Living the temporary life

Loss is inevitable and only children don’t know it. It’s a big piece of why they are capable of such unfettered joy. Many people have children—as I have—in part so that we can experience the lightness that comes with entering wholly into the child’s field, and in that entrance, we might forget for a little while that this lovely moment will give way to another one that will be radically different. The adult must live with the knowledge that—if she isn’t already—she will in the future suffer.

Our relationship to this knowledge is hugely determining of the quality of our living. For many people, the awareness of the inevitability of loss and pain dissuades living itself. In our failure to come to a healthy relationship to impermanence, many of us settle into a kind of partial aliveness as an unconscious defense against the pain of the losses to come. The less we live, the less we love living, the less we have to lose.

The defense, this pulling up on the reigns of the heart, might manifest in various forms, including in subtle ways within our most important relationships. One example can sometimes be found in the relationship of a parent to a child. Many parents experience such devotion that they would sacrifice their own lives for their children and only their children. And yet a parent knows that the child will grow and leave the parent for her own life; the sweet, earnest, and quite physical intimacy between parent and small child is temporary. Not uncommonly there is a deep tension between this singular devotion to the child on the one hand and the knowledge of the impending loss of her on the other. Sadly, this tension is sometimes managed unconsciously in the form of the parent throttling back, even if only slightly, on a love that might otherwise be more fully experienced and expressed.

Or we might consider the common assertion of life’s “meaninglessness.” Quite often a patient will tell me that they are struggling deeply with the “meaninglessness of life,” and when I ask them to tell me about what makes life meaningless, almost invariably they will come around to telling me about death. To them, the temporariness of their existence somehow strips it of meaning. Sometimes I’ll ask whether they think meaning would arise from their existence if it could go on forever. Most people will consider this question and conclude that it would not; that the challenge to find meaning in life is not made easier by removing death from the equation, but instead arises from tying one’s days—however many one has—into a deeper sense of aliveness.

So why then the initial assertion of meaninglessness in the face of impermanence? I believe the assertion of meaninglessness is not a function of the awareness of impermanence, but a defense against the pain of it. It’s a way to psychically manage the pain and terror that arises when we consider the inevitable loss of our living; it minimizes the value of the thing that will someday be lost forever. It’s another way we push life away to make some of its truths less uncomfortable.

Aside from the obvious problem of the enormity of the price paid (never gulping life fully when we have the chance) for the hoped for payoff (hurting less later), the biggest problem with this common kind of defense is that it doesn’t even work. In all my sessions with people who have experienced loss – whether it be after the onset of an illness, or the death of a loved one, or the loss of a relationship, or the losses that mount towards the end of life – the most powerful source of suffering I encounter is the pain of regret: the regret of a life, of a love, held at bay, and now it’s too late.

There is no way that we can mitigate the pain of loss; it is woven into the fabric of what it is to exist and there is no defense against it. My concern here is the quality of our aliveness, and that aliveness is most deeply experienced when we lower the defenses that do not serve us, and we confront head on the truth of the thing – the aching preciousness of something we love, of life itself, not despite but because we will lose it.