The Bright Side of Impermanence
As I progress further into middle age, it has been hard to watch some of the things that I have known and enjoyed to fade away and disappear. When we’re together, friends my age and I inevitably talk at least a little about stores, businesses, events, and people that used to be around but aren’t anymore. And while it’s sad not be able to revisit them or even to take our own children to experience the same things, that’s part of it.
Having lived my whole life in my hometown, I’ve had a front-row seat for the march of time that has altered one local landscape. Kids no longer ride their bikes to the video arcades where we huddled around Pac-Man and Galaga, since this generation is hunched over an iPad or laptop at home. There are now payday loan places housed in old fast-food buildings where we used to grab a bite, and neighborhoods where my friends once lived are littered with for-sale signs and sprinkled with boarded-up windows. Sites that used to be cow fields have become either strip malls with Starbuck’s and hibachi restaurants or expansive, corporate-owned car lots. Driving around town, I find myself starting sentences with, “When I was a kid, that was a . . .”
It is discomfiting that things change, but it would be far spookier if they didn’t. In John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” he describes a wedding scene where the bride and her expectant groom are held forever in that moment of beauty and youth, yet are forever unable to progress beyond the ceremony into their marriage. In Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the newly deceased Emily is warned not to go back and re-experience her life, since she’ll see it knowing what the living don’t know: what comes next, what happens after. In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s protagonist shows us what would happen if the calendar did stand still. Time has to keep moving, or, as the Anne Sexton poem put it, our lives would be “more like stone than the sea would be if it stopped.”
The Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Thanh has been quoted as saying, ““It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” Even though letting go isn’t always easy to do, moving on has a good side, too. Though I do miss some of the now-gone features of yesteryear, the same impermanence has also removed some of the undesirables. I haven’t missed the Great Recession of 2009 at all, nor do I want to relive the late ’90s panic about Y2K. I also don’t miss a downtown Montgomery that was boarded up, empty, and covered with brown-and-gray Biblical murals, and there is a whole range of state and local politicians whose now-obscurity I don’t lament. What we talk about less often than the sadly nostalgic is the bright side of impermanence: the bad shit goes away, too.