Thoughts From Six Feet Away: Unsettling Impermanence
Every morning before I go to work, I take the time in the car to listen to the Headspace app, trying to calm my mind before the workday begins. One of the features is a video that pops up occasionally, narrated by a man whose voice has the calming effect of 5mg of Valium. He usually discusses examples from nature that illustrate impermanence, the concept that everything is constantly changing, in our minds, our bodies, and in the world around us. This tenet is central to the concept of mindfulness.
As biological beings, there is another concept that seems opposed to this, and that is the concept of equilibrium. This idea centers on a known point of stability, and it is a cornerstone of how our bodies function at a biochemical level. The pH of the blood has to be a certain value for our enzymes to work. Our body temperature, blood pressure, and our urine output are all dependent on maintaining the status quo. I even tell my patients that the body will strive for the last known point of stability, which is why I am somewhat hesitant to prescribe the latest “miracle” weight loss drug – make a change too rapidly, and the body rebels.
As members of the animal kingdom, we seem to gravitate to the mandate of our bodies, and we resist the change that is happening around us. As we age, we long for the “good old days,” benefiting greatly from our mind’s tendency to remember only good memories and suppressing the everyday drama that plagued us then. Being forced to accept change is a reckoning that none of us particularly relish. We cannot hide from change, and we certainly can’t opt to not participate, lest we find ourselves consumed by the wave itself.
It doesn’t make change any less uncomfortable. This weekend, I went to visit the grave of my friend Keith, whom I wrote about in this blog post, for his birthday. It allowed me the opportunity to explore the areas I frequented growing up, something I am not often able to do. As I drove toward my hometown, I passed the home of a friend where I spent countless hours, to find that it wasn’t there. I then drove past the Holiday Inn where I worked in high school. It’s now some random chain, and the business next door bought the previous main building and destroyed the “Holidome,” an indoor pool and activity area that was all the rage in the 70s and 80s. (I’m personally of the belief that Holidomes should be designated as historic monuments). Once I arrived back home, I went to run at my high school’s track. In the 80s, my high school didn’t have a football team – now they do. I wasn’t used to seeing bleachers, scoreboards, concession stands, and PA systems. As I sat with my friend later at the cemetery, I noted that he was buried at the bottom of a hill where we used to ride bikes, hitting the ramp at the bottom and going airborne. It was an empty field when we were kids, and now it’s the final resting place of a piece of my heart. I drove past the old Marian Heights Academy, whose building is now gone, and the empty space is still awkward. I ate pizza at a microbrewery that used to be the art studio for the Academy. I went to some land that Keith’s family owned, a place I used to fish with my dad. Impermanence, unfortunately, chose to repeatedly smack me in the face.
I was home to mourn the loss of my friend on the anniversary of his birth, but I left mourning something else entirely: my past. In the words of Yogi Berra, “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.” Why do we feel such a sense of loss when things change? Maybe we all possess some concept of legacy, wanting physical reminders of who we once were. If those things remain, then perhaps we would truly never die. We want to be remembered, and leaving behind tokens of that life, to an extent, establishes a degree of immortality. Perhaps that is why we have so much difficulty throwing away things, forcing those left behind to sift through our mementos and causing them guilt when they discard the talismans we’ve accrued.
I’ve been trying to let go of my attachments to things, making me impossible to shop for at Christmas. I want to imbue the souls of those close to me with my spirit, rather than the objects that litter my existence. After all, the things we collect will only have a story for as long as there are people there to tell it. Otherwise, it becomes a guessing game for the anthropologists of the future. I want my kids telling my grandkids about the man I was, and with any luck, my family will still know me five generations from now. That is the only true way you live forever. On the same day I visited Keith, I visited the grandparents I never got to meet at the same cemetery. Thankfully, their stories live in my mind and instill a sense of pride in who I am. I’d like to think they’d approve of what I’ve made of my life. Looking at the bottom of their headstone was the inscription, “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.” It appears I’ve been subconsciously preparing for this moment my entire life.
No one ever says that change isn’t inevitable. But no one said we have to smile about it all the time, either. If you’re working through some changes, you have my permission to struggle with it. And one more thing about equilibrium versus impermanence: they’re not as opposite as they appear. Equilibrium does not imply that nothing ever changes. Equilibrium is about COMING BACK TO the same point, through countless events of impermanence. Everything can still change with the net result being the same. Lean into change, and in honor of my friend Keith, I’ll leave you with a quote from Jerry Garcia: “If I knew the way, I would take you home.”
Be excellent to each other, and…