The problem of impermanence is one of the most ancient and universal dilemmas of human existence. It goes way beyond the simple fact that people die, that over time things decay and break. Change is woven into the fabric of reality at every level. What are different ways that people in history have made their peace with living in a mutable world?
The North Star has had a profound influence on human history. Time lapse photography shows how this one star holds its position in the night sky while all the other stars slowly seem to rotate around it. This single fixed point of light made early navigation possible. It illustrates one common response to change: the human desire to find something dependable in a mutable world.
On the grandest scales, we see that the universe is in constant flux; stars are born and die. For that matter, even black holes, once thought to be permanent, slowly evaporate. On the smallest scales, too, atoms decay (this is what allows carbon-dating, for example), and recent experiments have shown that even in the supposed stability of empty space, there is a boiling “foam” of subatomic particles that are constantly popping in and out existence.
The lives of stars and impossibly tiny particles may have been inaccessible to the ancients, but they observed these very same properties on the human scale. From gradual changes like the rise and fall of civilizations and the cycle of life and death in nature, to very rapid changes like the constant fluctuation of clouds, the fluttering of leaves in the breeze, the flickering of shadows from firelight, and even our own endless need to inhale and exhale or the restlessness of the human mind. Change and movement are inherent to our reality.
But why is change problematic? The constant motion of the waves is what draws us to play at the beach. Music is our human way of playing with patterns of changing tones. Life with no change would be too static, too boring for us. As with most things, we crave a balance. But ancient philosophers in many parts of the world viewed impermanence as a profound problem. Why?
Here is a humorous little poem I memorized as a small child:
“As a rule, man is a fool.
When it’s hot, he wants it cool.
When it’s cool, he wants it hot.
Always wanting what is not.”
(By anonymous, from the collection Knock at a Star)
Part of human nature is that we are rarely satisfied, even when we get what we want. The pleasure never lasts. In this infinitely mutable world, either the circumstances that please us change, or our own desires change. Every person from ancient to modern has had to grapple with this dilemma at some point in their lives.
As a mom with small children, I deal with it daily. For a young child, the anticipation of a new toy looms tremendous. It can consume his every thought. But predictably, the moment we finally arrive in the toy store, there are tears of abysmal disappointment. The toy, the toy that he begged and pleaded for, the toy that seemed a matter of life and death, the toy that has dreamed about and longed for all these weeks or months, is not enough. Suddenly we need ten other toys, too. My hopes of pleasing my child with a special treat come crashing down– they are another victim to the problem of impermanence. Because our desires are so changeable, so nearly infinite, the promised joy only lasted a vanishing instant.
Change is a human problem because it means that the things we love, whether people or objects, are all tenuous, all subject to change or loss. We cannot hold them, only enjoy them for the moment they are with us. This, also, is particularly true of children. If I had a dime for every time another parent reminded me that they grow up too fast!
Much of philosophy and religion is devoted to dealing with the issue of impermanence. One approach (Stoics, Existentialists, Buddhists, and others) has been to encourage followers to accept the mutable nature of reality and to regulate their desires accordingly. Another approach (Pythagoreans, Platonists, Christians, and others) has been to seek outside the visible world for something (whether mathematics, idealized constructs of the Good, Love, Beauty, etc., or God) that is unchanging and permanent. I don’t want to present these two solutions as mutually exclusive, though. I think Pythagoreans, Platonists, and Christians would equally endorse the need to regulate desires and learn self-control, and for Buddhists, the hope of escaping into Nirvana may also represent the wish to find something permanent.
Does the existence of a North Star point to a deeper reality of something fixed and unchanging, or is it a mere accident of earth’s particular location in space? In your own life, how have you made peace with the problem of impermanence?