Life’s the passage we make through one change after another. Impermanence is the name of the game.
On Halloween 2012, shortly after hurricane Sandy had ravaged the East Coast, Carol Pruitt Moore, a life-long resident of Tangier Island motored by boat to see what was left of the island’s tiny village of Canaan. Earl Swift, in his engaging book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, writes an elegy for the disappearing island and its way of life.
Tangier Island will soon be claimed by the Bay.
Swift writes how Moore made a melancholy discovery that day as she went ashore near Canaan; the family gravesites that once occupied the ground beyond Canaan had been inundated by the Bay. She discovered a grave and, “. . . a few feet away the second grave and in it a complete skeleton . . . partially exposed with hair combs held fast by clay on either side of its skull . . . a third grave containing a tiny casket inside a bigger coffin and in the middle, the skeleton of a small child perhaps no more than the toddler, its shroud had long since succumbed to rot but two white buttons that held the garment closed were aligned on the child’s breastbone.”
In only 40 years, one quarter mile of the island became inundated by the Bay, including the many who had been interred on their beloved island.
I am not writing this with the matter of global warming necessarily in mind. Indeed, it may be exacerbating the inundation of the island, but I believe in this case the process had been underway long before climate change had accelerated in the way it has recently.
I write with the reality of impermanence very much on my mind. Perhaps more than any other certainty dictating the nature of my life and yours, none is more compelling or is more actively denied than the fact that everything – and I mean everything – is changing. Being an octogenarian helps bring the matter home in even more immediate ways. I learn daily of contemporaries that have died. “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away,” the scriptures tell us.
Forever and ever is, in fact, mutable.
But why does any discussion of impermanence matter at all, that is, having a conscious awareness of inevitable changes? I believe that awareness is highly influential in how we live. The knowledge shifts values. What really matters becomes a lot clearer.
Now, with today’s increased longevity being the norm, issues of aging and death are more frequently discussed. A familiar story goes something like this: we learn from a physician that a loved one has a limited time to live. Our initial reaction is shock even though the person is well up in years and it’s obvious they have a limited time to live. I think the shock is because we live with the subliminal conviction that things are, after all, forever. We don’t do endings well, especially as endings inevitably force us to change the way we live.
In managing losses, we go through a period of anticipatory grieving and then feel sorrow and sadness. However, I have heard more and more such stories and how there is also a kind of psycho-spiritual shift that takes place when people are confronted with the highly personal realization of impermanence, of loss.
The value of the person we are soon to lose increases. They become even more precious. We become exquisitely conscious of this perhaps in ways we never have been and the time we have left assumes a character different from before. The loved one emerges in our hearts with greater clarity and with more profound appreciation than ever before and the quality of the remaining time spent together often becomes the most rewarding in the history of the relationship.
In the peculiar way life works, it’s only as we confront losses that we can appreciate the full measure of what we have and have had all the while.
The naïveté in the assumption that everything will remain the same has ramifications well outside of human interactions. It affects how we relate to our environment and to the natural world in general. The assumption that the environment is a static agent, something that is ‘just there’ and will always be there regardless of how we may regard and deal with it, has led to much of the chilling abuses and their resulting consequences, which the world is reaping today.
The environment is not permanent at all, and constantly changes as other forces interact with it. Nor, for that matter, are we permanent. How we accommodate to that change is our challenge.
The cornerstone of Buddhist spirituality is its insistence that to fully come to terms with the reality of life’s impermanence – like we’re going to die – is the requisite for living our lives abundantly. If it’s not forever, then each moment is something to be savored. It’s in those transient moments of life that we see glimpses of heaven in the wildflower and find eternity in the grain of sand. These moments are transient.
Impermanence is vigorously denied in daily life. Understandably so. Confronting its realities is painful. They create grief and mourning. I think of Carol Pruitt Moore and her kin on the tiny island that’s inching away day by day, and so she is losing not only the remains of her kin, but an entire way of life. For over two hundred and forty years this island was home to a way of life shaped by the rhythms of the Chesapeake’s winds, waves and the sea creatures that have lived in it.
It will soon be over. There’s nothing anyone could have done differently. There’s no one to blame. It’s the way it is.
What’s left is sadness and the memories that will eventually find their way into the lore of the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States I call home.
It’s all about change.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.