Stoic Serenity 6.1: Impermanence, Loss, and Death

We’re progressing to the final full chapter of Stoic Serenity: “Impermanence, Loss, and Death.” Interestingly, author Keith Seddon starts this one out with a Bible verse:

cassini-earth-moon-look-bac“Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.
Remind me that my days are numbered—
how fleeting my life is.

You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
at best, each of us is but a breath.

We are merely moving shadows,
and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.
We heap up wealth, not knowing who will spend it.”

(Psalm 39:4-6, New Living Translation)

What do you think? Is eudaimonia and peace of mind even attainable? Can it be achieved, or are we simply enamored with an idea? Maybe the human mind is not capable of all this we’ve been studying—maybe we’re chasing after phantoms. After all, everything in the universe is transitory.

Don’t quite get where I’m coming from? Take, for example…

All Giza PyramidsGreat Pyramids of Giza

  • Already over 4,000 years old
  • If we wait long enough, the pyramids are subject to complete destruction by robbers, well-meaning archaeologists, tourists.
  • If we wait longer, Earth’s plates could develop a mountain range pushed up underneath the pyramids, or could bury them in lava. Or they could be simply worn away by rain or wind.
  • If we wait longer still, the earth could burn up and vaporize once the sun comes closer to the end of its own lifespan and explodes into a red giant star five billion years from now.

If the Great Pyramids, the Earth, and even the Sun are transitory…. if the Sun itself is a “mortal” object, with a predicted lifespan, and an anticipated end billions of years from now… What of my own mere estimated-82-years of existence? I’m a temporary being eking out a life in a world “destined for destruction and oblivion.”

Taking this a step further, think of the possessions that we spend our lives chasing, worrying about, and obsessing over. Seddon writes that almost all of these possessions are even more temporary than our own bodies!

The truth is, every single thing that we spend our lives chasing, contributing to, establishing—it will all cease to exist one day. 

So we acknowledge that humans are transitory and life is temporary—but does that make human efforts futile? Is it all a meaningless heap of $*** and a waste of time? Seddon suggests that fear of such a truth might explain part of human behavior and culture: humans go about chasing whim after whim, seeking out personal gratification. Are we trying to avoid the reality that time is limited, and that all will be over one day? Seddon likens us to children at a birthday party—we become so caught up in the  games and snacks and prizes that we forget that, alas, the party will come to an end.

So here we have two options:

  1. Life will end. We can go about life blindly chasing after personal gratification, distracting ourselves from that truth and be caught off guard in the end, or
  2. Life will end. We can accept that truth and use the time remaining to live well and be fulfilled anyway.

We have the choice. Should we choose to accept reality and make the best of it, we therefore organize our lives and our understandings of life into the philosophy of Stoicism:

  • We like and strive for Virtue, the only intrinsic good. It’s our means of living a good life and being fulfilled, despite our transitory nature. It’s how we make the best of things.
  • We don’t spend time worrying about or fretting over indifferents like death and sickness. Sure, we recognize that life is necessary for us to be able to pursue Virtue, but we also recognize that death and sickness are beyond our control, and to spend time worrying about them is simply a waste of the short transitory time we have in life, and that is truly futile.
  • So we go about trying to live as good people, pursuing our responsibilities and duties even though we know we might be cut short. We pursue each goal and project with reservation, which includes the understanding that nothing lasts forever. We accept that this is simply the nature of the universe, the nature of life.

Life Changes Us

I think back to my first experience with loss as an adolescent. As a child, I experienced loss, but I didn’t understand much about it at all. But when I turned 14 and lost someone unexpectedly, my reaction was quite different.

2006-1525-pg8moor-intextsbIt was halfway through my first year of high school when the school called for an immediate assembly, and they announced in the silent chapel that our beloved 21-year-old school chaplain had died suddenly that afternoon in a car accident. Shrieks and sobs ensued from the pews of adolescents. I went back to my dormitory room sad, angry, puzzled. How can a life be going full-force on minute, and snuffed out from existence the next? That simply doesn’t make sense. I struggled with this concept for weeks as I grieved. What kind of place is this universe??

And, as run-ins with loss and death increase as the remainder of us go on living, I maybe didn’t come to understand death, but I came to accept it more. It’s reality. It’s imminent. Fast forward to a year ago, when I watched as my grandmother held her head in agony while being carried out to the ambulance on a stretcher—she died of a brain aneurism on the way to the hospital. This experience was much more traumatic, in terms of me ellen-johnson-1421139871being present during the scenes leading to her sudden death, and of course I grieved. My family held each other in one big hug and cried at the hospital. We hugged each other and cried that evening. I cried while speaking up front at her memorial service. Grief is a natural human emotion, and my friends all know that when I cry, I cry. No hiding it here! But by some phenomena, the recovery after each loss comes a bit faster..

We don’t like to think of it this way, but although death and loss might always feel unnatural, it’s a very natural part of our existence. 

Your Thoughts

  • Do you agree that humans pursue things like new clothes, cars, vacations, drugs, to distract themselves from the reality of a finite existence? If not, why? And if so, what specific things do you find yourself pursuing as a distraction?
  • “Nothing lasts forever, therefore all projects are a waste of time.” Do you agree? Why or why not? How does this tie in with Stoic philosophy?
  • Think back to the first time you lost someone close to you. How did you react to it? How as your reaction to loss changed over the course of your life?
  • Do you partake in any personal practices to remind yourself of the transitory nature of life? What are those practices?

For the past 18 months, I have kept a sheet of paper on my refrigerator. The paper is covered in a grid: 52 squares across, 82 squares down. Each square represents a week of my life, and as I color in a square each Sunday, the paper is filled, and I can literally see the end of my life approaching. It’s one practice I use to remind myself of my impermanence, as well as a reminder to make each square count.

I also ran across this book about a year ago, and it’s been on my wish list since then. It’s a young woman’s stories from her time working in a crematorium. I’m curious if reading it will have a psychological affect; if I might become more comfortable with death while reading it. I guess I’ll find out.

I’m also going to spend some time listening to the “View from Above” meditation from the SMRT course, which is starting tomorrow (June 19th, 2016). Register now if you haven’t already and would like to participate in the month-long course of Stoic practices.

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