All things do finally end

newly filled burial, dressed with mourner’s flowers in memory of their dear friend or family member (5/2020)

Riding past the nearby graveyard late afternoon Wednesday, in the distance I could see a dozen or more people gathered at the plot that had been dug to receive the casket of the deceased. With the pandemic still a present danger, most of the people seemed to be at a distance from one another, many of them wearing masks to trap their own water droplets from mingling in the air around them, potentially transmitting the virus to fellow mourners. An hour later on the return leg of my ride I stopped for a closer view and snapped a picture at the place filled with intense feelings only a short time ago.

Reminders of mortality from the daily Covid-19 death reports on the radio, or this fresh cemetery interment and the acres of headstones all around, tied into my other thoughts from the past few weeks about the many impermanent parts of human experience. For an unskilled worker the set of tasks to perform might take part of a day to learn. For the duration of that working arrangement the job will become second nature, requiring little concentration to perform at a consistent level. For a semi-skilled worker the suite of skills might take weeks or months to achieve self-sufficiency. For a highly-specialized worker like fighter pilot, surgeon, music or stage performer, or sub-atomic particle researcher the learning curve may take 5 years to attain average excellence, but a lifetime to rise to the very pinnacle of ability. In all of these examples, though, a certain day will come like a bookend to mark the end of that job. It could be abrupt (health trouble or accident) or it could be a slow decline with less and less responsibility and reward. What once seemed like it could go on indefinitely, does finally end.

A parallel process works with tools — hardware or software. At first the thing is brand new and performs as designed. The user gains experience and expertise, eventually being able to use the thing with the mastery of an artist, accomplishing whatever the tool was meant to do with great deftness and effectiveness. But here, too, there comes a day when the tool is eclipsed by something better. The old one — camera, computer, power tool — may still operate as intended, but the new one does that same function and more. Here, again, what once seemed like it could go on indefinitely, does finally end.

Likewise of the built landscape there are examples of places that seemed like they would remain standing indefinitely, but here, too, it does finally end. Owners change hands, renovations are made, people working or living in the area who knew each other by name or at least by face have gone away or died. Some may remain longer or shorter than others, but eventually what once was vital becomes moribund; a shop that was opened with much fanfare slowly fades away or abruptly closes. So much life-force or energy goes into a business, a professional career track, or a body of expertise. But all these things do finally end, echoing the rhythms of the Biblical writer of Ecclesiastes, “like the morning dew on the grass,” life passes away — of individuals, of communities, of companies, of knowledgeability, of possessions, of the environment itself in the annual cycle of growth and death and rebirth and across longer trajectories of an ecosystem, too.

Merely giving observations that confirm Ecclesiastes is not the aim of this essay, valuable though that book of life is, though. Instead, these collected observations about competence attained and then superseded or made redundant is about something slightly different. If the nature of life on Earth is a series of temporary achievements, rather than eternal attainments, then the lesson here is to know up front that any given relationship, ownership, or grasp of knowledge will come, will be held dear, and will be released by choice, by accident, or by force. All things do finally end.

This pulse or rhythm is embodied in the Matrix portrait of humans as batteries — bodies of temporary storage (of energy, time, dreams, knowledge, aspirations). For the Nahuatl (Aztec) capital of today’s Mexico City, a lot of poetry and pecuniary attention was directed at flowers: flowers as a living creature without permanence in the cycle of the plant’s reproduction. The intense color, gorgeous texture and shape, fragrance in some cases, all were to be enjoyed for the brief window of time before “the bloom is off the rose.” Courtiers of Medieval and Early Modern Europe viewed youths (male and female) as something like flowers (“the flower of youth”), too. In Japan the entire 21st century, telecommunicating society checks the TV or newspaper or online forecast of cherry blossom forecasts as the spring weather begins in the south and trends steadily to the north. In the realm of DNA found all along the chromosomes, researchers talk about certain reactions occurring within a fixed time window: if all necessary elements are in place, then the reaction takes place, if not, then development fails or mutates. Early childhood brain development also has time windows in which certain behaviors are triggered, confirmed, and strengthen; otherwise, if not activated, that particular behavior does not develop. Again, from Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose.” Recognizing the temporary and contingent basis for much of the living world, human or otherwise, it is clear that all things do finally end.

So the conclusion for this innate impermanence is not to lament it. Nor should one strive to resist it by denial, medical or pharmacological intervention, or Fountain of Youth quests. Instead, the art is to embrace the brevity of all things: businesses that come and go, pets that grow old and die, friendships that blossom and grow or sometimes fade away, trusty possessions that are overtaken by newer designs, and so on. Life is a series of projects with start and end dates rather than a striving for steady-state, imagined permanence. All these things do finally end, but by knowing this full well up front and appreciating without reservation the time you do have to engage with the thing, then at the end there is less loss or regret. Surely that is not all bad.




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