ever read Nietzsche.

Or maybe the next incarnation of the universe would unfold differently.

Either way, none of it provided any comfort. Only horror. Only horror at my little life. Only horror at my predicament. Only horror at our shared predicament.

The following are some lines from Rilke’s Duino Elegies that pieced together 4 years ago when I first found out that my mom had melanoma.

Some Scattered Lines of Rilke that I Ran Across Today” (August of 2006)

Do you still not know how little endures?
Fling the nothing you are grasping
out into the spaces we breathe.

We do not know our exact location.
And animals, as perceptive as they are,
notice that we are not really at home
in this world of ours.
It seems our own impermanence
is concealed from us:
The trees stand firm,
The houses we live in are still there,
And we alone float past it all,
an exchange of air.

To be here is so much.
Once for each, only once.
Once and no more.
Never again.

There are the hurts.
And, always, the hardships.
And there’s the long knowing of love.

And what can we keep?
None of it.
Not anything that has happened here.
Not even the beholding, so slow to learn.

To what can we turn in our need?
Not to an angel, not to a person.

Above the change
above the loss
how can we embrace our sorrows
and learn how to love
and praise it all?

And so like everyone else here on earth I too have played my little games with reality, with the brute facts of my existence, as well–trying to hide from them, denying them their rightful place in my life, falling into that delusory mode of treating others as if they would never die, loving others (as well as myself) in that way–as being much more permanent than we are, as being much more sturdy than we are.

We are so perishable, so fragile, so small; we know so little about why we’re here; and deep down we’re so frightened and scared. That’s honestly who and what we are.

But instead of being honest about all of this, we hide behind little competencies and little victories and little struggles and spin these elaborate stories about why we’re here and how significant we are–or we buy into others’ elaborate stories, et cetera, et cetera. All because we’re frightened and anxious.

What scares us the most is the power of our own negative emotions. Is terrifying being terrified; it’s terrifying experience a panic attack; it’s horribly unnerving being anxious. Almost none of us can stomach these negative feelings; they drive us to find some answer, something that will keep them at bay, keep us from ever having to feel anxious, terrified, panicked, alone, lost, disoriented, in the dark.

And so we come up with all sorts of strategies and stories to keep the fear from us, to keep us from dealing with what we perhaps each must learn to deal with head on if we are ever to truly come to life and live a wide-open life and live life on its terms.

As the German poet Rilke put it: “We need, in love, to learn only this–letting each other go. For the holding on comes easily enough; we need not learn that.”

This is what the Buddha also taught about life: that suffering, old age, death, and disease are inevitable. And that we each must learn–while we are still in the prime of life–how to more honestly, authentically, and legitimately cope with these inevitabilities. We must courageously, even heroically, learn to lead a life of less blindness (denial) and less attachment, one where we make friends with the more and more of the difficult aspects of existence and not instinctively or reactively hide from them or try to sweep them under the psychological rug.

As Whitman put it in his poem “Lessons“:

There are those who teach only
the sweet lessons of peace and safety;
But I teach lessons of war and death to those I love,
That they readily meet invasions, when they come.

This is what it means to become a psychospiritual warrior prince or princess–to willingly, despite possibly near incapacitating fear and trembling, confront our deepest fears and heroically try to strip away the scales (blinders) from our eyes.

This is what we are each called to become–a psychological and spiritual warrior prince or princess.

But it is a call that too few of answer, let alone even hear or acknowledge.

After all, it’s hard to hear this call if we surround (insulate) ourselves near 24/7 with distractions, chaos, little projects, petty arguments, and always live amid some sort of noise or clamor.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Control is at the core of so much of what we, as human beings, do. We prefer comfort to truth–the comforts of a life of daily struggles and bustle to the more spartan-like and less consumeristic life of truth.

The truth–reality, the brute facts of our existence–is often uncomfortable, unsettling; it makes us feel overwhelmed. And so one of the ways we deal with this negative emotional possibility (of feeling anxious, overwhelmed, unsettled, disoriented by life) is to live in ways that are more conventional and comfortable than truthful, ways that are of less rather than greater resistance.

The death of someone close to us whom we love does a lot to tear away at many of our veils and at much of our comfortable ways of denying reality; it does a lot to press us to become more truthful, to live more truthfully, more in reality. Someone who was once there, living and breathing, has gone and is no more. As it says in Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities; everything is vanity.” Everything is written on the wind. As Sartre put it, “Every existing thing is born without reason; prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” Maybe. Or maybe not. Who knows? We can’t know whether we live and die at random or rather by design. But, if we’re actually honest with ourselves, then it’s not a stretch to say that we’re in the midst of something unfathomable and inexplicable, something completely mysterious, and at best what we have are either guesses or fables or stories and legends that have been passed down through the ages or a little bit of science to hold up like a candle in middle of all of this darkness and confusion.

And what do we want most? Some feeling of control to allay and keep at bay all of the feelings of lost-ness and of possibly being overwhelmed or imperiled.

So our want of control is perfectly understandable. It’s what we all want–to feel in control, to not have to go around constantly fearing our own strong negative emotions and being overwhelmed or flooded by these. We all want to preserve our self, preserve our sense of comfort, control, sanity, ease.

Who really wants to face down their deepest darkest fears?

Who really wants to go through some ordeal like Aron Ralston went through in “127 Hours“–literally being trapped between a rock and hard place–having his arm pinned between a rock and the wall of a slot canyon in the middle of nowhere in Utah, with no one else around, with no one knowing where he was or where he’d gone, and with enough food and water to last maybe a day at best. For over 5 days he tried to free himself before finally doing the extreme thing–which was no longer the extreme thing given his dire circumstances–he cut his own arm off below the elbow with a pocketknife/multi-use tool and freed himself from the rock that had wedged his forearm and hand to the side of canyon wall. After I saw the movie of this ordeal, I thought, what fears could this person possibly have anymore? For 5 days he was forced to contemplate his own mortality and fate, was he not? He was lost in the middle of nowhere, with scant water and food, and with no one knowing where he had gone. And so he knew that if he didn’t gnaw his own arm off with that pocketknife he would die of dehydration before anyone figured out he was missing.

But most of us are never pressed to the max like this by life, we are never wholly at the mercy of life or circumstances. We always retain some sense of control and order.

But what if the way to really wake up and fully come to life is by going through some ordeal like that?–some ordeal that forces us to confront our own mortality and take the blinders off in a way that leaves us not one iota of wiggle room for denial and self-deception? What if that’s what it takes for us to become the best versions of ourselves possible?

What if that’s what it takes (or at least a good portion of what it takes) if we are to ever wake up and learn how to love one another, ourselves, and this one brief fragile life?

Because that’s what I suspect.

I suspect that we cannot truly love others or ourselves if we are not willing to deeply face our own fears and mortality and be brutally honest with ourselves in these areas.

Otherwise, like Augustine, and as he wrote in his “Confessions,” we will love others as if they would never die. And that’s not really truly loving them and treating them as they are–as fragile, perishable, temporary creatures.

About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
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