Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The impermanence of things

On my Facebook feed, at least, the hysteria over last year’s election is finally subsiding, and the feed is once again a pleasant place to be. I logged on to Facebook today, hoping to see that venue's typical diversions: vacation photos, news of children's soccer games, and snapshots of evenings out. 

What greeted me instead, however, was the news that the parent of yet another classmate has passed away. One of my old friends has lost her father. 

I'm in my late forties, and those who are old enough to be the parents of anyone pushing fifty will themselves be well into their seventies. This is the age at which time is no longer on one’s side, the downhill run of life. While it is not uncommon for a person to live to age ninety or beyond nowadays (the last person born in the nineteenth century recently died in Italy at the age of 117), it is also not uncommon for people to die in their early seventies. 

The inevitability of death does not necessarily make it any easier to bear, when it happens to you. I lost my mother two years ago at the age of sixty-eight, and there is not a single day that I do not acutely feel her absence.

More and more often of late, I’m reminded of the Japanese expression: Mono no aware

There is no exact English translation for mono no aware. A rough translation would be, “melancholy when reflecting upon the impermanence of things”. Japanese culture, owing to its roots in Buddhism, perhaps, takes a stoic view of death. But once again, inevitability (and Japanese stoicism) do not necessarily soften the blow. Hence the melancholy experienced when reflecting on life's impermanence, and the specific Japanese word for this emotion.

When my mother died two years ago, I spent some time going through some old family photos. I ran across some from my early childhood, my parents’ wedding, and even a few black-and-white snapshots from when my parents were dating. It occurred to me that back then, in the late 1960s, when my parents were experiencing the joys of early marriage and parenthood, somewhere there was a 49-year-old just like me, who was mourning the loss of his or her sixty- or seventy-something parent.

And so it will be for a young person reading these words, who has not yet given any thought to the realities of time and death. It really is an ever-repeating cycle, just like they always told you it was.

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph above, a lot of people have been angry of late. We are angry about politics, among other things; and the toxicity of the Internet only amplifies that anger.

We are divided, too, by our ideas about what life and death even mean. 

As for me, I'm a very moderate believer who is agnostic about most of the details. One of my acquaintances is a stridently ideological, militant atheist. I usually avoid deep philosophical conversations with him, because they invariably end in an argument. In most regards, my acquaintance is pleasant enough. He is a boorish lout (to put it kindly) when evangelizing his atheism. He is one of those atheists who delights in mocking any form of spiritual belief.

I did, however, recently get him to agree with me on one key point. No matter what we believe about religion or spirituality, each of us will have to make our peace with the inevitability of death. 

Although we so often argue about such matters, this colleague and I (no, I do not quite call him a friend) were both taken aback by the fact that there was essentially nothing for us to disagree about here. Imagine that.

The impermanence of things unites us all. And if we live long enough, and we bother to think about it at all, each of us will have our season of mono no aware.