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Why is everything in Life Temporary?
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Why is Everything in Life Temporary
A while ago, I went to my parents' home to do a little house sitting while they were gone on vacation. They live in the same house today where I grew up, not ten minutes from where I live now. (I have come far!) On some level, this place will always be home. As I sat in this empty house, I found myself thinking of the day when my parents will no longer live in it. It’s hard for me to imagine this anchor no longer being there. It would be like the sun not coming up. After all, from my perspective, it has been my parents’ eternal home.
My mom and dad both turned 70 within the past year. Birthdays are the holidays more than any other that measure the passage of time. They are the only days - other than wedding anniversaries - that are defined by a number. (No one ever says that they are celebrating their forty-seventh Christmas or their twenty-eighth Arbor Day.) It wasn’t too long ago that seventy was an age that I only associated with grandparents. It was also roughly the age of three of my grandparents when they died.
My wife and I are at that age where we are sandwiched between caring for young children and worrying about aging parents. The mortality of our parents was driven home like a knife over this past year. My wife’s dad was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago, and he lost this battle at the end of March. Shortly after her father was diagnosed, my dad entered the hospital to get open-heart surgery. As often happens in life, her dad’s health deteriorated while my father recovered very nicely. As we watched her dad take his last breaths a few months ago, I thought of how I would react if one of my parents was lying there.
We all know that everything in life is temporary, and we deal with this reality in different ways. Some reassure themselves through faith in some sort of a positive afterlife to come for themselves and their loved ones. Some try not to think about death, fighting it off by taking steps to appear or feel eternally young or distracting themselves with the concerns of everyday life. I have fluctuated between all of these states of mind at different times in my life. At the moment, however, I am unaware of any conception of an afterlife that makes any sense, and when tragedies occur, the reality of death becomes unavoidable.
So why does everything have to be temporary? For nostalgic people like me who can see on a daily basis the places and people that are so closely associated with every event in my life, the passage of time, and the inevitability of death and deterioration, are constantly in my face. I would prefer that certain people and things last forever. And for a person who spends his life teaching history, I am well aware of how forgotten both myself and my world will be in the not so distant future. An atheist would argue that there is no answer to this question. Life just is what it is. Many religious adherents would say that the temporary nature of life should drive you to focus on the ultimate spiritual reality that will guide you eventually to an eternal home.
Now I don’t know if there is any kind of a divine plan. If there is, the planner(s) has not made it particularly clear. So is there any reason why some sort of a creative force(s) would just leave us hanging, stuck pondering the great questions of life? Why did he (or she or it) create us to live with the possibility that we might ultimately be snuffed out? For the sake of argument, I am going to assume that there is a divine plan that the creative force(s) has chosen to keep somewhat secret. I am also going to assume that this force(s) has positive motives and is not just creating some playthings to use for entertainment. If we were guaranteed of eternal life, would we be able to appreciate life fully? Maybe something can only be truly precious if you know that it will someday be gone.
So often, people convinced that they know the answers to life’s great questions have seemed somewhat smug and callous to me, unable to relate to the the struggles of the rest of us unenlightened mere mortals. By realizing the “truth,” they have been freed from fully experiencing the pain caused by the temporary nature of all things. In my view, by immersing themselves in the “spiritual,” some people lose a certain amount of empathy for those struggling with their humanity. In a sense, “the enlightened” are no longer fully human.
Maybe real joy, sacrifice, ethics, and compassion can only exist in a temporary world filled with pain and uncertainty. After all, if we were given a guaranteed path toward eternal life, then our choice to take that path would be, to some degree, selfish. But if you choose a sacrificial, ethical path without any guarantee of a reward, then you have done something truly selfless. Pain, injustice, and death – and the possibility that this life may be all that we have - stink, but without the things that make life tough, can we ever be truly joyful, compassionate, ethical, and, ultimately, alive?