I glanced at the calendar this morning and noticed that today is the second to the last day of the second month of the year already. This is a reminder about how swiftly time passes. It doesn’t seem like New Year’s Day was so long ago. It seems like I last wrote about impermanence and temporariness fairly recently. I guess that temporariness just feels more explicit the older I get.
“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, ‘And this too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”–Abraham Lincoln
A quirk of being human is that we feel permanent. This state of mind might seem such because our self is the default state of mind. It’s all we’ve ever truly known. Our self is the only point of view we experience in the first person literary sense.
Sometimes when we feel permanent, we also remember that we’re not. I vaguely remember a long-hot summer when I was an eight-year-old boy. It seemed like summer was permanent and that I would always be eight-years-old anticipating my ninth birthday. By the mental trick of memory, I visualize what used to seem like eternity, but has long since passed into the sands of time. Now, I can barely imagine what being eight-years-old feels like.
One of the most profound book passages I have read comes from Carlos Castaneda’s character don Juan Matus in the new age book Journey to Ixtlan:
“Death is the only wise advisor that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you’re about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you, ‘I haven’t touched you yet’.”
I first read this pithy statement in 1977 and its wisdom has inspired my life since then. The last few years of the 1970s was the time I was entranced and obsessed with Castaneda’s writings. Had his descriptions of being don Juan’s apprentice not been so extreme, I would have joined his circle of spiritual explorers. Now, in 2019, the notion of joining a cult-like group seems ludicrous. Now, 1977 feels like a lifetime away.
The form of government in the United States we have taken for granted throughout the years of our lives–the constitutional democratic republic replete with checks and balances and the rule of law–has become more fragile and temporary these days. There is the strong suspicion that our adversaries have infiltrated our defenses and are eating away at what seems permanent. The temporariness of democracy in the world has been an historical fact. Will democracy prevail here?
The temporariness of America becomes increasingly evident with the erosion of hard-won civil rights. Demagoguery is the currently-present danger. The tasks of maintaining and protecting our democratic republic have now fallen upon our shoulders. Civic vigilance will repel the tyranny of the demagogues and delay the death of the American spirit. It is this temporariness of America that presents us with the current conundrum.
I think about the Golden Gate Bridge at San Francisco as a metaphor representing the United States. The bridge is an incredibly majestic structure that crosses over dangerous waters. The corrosive ocean spray eats away at the paint, so the bridge is constantly being repainted. When the orange paint has been fully applied, another paint job is immediately started. Without constant, full paint coverage of the metal structure, the Golden Gate Bridge would corrode and fall apart. The paint helps the bridge to bide its time.
Likewise, with a break in the protective qualities of vigilance and equal protection for all, the structure of the United States will be eaten away by the corrosive temptations of demagoguery and corruption. Then America will fall into the churning sea of tyranny.
Temporariness is a fact of life. How we handle it and how we utilize it can either make us or break us.