As summer segues into fall, I’m reminded of the impermanence of life. This year, the end of a relationship and a job drove home the fact that nothing is forever. More recently, the death of a good friend’s father after a long battle with cancer served as a jolt, as did the ten year anniversary of a friend’s tragic death this week.
I only met this friend once when I lived in Japan. He was a friend of a Canadian colleague and a bunch of us went to visit Kyoto for a long weekend and were able to stay with him. Little did I know that he would be dead in a year. He was a visiting professor in his early 30s from Canada with a penchant for motorcycles. His widow wrote about their last conversation in commemoration of the anniversary. She was living in Vancouver at the time of his death (and still resides there). They spoke on a Saturday evening as he sat outside a mechanic’s waiting for his motorcycle to be repaired. He was reading a book by his favorite screen writer he told her. It was his real passion, much more than his teaching job. His wife told him that life was too short, he should do what he loved, that he should return to Canada and she would support him through a graduate degree in screen writing. Little did she know that in a few days, she’d be on a plane to Japan to identify her husband’s body after he was killed in a motorcycle accident.
I was travelling at this time and received the news while sailing down the Nile. Little did I know that in just a few months, one of the close friends I was travelling with would be killed in a botched robbery. But this is the unpredictable and impermanent nature of life.
To stop myself jumping on the merry-go-round of rumination, I find it helpful to think about impermanence in a more spiritual context.
Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield proposes that impermanence is both an act of courage and compassion and allows us to face the difficulties from which we have always run.
As he writes: “According to Buddhist scriptures, compassion is the ‘quivering of the pure heart’ when we have allowed ourselves to be touched by the pain of life. The knowledge that we can do this and survive helps us to awaken the greatness of our heart. With greatness of heart, we can sustain a presence in the midst of life’s suffering, in the midst of life’s fleeting impermanence. We can open to the world – its ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.”
Buddhist nun Pema Chodron also chimes in and writes about the bittersweet nature of impermanence: “Impermanence is the goodness of reality. Just as the four seasons are in continual flux, winter changing to spring to summer to autumn; just as day becomes night, light becoming dark becoming light again – in the same way, everything is constantly evolving. Impermanence is meeting and parting. It’s falling in love and falling out of love. Impermanence is bittersweet, like buying a new shirt and years later finding it as part of a patchwork quilt.”
Buddhist writer Natalie Goldberg believes impermanence snatches away our illusions: “We have an illusion that a certain time, a certain place, a certain person is the only way. Without it or them, we are lost. It is not true. Impermanence teaches us this. There is no one thing to hold on to.”
And now, let’s leave the Buddhists behind and take heed of what was written in Ecclesiastes (3:1-10).
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”