Despite the capacity to verbalize an understanding that the world, and everything in it, is impermanent, humans continue to seek the idea of perpetuity. It seems to be part of human nature, or perhaps socialization. Regardless of its origin, humans seek permanence and will create meaning that supports it; they often lie to themselves to have it.
In his book “Who Am I: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities” Steven Reiss, Ph.D. presents his argument that one of the desires that drive humans is the desire for order. According to Reiss, the desire for order includes the desire for permanence, stability, and predictability, among others. If his research and hypothesis are correct, permanence is part of basic human desire. Although a basic desire, it goes against what we understand about the nature of existence.
A quote from Neil Gaiman demonstrates this eloquently; “I like the stars. It's the illusion of permanence, I think. I mean, they're always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend...I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments.” In his book “Meanings of Life”, Roy Baumeister discusses how when meaning is applied to life, it directly contradicts reality. “The result of this contradiction is false permanence” (pg68). False permanence serves the purpose of making us feel more secure; however, this can also lead to suffering.
You might be wondering why I am writing about this, how this relates to happiness or personal growth (the topics I generally write about). What an excellent question! In line with the title of my blog, acceptance of reality (as opposed to creating myths about it) will lead to happiness. As such, accepting that permanence is a myth may lead to a happier existence in several ways.
The focus of a good deal of my writing is realizing life’s moments, being mindful, and appreciating the present. Realizing the impermanence of everything, how fragile existence is, leads to embracing the present. This brings more mindfulness and present orientation to one’s life.
Another, and equally important way in which accepting impermanence can foster happiness is using it as a cognitive challenge. Often suffering is because of unrealistic expectations of permanence. This is often true in relationships.
In her seminal book “A Gift From The Sea”, Anne Lindbergh applies the idea of impermanence to long-term relationships. In chapter four, “The Double Sunrise” she discusses how the acceptance changes in a long-term relationship are essential to remaining happy in it. She describes how every relationship begins pure, unfettered. She describes it as a self-enclosed world, where two worlds meet and become one. However, Lindbergh goes on to say “how swiftly, how inevitably the perfect unity is invaded, the relationship changes, it becomes complicated, encumbered by contact with the world.” She also states that the pure relationship is easily “damaged, or weighed down with the irrelevancies-not even irrelevancies, just life itself, the accumulation of life and time.”
Lindbergh is not complaining about this change, however. She is pointing out that transformation is inevitable. She says, in regard to marriage, (and I propose any long term romantic relationship) “we mistakenly feel that failure to maintain its exact original pattern is tragedy.” She goes on to say that the relationship “moves to another phase of growth which one should not dread, but welcome as one welcomes summer after spring.” This understanding, applied to long-term relationships, can challenge the unrealistic expectations often held.
Another way in which understanding impermanence can help to overcome suffering is when a relationship ends. As I have written in “The Truth Will Not Set You Free” we tell ourselves stories, our personal truths, about an event. Often when it comes to relationships, this truth has to do with the permanence we wanted for it, and believed we would have with it. It also encompasses a projected future together often imagined with all the beautiful trimmings.
When it ends, perhaps despite one’s intentions for it to continue, the focus can be on how life is impermanent, and how the belief that this relationship would be otherwise was a myth. Further, even if the relationship had remained, it would have continued to change, and would soon have ceased to be what one was so attached to; some of which was an unknown, but imagined, future. This can help soften the blow one has faced in relation to what they had wanted, and will not now experience.
Accepting impermanence can lead to an existence with less suffering. Understanding at a gut feeling level, not just cognitively, that everything in life is fragile and impermanent can foster an appreciation of the present. It can also serve as a challenge to unrealistic expectations that something would stay the same or last beyond what it did. Finally, even when something one considered precious is lost, it can be understood that what was lost would have changed. As such, perhaps the loss is not as great as is being imagined. Of course this is not to deny feelings, as they must be felt and experienced. The intention is simply to begin the healing process and look at the situation in a more realistic light.
Copyright William Berry, 2013
Reiss, Steven; Who Am I: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities; 2000.
Baumeister, Roy; Meanings of Life; 1991.
Lindbergh, Anne; A Gift From The Sea; 1955.