Transience

    The beauty of the world has made me sad,
    This beauty that must pass.
What I am going to ask now is very unpoetic, but would you be happier if it didn't pass? What would the world be like if nothing ever passed away? There would never be anything new! Everything would be old but unable to die. It would be like Sartre’s world in Nausea; everything would be just there, meaningless, mouldering, superfluous. In Sartre, the only factor of change in the world is human freedom (and that too is meaningless); everything has disappeared into the ego, and to no avail. But wait! Surely there is plenty of change in the world: enough to take your breath away, much of the time - and literally so in the end! There is enough change in the world to keep you alert and on your feet for a whole lifetime (except, ahem! at the end). You cannot sleep your life away, because everything around you and in you is transient. If that makes you sad, think of what the alternative would do to you!
    Still, everyone understands that sadness. It is perhaps a symbol of our own passing. It is good to connect these two, the transience of things and our own transience: they receive a certain resonance from each other. “Just as at a certain point in that most striking of changes [death] we must leave each other altogether,” wrote Rilke, “so we must, strictly speaking, at every moment give each other up and let each other go and not hold each other back.” He advises us to get into the spirit of transience. We might as well, for how could anyone defeat it? It seems wise to embrace the thing you cannot defeat; wiser still when even wanting to defeat it would be the greatest madness. Swimming, I believe, could teach us much: to swim we have to accept the nature of water, its fluidity, its different reliability from that of solid objects; and we have to avoid putting a drowning man’s grip on our friends. Moreover, they tell us that about 90% of the human body is composed of water, so it should not be difficult to learn fluidity and transience from it.
    Everything passes and it is right that it should pass; that is clear on reflection. The most transient things of all, one would think, are ideas, but it is not always so: we sometimes cling to ideas as to life itself, ideas of who we are and what we want, what is worthwhile and what is worthless, what is possible and impossible.... We would get away with this rigidity forever if it were not for death. The thought of death goes deeper than all these other thoughts, and digs them all up. There before us in a moment lies the upturned sod, black and bare, the earthworms recoiling, their poor privacy discovered. It seems a cruel invasion. “The human being is a being-unto-death,” wrote Heidegger, and it was not at all his purpose to depress us. He meant that death prevents us from settling down forever with a stunted understanding of ourselves and the world; it thrusts greatness on us, sooner or later. It digs deepest, intimating an awesome sowing and reaping.
    What a freedom it gives, when you don't recoil at the thought of it! It tells us there is no need to keep anything back, that it is pointless to try. Embrace the inevitable. Leap on the great wave of transience and praise the God of the ages. Why crouch there shivering, unable to decide to plunge? The water will teach you. The water of transience.
    Every night of life the Church prays in the words of Jesus, “Into your hands, Lord, I commit my spirit.” In Paschal time it adds, “Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Donagh O'Shea OP

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.