The passing years never stop. I remember when I was in college, reading Alan Watts’ description of life as a river flowing, flowing always flowing.
His description matches reality and it is a reality that I experience more fully as I grow older.
Nothing stops the flow of life. Not war or volcanoes or earthquakes. Not even death. The dead (be they trees, insects or people) decompose and become the substance out of which new life sprouts and grows.
Despite the ceaseless flow of life, there are times when we really want everything to come to a stop for a while. There are times when we need to just pause and catch our emotional breath.
When something really major happens … like the recent shooting at the Tucson shopping mall, or the assassination of a president, the moon landing or the miraculous rescue of those Chilean miners trapped underground for more than two months. At times like that, I want everything to come to a stop at least for a while. How can time continue to pass when such tremendously important experiences disrupt our hearts and souls? But the flow never stops, does it. The evening and the morning forms the next day. And then the next and the next and the next.
And soon we’re months or years or decades farther down the river and we’re all still in the rich endless flow.
Maybe that’s what memory is for – to give us that moment’s reflective pause.
Yesterday, (Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011) the TV show CBS Sunday Morning presented a piece on John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. The piece ran because it was 50 years ago this month that JFK became our nation’s 35th president. The program said seven out of 10 Americans alive today were not even born when Kennedy took the oath of office. To them, such a retrospective shown in crisp black-and-white film footage, is history.
To me, watching the handsome young president and his beautiful wife on that snowy bright Washington morning was watching my own life in rerun. I was immediately 13 years old again, full of awe and hope and wonder at my new President asking me to give to my country. His question, of course, planted the idea within me that I could actually contribute to my nation. I could make a difference. It was all new and inspiring and wonderful.
And almost as immediately, my eyes filled with tears, knowing what lay ahead for him, his wife and his children. What lay ahead for our nation…the hope of the civil rights movement and the space program and the Peace Corps, and all the violence of political assassinations and the Viet Nam War and on and on… the ceaseless flow of life rushing through me in the form of memories.
All that was and is no more. All that is and all that is to come. What will tomorrow and next month and next year bring? The flow continues and we with it, growing older every day.
One of my favorite Watts’ books, "The Wisdom of Insecurity," emphasizes the Buddhist understanding that "all things are in transition."
Nothing is fixed. Nothing is permanent. Everything (including you and me) is temporary. Here today, gone tomorrow or a few days after that.
It was painful in my youth to try and imagine such impermanence. And it is still painful. Loss usually hurts.
Since we cannot stop life’s flow, and since the flow includes our own demise, we would do well to find positive ways to relate to this reality and use it to help us enjoy the moments we have.
Here are a few practices that help me. Perhaps you can use them too. (Or better yet, tell me how you cope with the reality I’m describing here).
First, I accept that everything and everyone is temporary. I don’t ignore this fact. Fighting or railing against reality wears one out and leaves one unable to enjoy the gifts that surround us.
Second, given the impermanence of things (and people and situations) I dislike, I feel good knowing they won’t last forever.
Third, given the impermanence of things, people and situations that I love…I pay attention and focus on these precious gifts. I try to cherish through word and deed all that I value, so that the impression of love will not only flow out from me, but will also emboss itself on my heart and soul.
Fourth, when I lose something or someone I have loved (through death or other kinds of separation), I grieve. I try to give the loss the amount of caring grief it deserves…and after that, I take a deep breath, thank God for what still surrounds me in the flow and gently focus on living fully today.