John Ballance, Intern Minister
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
November 29, 2015
When we think of transience from the religious perspective, we tend to focus on lamenting that we are mortal, that we will not live forever. Intellectually,
we understand that we are mortal, but there is something in the human psyche that rebels at the thought that we will die. Rev. Herndon teased us on
that issue in his sermon on November 1, which he titled, “Today I Am Immortal, Don’t Know About Tomorrow!”
That folks are of two minds on the subject of our mortality is a matter that I do understand, since I too am caught on the horns of that dilemma, knowing
intellectually that someday I will die; nevertheless, my mind steadfastly refuses to accept the concept that I can cease to be.
Certainly, the world existed before I was born, and that fact my mind understands and accepts. But in the future, for me to cease to be and the world to continue without me? No, my mind cannot truly envision that. After all, who then would run the world? Who would inform stupid and careless drivers that they have been stupid and careless in the way they drive? Who would affirm that my wife makes the best apple pie in the whole world? Who would tell my lilies and irises when they should bloom? How could the possessive not still work with respect to them—they are MY lilies and MY irises. Clearly, they cannot be MY lilies and irises if I no longer exist. No, my mind says, you are entirely correct, such things simply cannot be, you cannot cease to exist.
Our mind teases us on this issue. When forced to confront reality, we glide from resistance to the idea of our mortality to a grudging, tacit recognition that we are indeed mortal, and from there to start worrying about what our legacy will be. We cannot possibly cease to exist if we live on through our children or through some work or other of ours that continues on, the good works we have done that continue to cascade good deeds into the future. As W.H. Auden says in his wonderful poem about the death of William Butler Yeats, “…he became his admirers.” All of us yearn to feel that when we die we will be missed, we will be mourned, we will be remembered long and praised long for our character, for our good deeds that continue to bless others, for our love that endures through others.
But we can get stuck fretting over our legacy. As we say each Sunday as part of our liturgy, “actions speak louder than words.” I believe that there are only two real merits of contemplating our legacy. The first is the recognition and admission that in thinking about our legacy, we are admitting our mortality. The second is that in thinking about what we would like our legacy to be, we start to frame the values that will in fact determine our legacy. We might well ask ourselves at this point, “Will our legacy be defined by what we do or by our character?” I think the answer to this question can only be “Yes!” I am not sure that it is useful to try to decide whether we will best be defined by our deliberate actions or by the kind of person we become and how our character affects other people. But our thinking through the critical issue of our core values defines the pole star that determine the arc of our lives; the values we consciously define become fundamental drivers of our lives in those actions that are inherently transient.
Thus far, we have been dancing around the idea that I now want to bring front and center. That idea is that rather than to fret about permanence, we would be better served by accepting transience, and rather than resisting transience, embrace it and celebrate it. Transience is a simple fact of life, the law of nature. In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher says “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” I prefer to say “Transience, transience, all is transient.”
The best personal illustration I can give you on this point is something that occurred on a trip on business to Japan in 1983. One afternoon when I was in Kyoto and did not have business engagements, I decided to take a walk. It was a beautiful spring day, and at the height of cherry blossom time in Kyoto, although I was completely unaware of that when I planned the trip. The cherry trees were covered with millions of white blossoms; they looked like tree versions of the ballerinas in Swan Lake. They were stunningly beautiful in the soft spring sunshine. People had gathered in a nearby park, where they sat on bamboo mats drinking beer and conversing with friends, while children ran and shouted, some of them with goldfish in small plastic bags full of water. A glorious day with nothing more important to do than to enjoy friends and nature’s glory.
There was a hard rain that night, and when I woke up in the morning, all the cherry blossoms had been stripped from the trees and lay several inches deep at the curb, like a late spring snowfall. It’s a good thing that the people had enjoyed them that one precious sunny afternoon.
While there are many things for which we might lament their transience, there are others for which, upon reflection, we must conclude that we are very glad that they are transient, because they cause us difficulty, disappointment, anguish, or pain, and we spend a lot of energy trying to see to it that they are transient. Take, for example, pain and grief. Most of us do not suffer the misfortune of chronic pain, so when we are in pain we are grateful for its lack of permanence.
Grief, as difficult as it is when we are beset by it, is transient, although God knows, sometimes it may last so long that it may seem to be permanent. I know that when I have been confronted by grief, sometimes that grief has stayed with me so much and so long that I despaired of ever emerging from its shadows. Others who have endured grief greater than mine have assured me that eventually my grief would fade. And it does, though slowly. It does not last forever.
We hope for permanence for those things that bring us happiness, and hope for transience for those things that cause us pain. This is a perfectly reasonable way to approach things in life. It is a sort of parallel to Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I would add to that, “God, grant me peace of mind in knowing that all things in life are transient.”
