We somehow kid ourselves everyday by buying into a myth that we can slow or stop change. Whether its the advertisements convincing us we can look young for longer, or simply our mis-directed attempts at control which lead us down the slippery slope of believing we can count on things staying as they are a bit longer. Even in daily life, if something 'unexpected' happens, we seem blindsided and often (at least I do), take it as a personal affront - how dare this happen! I wasn't ready for that. Why wasn't I told about this? Yet impermanence persists. In his book "Turning the Mind into an Ally", Sakyong Mipham puts it this way: "When a cup breaks or we forget something or somebody dies or the seasons change, we're surprised. We can't quite believe its over."
So why keep kidding ourselves? I think perhaps the strongest indicator of how much we grasp at the things which continue to slip through our fingers is worry. Worry is the litmus test which glaringly tells us we are trying to control the ever-changing circumstances of life. When we think about an upcoming event, or tomorrow, or a relationship or our appearance, the amount that we worry betrays how much we're really trying to control what happens. But if we become more aware of our worry, perhaps we could start to understand when we're trying to control the uncontrollable, make permanent the impermanent. Worry, identified through awareness, can become a valuable tool which helps us to let go of our constant pursuit of control and permanence. Again, Mipham: "As we relinquish our attachment to permanence, pain begins to diminish because we're no longer fooled. Accepting impermanence means that we spend less energy resisting reality."
Jesus uses the reality of impermanence to ask this question: "...I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?... Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?... Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things." (Mat. 6:25-34, NKJ)
So we need to let go of control. Of permanence. Yet there is danger in letting the pendulum swing too far the other way. Many people might reason that if everything changes and we can't control much at all, then why try? Why care? Why work for the betterment of society or others, or ourselves if it all will change anyway? We seem to be attached as a culture to the idea of either/or thinking. Indeed it is far easier to grasp something if it is either right or wrong, this way or that, black or white.
Yet life was never meant to be easy, nor was it meant to be the comprised of simple extremes or opposites. Mipham speaks of a right understanding of impermanence in the context of a journey to become a warrior in the world who's sole purpose is to radiate love and compassion towards, and on behalf of others. Jesus says not to worry, but in the context of trusting that God will be with you through the inevitable times of struggle and hardship and give you the strength to minister (literally: to serve) to others in their hardships. The Prophet Muhammad spoke of the 'great jihad' being the struggle within oneself toward moral purity, the betterment of society and the plight of others.
In my Christian spiritual journey for the last ten years, I have come to understand this struggle in my own words. It is one in which we are to never let go of nor let lie slack the cable of hope as we labor day in and day out towards justice in everything we do. We are to constantly extend ourselves out over the ledge of self and trust that God will catch us as we fall in selflessness for others. It is our work to continually examine how we affect others and the Earth which sustains them and to adjust our actions to lower our negative impact on both. Yet in all this, we cannot worry. We cannot attach ourselves to the results of our efforts, for those results are impermanent and out of our control. Instead of using the fact of impermanence as an excuse for inaction, we use it to better understand ourselves and our position in the world.
I will always be amazed by Martin Luther King Jr's gift of words and at how they often express my deepest feelings better than I can. He wrote in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail:
"[There is a]... strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills... [but] We will have to repent ... not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right." (emphasis mine)