On The Impermanence of All Things
450 million years ago, there were about 415 days in a year. 4 billion years ago, the moon was 10 times closer to the Earth than it is today, and a day was approximately 6 hours long.
Scientists have observed these changes and based them upon the interaction — a celestial dance — between the Earth and the moon. (If you want to listen to the full Radiolab podcast on this topic, click here).
This information is intriguing and compelling to think about just on its own. But it also leads to a more philosophical point about the nature of life itself.
Nothing is Forever
- The Earth
- The Sun
- The Moon
These are all things that we take for granted to one extent or another as “forever.” I’ve always found the human mind to be incredibly fascinating because so many of us live our lives with a subconscious belief that we will live forever.
That is, until we are directly confronted with the reality of our own impending demise. I think that this default pattern of thinking is inherently linked to being a human being. We view death as “that thing” that happens to people we read about or hear about — and sometimes even people we know — but don’t truly believe that it will happen to us. And this is why so many people put of their dreams; this is why people don’t travel; this is why people don’t set goals; this is why people squander their most precious resource: time.
We also assume that the celestial bodies on which we reside will always exist, and will always remain the same. However, even stars and planets have limited life cycles. Even if takes billions of years, stars get hotter and hotter and then eventually explode. And our sun is no exception to this life cycle. In terms of our Earth, once the sun — the very source of our life — is gone, so goes the Earth as well. But that is billions of years away, and won’t affect me or probably anyone who ever reads this. But is important is the fact that even today the nature of our reality is changing. Our continents are spreading farther and farther apart; species are dying off; the moon is moving a few inches away every year. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is forever. Everything about our world is constantly in flux.
Embracing that Life is Change
It’s a strange thought to embrace that nothing in our reality is truly eternal. The very framework on which we hang our confidence and beliefs aren’t truly there. But in a way, that fact makes life that much more valuable. If we truly embrace that life is constantly changing — that what we have today may slip away tomorrow – this understanding will make us act, make us appreciate, and make us love.
People are fantastic at embracing the moment when they fully understand that its fleeting. That’s why vacations are so amazing. That’s why summer romance is so exhilarating. We fully realize and fully appreciate that the opportunity that we’ve been presented with will definitely fade away. But honestly, that’s the nature of life as a whole. Life is scarce. Opportunity is scarce. The opportunity to take a journey or to love something is nothing trivial. It’s a propitious invitation that could fade away at any moment. For the best parts of life are a perfect storm of all of the right conditions:
- The right location
- The right time
- The right age
- The right people
- The right amount of luck
And to take that for granted is to take life itself for granted. And life should never be taken so lightly. This knowledge should make us fiercely live and boldly step out into the unkown because we may never have the chance again.
Not only should this fill us with a deep passion to live to the fullest, but it should also fill us with hope. Since things are always changing, there is always a hope for what will be in a the future. This idea truly excites me. It’s what drives me. The curiosity to see where the road of life will take me and those around me is an incredibly exciting thought.
One of my favorite books is Comfortable with Uncertainty by Buddhist monk Pema Chodron. Buddhist doctrine is grounded in the of detachment: the idea of letting go. This shouldn’t be conflated with not caring about people or not being fully present to the moment. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It means having a greater awareness to what is happening in the present. But, this awareness contains an inherent understanding that things will change regardless of whether or not you want them to.
And since things will change inevitably, we are encourage to embrace that change, and appreciate what was while embracing what will be. The Buddhist practice of mandala art speaks exactly to this very fact. Monks will spend days making a very intricate sand art piece — placing one grain at a time — and then will simply blow it away upon completion.
Around the 1000′s the Japanese started righting poetry that was steeped in an idea called mono no aware or “a sensitivity to things.” It’s an acceptance of the fact that nothing is forever; and it’s an expression of a deep sadness of the loss of beauty.
Nothing about letting go is easy. But I’ve always said and believed that life is but a series of lessons on letting go. And part of being able to let go is appreciating what we have now, and looking forward to what we will have in the future. Because no matter what you do, things are not fixed. Not life situations, not the seasons, not even the Earth itself.
So what will you do? What will you do with your time? What will you do with your opportunities? What will you do with your life? Because things are constantly changing. Life is constantly transforming and transfiguring.
So as the Japanese would say: live for today, while looking forward to tomorrow.