Even love, in one way or another, is transient. Shakespeare, in his Sonnet 116 says,
“Let me not to true marriage of two minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds…”
It’s pretty clear that Shakespeare is trying to praise the ideal of romantic love, but if he really thinks that love doesn’t change when it encounters change, all I can say is, “Willy, you’re a really fine poet and an even better playwright, but you don’t know diddly about love!” We know that love DOES change when it encounters change. That’s not a judgment about love, it is simply the acknowledgment that love changes in response to the changes it encounters.
When we first fall in love, it is like magic. To adapt Rev. Herndon’s phrase, “Today I am immortal, today I am in love. Don’t know about tomorrow, but today I am in love.” Sometimes love falters, and sometimes love dies. Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her poem Passer Mortuus Est, deals with this lightly rather than succumbing to despair at lost love: “After all, my erstwhile dear, my no longer cherished, need we say it was not love, just because it perished?”
But with a little bit of luck, we may remain in love with the same person the rest of our lives. Our best chances of remaining in love will come from accepting at the outset that we will continue to evolve and grow, and celebrate it all along the way. Why should it be any different for your beloved? With a little bit of luck, we will change in sufficiently comparable ways that our relationship will not only survive but prosper. But love will change all along the way. Not necessarily better, if one could actually tell what “better” means in describing love, nor does it mean necessarily that it is less in some important way than it once was. Embrace it. Celebrate it. It changes, it is simply different, never mind what Shakespeare says.
That’s true about love for our children as well. When we first hold our newborn child in our arms, we are flooded with love for that baby. It is hard to believe that we could feel so much love for anyone or anything. Love doesn’t disappear when that child turns two and learns the word NO! and makes it the central point of its vocabulary, but certainly the “quality of mercy” is strained. They become a teenager, and the quality of love at that point is best illustrated by Edward Markham’s poem, “Outwitted”:
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
That baby, that teenager, becomes an adult, and in retrospect it seems an astonishingly short time. They set their own trajectory for their lives, a trajectory that we may delight in or despair of, but any time our love for them tempts us to advise them what to do, we remember that admonition from some distant past: “Lord, please keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth.”
No question about it, Mr. Shakespeare, love does indeed change when it encounters change, and it’s a darn good thing that it does. If our love for our children did not change over time, they would not grow up to be healthy, capable, independent adults and we would not have a healthy relationship with them. Our relationships with our children are a sea of constantly shifting events, the epitome of transience.
Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children” makes this point better than my words:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
The come through you but not from you,
And although they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and bends you with might that the arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
The essence of childhood is transience. Embrace it, cherish it, for it soon becomes tomorrow.
Acknowledging transience, embracing and celebrating it is not encouraging docility or surrendering meekly to whatever happens in life. It is not an appeal to give up dreaming and planning for the future. Quite the contrary. In accepting and celebrating transience, we arrive at an increased sense of the preciousness of life and the fragility of time. It is accepting the awareness put forth by Robert Burns that “the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley,” so we mourn if we must, laugh if it helps, and go full-tilt at life again. Both joy and pain are transient. We best engage life when we accept and celebrate life’s transience rather than trying to cling to an illusion of permanence.
We have all heard the story of the man who said to God, “I saw our footprints in the sand when you were walking by my side, but sometimes there was only one set of footprints. Why was that?” God replied, “That was when I was carrying you.” Then the man said, “But there were times when there was only one set of footprints and two long lines dug into the sand.” And God replied, “That was when I was dragging you kicking and screaming!” Whether you walk with God or have a different theology, our footprints on this earth are soon washed away by the tide of life or the gentle wind of change. So let our footprints take us where our hearts long so much to go and let our legacies be what they will be. I do not worry about my legacy. Is it not enough to have lived? Is it not enough to have loved?
It is hard to believe that Jenny Joseph was only 29 when she wrote the poem “Warning” that Mary Schinhofen read for you earlier. But you don’t have to wait to have the courage to tackle life with the freshness and audacity that her old woman in purple celebrates, although I don’t believe that I have the courage to pick flowers in other people’s gardens! Personally, I don’t believe in life after death, but I firmly believe in life before death. I believe that accepting and celebrating our transience, knowing that we shall not pass this way again, should lead us to engage life to its fullest in all respects. In the words of Hunter Thompson, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!”
I give you my prayer for today, a combination of Reinhold Niebuhr and Forrest Church: “God grant me the serenity to accept that all things in life are transient, and the knowledge that the only thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go. The only thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.“
Ministers often end with “May it be so.” I prefer the Stark Trek version I learned from a seminary colleague: “Make it so!”
Addendum: The following is the poem referenced in the sermon, which was read by Mary Schinhofen immediately before the sermon.
When I Am Old
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,
And run my stick along the public railings,
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people's gardens,
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go,
Or only bread and pickle for a week,
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry,
And pay our rent and not swear in the street,
And set a good example for the children.
We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me
are not too shocked and surprised,
When suddenly I am old
and start to wear purple!