Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Incomprehensible Impermanence of Man's Creations

Change is both the most central fact of our existence and something we try strenuously to ignore. The person we are in old age likely bears little resemblance to our ten year-old self, or even our thirty year-old self. The places we live, the arguments we have, the technology we use to enhance our work and play: all will evolve or disappear as time passes.

Achilles, in the Iliad, was famously given the choice between his name carrying on in lore forever, or living a long and happy life. He chose fame and early death, because the thought of his life having no greater significance was intolerable. And so it is for us. In the face of our own impermanence, and without the promise of eternal fame, we like to cling to things bigger than ourselves to provide an anchor. Surely, our city will still be here. The church that I help build will endure. The political party I support will make changes to the nation that will have a lasting impact. But we know all of these, too, are false promises, just as someday there will be a last reader who thrills to the recorded tales of Achilles' heroics.

I wrote recently, in advance of an election that I feared my side would lose, that the United States would cease to function as the nation we know within my lifetime. The only bold part of that prediction is the time frame, because in the course of history it is inevitable that this country will end. And yet think of what that means, in terms of the disruptions to human lives (and very possibly death and tragedy on a massive scale). Think of the ripple effects on the rest of the planet. Think of what the country has endured through before now: a fight for freedom, invasions, Civil War, a Great Depression, two global conflicts, and Richard Nixon.

And yet, is there anyone who feels better about this country after the election that concluded yesterday? I'm sure Democrats are pleased that there standard-bearer won. But are they now optimistic that the problems which seemed to grind the country to a standstill (economically, politically, socially) will now be resolved, especially with Republicans maintaining a majority in the House? It isn't just that we are evenly divided between two camps: the problem is that the two sides are drifting further apart and, frankly, hate each other. When we lift our heads to look towards the future, the impermanence of this country looms, and yet we live our lives today as if we can count on things staying more or less the same.

But all of this is a little abstract: we don't really know how our politics will play out. Perhaps we will in the coming years reach a new understanding between left and right, and our union will strengthen and endure. And we have a far better example of the impermanence of our creations right now, one that literally shifted the sands under us. Sandy, that witch of a storm, challenged our notions of permanence in our very homes.

We used to know that, in particular on the shore, that we could not expect our buildings to stand forever. We built humbly, or in ways that assumed an eventual disaster. But now we crowd our shores with houses as if the sand bars and barrier islands they are plopped upon are permanent, not mere accidents of shifting currents. And when a storm comes to remind us, leaders like Governor Christie demand that we rebuild despite the warning from nature. We cannot understand that the shoreline we are so familiar with will, in time, change completely. I remember the shock I experienced when touring Ostia Antica in Italy, and realizing that these ruins, with no ocean in sight, were the remains of a once-mighty port.

There are psychological studies that show we tend to discount events that will occur in the future, but I think our focus on the immediate has deeper roots than merely preferring benefits in the short term. In a post written immediately after Sandy, Walter Russell Mead wrote the following:
[O]ne day, dear reader, a storm is coming which neither you nor we can survive. The strongest walls, the sturdiest retirement plans stuffed with stocks and CDs, the best doctors cannot protect us from that final encounter with the force that made and will someday unmake us.
Coming to terms with that reality is the most important thing that any of us can do. A storm like this one is an opportunity to do exactly that. It reminds us that what we like to call ‘normal life’ is fragile and must someday break apart. If we are wise, we will take advantage of this smaller, passing storm to think seriously about the greater storm that is coming for us all.
Yet most of us dread these reminders, and do everything in our power to put them behind us as quickly as possible. Not just because we hate the inconvenience and suffering, but because we cannot stand the reminder that our end is coming for us. We don't like admitting that ultimately, nothing we do in this world will endure. There are no permanent marks we can make.

God, I think, made this so to nudge us back towards Him, and to make us realize that He is the only infinite, the only constant we can rely on. But even believers have, at best, and imperfect relationship with God, and thus we find ourselves confronting the evidence of impermanence all around us, and yet turning away and saying it must not be so.

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