When life brings us face to face with impermanence, it can be transcendent or agonizing. Have we acted as we were moved to act, have we spoken as we were called to speak? If we don’t have the opportunity that Alfred Nobel had to see what our death might be like and get a second chance, what will wake us up to our lives? Will we avoid death’s gaze, or will we have the courage to look it straight in the eye?
I think about my parents dying a lot. More than I think is healthy, strictly speaking. Here’s a fact: they’re far older than average to have had a child my age. Here’s a feeling: losing them is the worst thing I couldn’t imagine. I mean that–I actually can’t imagine it. To even consider losing the people who brought me into this world, showed me what love was, and held my hand as I learned how to walk, talk, and grow, seems unfathomable. I am literally unable to envision what that would be like. When I try to imagine it, there’s just a big black hole, and then I start crying. My heart, or something, tries to protect me from that painful truth.
And that, I think, that not-being-able-to-imagine, is the scariest part. I can imagine many more crazy things. I can imagine losing almost anything else. But my capacity for understanding what it would be like to lose my parents is something utterly out of my scope. When I still lived at home, when putting my hand on the doorknob of any closed door and starting to turn it, an image would flash through my mind of one of my parents dead inside. It was never gruesome, it was just clear they were not alive. It happens still when I go back, perhaps even more now because as I get older, they do too.
I know they will die, because we all die. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. If history can be trusted, there is a 100% chance of death. Strangely, as Soryu Forall recently mentioned in a talk at his venerable Center for Mindful Learning, we seem to think that people die less frequently nowadays. Although I yet live, death’s spotless record suggests that to be temporary. Strangely enough, the thought of my own death doesn’t bother me in the same way; I wouldn’t have to deal with the aftermath. The consideration of my own death feels important. I need to attend dutifully to my impermanence to ensure I don’t run from it, and in running, deprive myself of the fullness of life.
During my meditation today, I tried to breathe each breath as if it were my last. I found an incredible amount of sensation, joy, attention, and presence, as if each inhale would never again rush in. The truth is, I don’t know when my last breath will be. It is challenging to remember that each moment might be my last, to be as kind as I possibly can to myself and everyone I come into contact with. To feel the fullness of life as if I were dying, because I am, we all are, and each moment is one moment closer to death. It’s scary, but it’s a type of scary that invites truth and life in their full reigning capacity.
There is a way to negotiate life that is grounded in a profound respect for the fragility of our existence as individuals, as a civilization, and as a planet.. There are no promises; nothing is owed, and nothing is deserved. We get a breath, and then another, and another, and that’s it. I have wasted many of those breaths hoping reality would reflect my imagination, or feeling indignant that it didn’t. What makes a breath worthwhile, and does it matter if I “make something of my life”? How can I accept each breath as the only guarantee while creating a life that assumes a tomorrow? How can I form deep relationships when each moment with someone I love may be the last? As I ask these questions, it dawns on me that this might be the only way to truly come alive.
The love I feel for my parents fills me, and is all the stronger for the reminder that they won’t always be here to talk to. Acknowledging their impermanence lights my path to a way of breathing, talking, and loving that affirms the value of each moment. Ultimately we are at the whim of impenetrable powers. We are each only here for a brief time. What will you do with your life? What will you do with the one moment you have, right now? Now? Now?
The Garden Entrusted to You
The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.
“In return for the odor of my jasmine,”
the wind said to me,
“I would like to trade you for the smell of your roses.”
I said, “I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.”
“Well then,” the wind said,
“I’ll take your withered petals
and your yellow leaves
and the waters of your fountain.”
The wind left. And I wept.
And I said to myself: “What have you done
with the garden that was entrusted to you?”
~ Antonio Machado
- A relevant song for country fans
- A relevant song for non-country fans
- An excellent piece by the ever-inspiring Maria Popova at brainpickings.org on the children’s book Cry, Heart, But Never Break, from which the post’s title and image are borrowed