A few months ago, I struck up a conversation with a man sitting next to me at the bar of a TGIF at Miami International Airport. I never learned his name, and he never learned mine. Still, we enjoyed nearly an hour-long conversation: we discussed his son’s recalcitrance to pursue a degree in the humanities, despite his obvious aptitude for writing and his dismal performance in computer science courses; the man sought my advice as a philosophy professor about how to persuade his son to switch paths.
I will probably never see this man again. Yet there was something touching to the ephemerality of our encounter. I don’t long to meet him again, but simply enjoy the memory of the pleasurable moment I had with him.
This conversation also reminds of a night I spent partying with a few women after the 2010 Dyke March in San Francisco. I have never seen them since then. I don’t remember their faces or names. But we had fun, hopping from place to place in the city, and enjoying music and drinks. The fleetingness of that evening is what made it so beautiful.
I wonder if such moments might help us cope with our own ephemerality. Can the same beauty and poignancy be applicable to a person’s life as a whole? Is there something to life’s brevity that is worth admiring rather than lamenting?
In an earlier post, I discussed the urgency that facing death can lend to our lives. Although I spoke of this urgency as something valuable, this way of thinking about death has a negative valence. We must avoid sinking into unconsciousness and treating our earthly lives as infinite in span. The face-to-face with death is a source of angst, existentialist thinkers will add. By contrast, treasuring the beauty of ephemerality brings a positive spin to this idea. We must cherish each moment in its evanescence. This attitude introduces the mood of love to the awareness of death.
As much as we treasure the beauty of those things that perdure—age-old churches and buildings, statues and paintings that have survived disasters and pillages, relics, antique books, and the like—we also—less noticeably perhaps—admire what will inevitably disappear. In fact, our love of flowers speaks to our appreciation of the ephemeral. Even the most realistic of fake flowers fails to conjure our delight in the delicacy of real flowers—and the
fragility that comes with it.
If we bring this love of evanescence to our own lives, then we might also value our transience in a less angst-ridden fashion. At first, such love reminded me of the “unshakeable joy” that is paired with anxiety in Heidegger’s idea of authentically facing death. Yet, joy and love are different. Joy buoys us. In Spinoza’s Ethics, joy signifies an increase in our power to act, while love is the pleasure we find in the objects that positively affect our power to act. With love comes connection—whether it be to persons, nature, or even the divine.
So, what does it mean to enjoy our ephemerality? Rather than motivating us to take our futures in hand, as “angsty joy” is supposed to do, loving our ourselves in our mortality compels us to attend to what (actually) enlivens us. I don’t think that either orientation—toward the present or future—is superior to the other. We need both in our lives.
As a testament to the beauty of ephemerality, let me close with Tennessee Williams’s “We Have Not Long to Love”:
We have not long to love.
Light does not stay.
The tender things are those
we fold away.
Coarse fabrics are the ones
for common wear.
In silence I have watched you
comb your hair.
Intimate the silence,
dim and warm.
I could but did not, reach
to touch your arm.
I could, but do not, break
that which is still.
(Almost the faintest whisper
would be shrill.)
So moments pass as though
they wished to stay.
We have not long to love.
A night. A day....
I contributed a guest post to Notre Dame's blog on philosophy as a way of life.
"Take a view from above - look at the thousands of flocks and herds, the thousands of human ceremonies, every sort of voyage in storm or calm, the range of creation, combination, and extinction. Consider too the lives once lived by others long before you, the lives that will be lived after you, the lives lived now among foreign tribes; and how many have never even heard your name, how many will soon forget it, how many may praise you now but quickly turn to blame. Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of." (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book IX. 28)
Imagine you are looking out onto the Earth from the International Space Station. Our planet—blue and green and brown—shrouded by clouds in some places. No humans visible—just the Earth in all its splendor. The Earth from afar.
Yesterday you were complaining about the line at Starbucks, your teenager’s behavior, or your boss’s failure to acknowledge your contributions. From here you cannot see that tiny Starbucks, or your child or your boss. If you let yourself contemplate our planet for long enough and let yourself be absorbed by its beauty, you might forget—at least momentarily—your everyday concerns.
Perhaps at some point your mind will wander back to the Earth’s inhabitants: its 7 billion humans, its roughly 9 million species of fauna and flora. You might wonder what everyone is doing down there. The human comedy has been going on for roughly a hundred thousand years and it will likely come to an end in the future. Other life forms live alongside these humans; some species have existed before us and there might be others after ours goes extinct.
In the space station, you are out of the picture—just as you were before your birth and just as you will be after your death. Ponder this for a moment.
Imagining earthly events from above puts our lives in perspective. Although he had no concept of a space station, this exercise helped the Stoic Marcus Aurelius focus on the things that matter (the social good, for him) and the things that don’t (fame, for instance).
If I were peering down at the Earth from a space station, I hope that I would forget the little things that irritate me and would admire our planet. I have had the scaled down version of this experience beholding spans of snowy caps at sunset in the Alps with no one in sight. The silence that reigned stilled my mind. I felt the vastness of the Earth. I didn’t think of myself or others.
In A Religion of One’s Own, Thomas Moore quotes the astronaut Edgar Mitchell on his experience on the Apollo 14 mission: “The sensation was altogether foreign. Somehow I felt tuned into something much larger than myself, something much larger than the planet in the window. Something incomprehensibly big.” Moore characterizes Mitchell’s feeling of deep connection to the universe as a mystical experience.
Mitchell’s words, in fact, relate to the Stoic philosophy Marcus Aurelius embraced. Stoics consider God to permeate every part of the universe. For them, God, or eternal reason, orders every part of the world—from the burgeoning of flowers this spring to my hand movements as I type this essay. The idea that a divine reason resides in everything implies that we must learn to accept the unfolding of the universe even when we want it to be otherwise. For example, death is part of this unfolding and is something we ought to accept.
The view from above—whether imagined or experienced in the flesh—teaches us not only to let go of what is petty and worthless, but also to feel our oneness with the universe. It invites us to revere what is divine in it—and in us.