If Life is Impermanent, Why Bother? Seize the Day
The reality of impermanence has always seemed a no-brainer to me. People and animals come into existence; they live out their lives; and then they die. Or, in the words of the bumper-sticker, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die”
More importantly, my own experiences with memorial services, funerals, hospice, suicides, emergency rooms, psych wards, and drug and alcohol rehabs have helped me to understand the fragility of life.
On the other hand, I was recently confronted with someone’s concern that, in being aware of life’s impermanence, there may be a hidden agenda to “glorify” it as a license for moral relativism, an excuse to bow out of commitments and responsibilities. After all, if nothing in this world is permanent, why bother to be loyal, to love, to be grounded in anything?
The ancient carpe diem (“seize-the-day”) philosophy was certainly based on the notion that, since the world and its pleasures are finite, we should wring from life every moment of pleasure we can get.
Andrew Marvell, the seventeenth-century poet, capsulizes this seize-the-day philosophy in his famous poem, “To His Coy Mistress.” The poem is a light-hearted rationalization for seducing the narrator’s mistress because of “time’s wingèd chariot.” The simple logic to his mistress: if there were enough time, you could afford to be coy and “quaint” in your honor. Since there isn’t, then don’t lose your “virginity” to the “worms”in your grave; give it up to me.
A mixed carpe diem message can also be seen in the famous school of painters from the ukiyo-e (floating world) school of woodblock art in the seventeenth century. Many of these prints portrayed sensual courtesans and geishas at the height of their eroticism.
Life as a “Floating World,” Dabble, Or Pack it All in
The Japanese artists often tempered that eroticism with a strong mood of melancholy, a sense that all reality, including sensuality, exists in this “floating-world” of impermanence.
This sweet/sad mixture of the ukiyo-e school is a tender reminder that sensuality should be enjoyed but, at the same time, humans should know all beauty fades over time.
No matter how heroic the Japanese have sometimes portrayed themselves, I have often felt that the culture has learned, in the end, to approach life, stoically. Historically, they have certainly experienced enough tragedy to have inherited that philosophy.
In our American drive-through culture, we are prone to “gathering in” as many experiences as we can. We don’t want to miss anything. Our ability to accumulate experiences tells us that we are still young and vital. We become what I call the “skimmer class,” the group that likes to experience a little bit of everything.
“Dabble in something new,” seems to be the motto of this group. They will pick up miniature golf for a few weeks, read a best seller, hop on a plane to Las Vegas, check out an opera, take up line dancing, join a health club for a couple of months, go vegan for a week.
Life, to the skimmers, is to be experienced quickly and spontaneously. After all, as the saying goes, “we only live once.” (This may explain why I have heard from Europeans that Americans don’t have long-lasting friendships—we are just too “busy” to foster any kind of deep relationships with friends.)
As a Social Security card-carrying member of the senior citizens in America, I have watched some pensioners go at their golden years with a vengeance. They want to pack it all in before the Grim Reaper arrives—cruises, tours, safaris, expeditions. A retired friend of mine put it succinctly when I asked him how he was doing after his wife died: “I’m keeping myself busy, but I feel like I’m just rearranging the furniture on the Titanic.”
I remember reading a survey of nursing-home patients who all said they wished they had traveled more. I think the magazine writer who quoted the survey was suggesting that too many Americans choose to “miss” an important part of their lives by not having expanded their “travel” horizons. None of the seniors were asked whether they regretted not having written a novel or a memoir of their lives.
To most Americans, expansiveness means going somewhere, taking a plane to exotic places, signing up for a cruise, checking out triple A.
In the end, our subconscious flight from our own mortality may be hidden in many of our travel ventures after retirement.
Easing into our final days by going inward, trying to make sense of our lives, or even having a meaningful conversation with our kids about mortality, to most Americans, probably seems fatalistic and morbid (I would also suggest that American adult children are just too busy with their own lives to have any desire to plumb the depths of life’s meaning with their parents—as a culture, we’ve trained ourselves to “avoid” any conversation that might be labeled as “too personal”).
Hanging On to People and Things, Hiding Behind Order (Control), Certainty
On the other side of the coin are those who want to “hang on” to everything in their lives from their automobiles to their children. They will sometimes use their children in order to create a false sense of permanence,in their own lives and in the lives of their offspring. They would like to believe that they are being optimistic and wholesome about the human race, but, in reality, they want to make sure their values are “carried on” by the next generation (Erik Ericson put a positive spin on this need to extend certain values to the next generation as “generativity”).
Others try to flee from impermanence by creating an illusive world of order in their own lives. They manufacture an edifice of stability with commitments, an ideology, money, property (ownership), investments, religion, degrees, even domestic rituals.
Certainty is very important to those who seek order in their lives. They want to be sure that their worlds are protected against implosion. They get married. They take out long-term care insurance. Their cars get oil changes every 3,000 miles. Their front lawns are manicured. Their bathrooms are spotless. Their kids lives are “arranged” with after-school activities.
Those who seek certainty, order, predictability, and order in their lives often become attached to what becomes familiar and safe. They fear change. They resist intrusions. They crave the known and avoid the unfamiliar. Impermanence becomes a threat.
In the end, I don’t believe that by recognizing impermanence in my life that I am glorifying it; I am merely stating a reality that nothing in life lasts, in the same way that I recognize Newton’s law of gravity or that two plus two equals four.
The moral or psychological dilemma does not exist in my recognizing impermanence, but it exists in how I react to knowing that everything I do in life is finite.
The Choice to Pursue Meaning, to be Compassionate, to Live in my Humanity
I can choose to give my life meaning by being ethical, by affirming standards, by making commitments, by being loyal, by being compassionate. None of these behaviors have to be my reactions to impermanence. I can make those choices on my own without having to avoid the reality that everything in my life is finite.
The danger lies in trying to hide behind values or a need for order because I don’t want to accept the reality of life’s impermanence. I can also manufacture a transcendent world of “permanence” to defer all of my crises to another world where I will be permanently consoled or taken care of (a variation of what one Buddhist calls “spiritual materialism”).
Or I can choose to live in my own humanity. I can recognize life’s impermanence. I can be saddened by life’s passing. I can enjoy the fruits of my labor. I can love my children. I can miss a friend. I can mourn a father’s passing. I can observe my behavior. I can think about my life. I can live now without hiding, with fleeing, without holding on.
I think I’ll go that route.