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Why does Everything (and Everyone) Have to be Temporary?

Here is one of the best songs about growing old that I have ever heard.

A few days ago, I went to my parents’ house to water their lawn and plants because they were gone for a week on vacation. They live in the same house where I grew up, not ten minutes from where I live now. (I have come far!) On some level, this place will always be home. As I sat in this empty house, I found myself thinking of the day when my parents will no longer live in it. It’s hard for me to imagine this anchor no longer being there. It would be like the sun not coming up. After all, from my perspective, it has been my parents’ eternal home.

My dad turns seventy tomorrow. My mom hit that same milestone at the end of last year. Birthdays are the holidays more than any other that measure the passage of time. They are the only days, after all, that are defined somewhat by a number. (No one ever says that they are celebrating their forty-seventh Christmas or their twenty-eighth Arbor Day.) It wasn’t too long ago that seventy was an age that I only associated with grandparents. It was also roughly the age of three of my grandparents when they died.

My wife and I are at that age where we are sandwiched between caring for young children and worrying about aging parents. The mortality of our parents was driven home like a knife over this past year. My wife’s dad was diagnosed with cancer back in July, and he lost this battle at the end of March. Shortly after her father was diagnosed, my dad entered the hospital to get open-heart surgery. As often happens in life, my wife saw her dad’s health deteriorate while my father recovered very nicely. As we watched her dad take his last breaths a couple of months ago, I could not help but think of how I would react if one of my parents was lying there.

We all know that everything in life is temporary, and we deal with this reality in different ways. Some reassure themselves through faith in some sort of a positive afterlife to come for themselves and their loved ones. Some try not to think about death, and they fight it off by taking steps to appear or feel eternally young, or they distract themselves with the concerns of everyday life. I have fluctuated between all of these states of mind at different times in my life. At the moment, however, I am unaware of any conception of an afterlife that makes any sense, and I can’t keep myself distracted all of the time. And when tragedies occur, the temporary nature of all things cannot be avoided.

So why does everything have to be temporary? For nostalgic people like me who can see on a daily basis the places and people that are so closely associated with every event in my life, death and deterioration suck. I would prefer that certain people and things last forever. And for a person who spends his life teaching history, I am well aware of how forgotten both myself and my world will be in the not so distant future. An atheist would argue that there is no answer to this question. Life just is what it is. Many religious adherents would say that the temporary nature of life should drive you to focus on the ultimate spiritual reality that will guide you eventually to an eternal home.

Now I don’t know if there is any kind of a divine plan. If there is, the planner(s) has not made it particularly clear. So is there any reason why some sort of a creative force(s) would just leave us hanging, stuck pondering the great questions of life? Why did he (or she or it) create us to live with the possibility that we might ultimately be snuffed out? For the sake of argument, I am going to assume that there is a divine plan that the creative force(s) has chosen to keep somewhat secret. I am also going to assume that this force(s) has positive motives and is not just creating some playthings to use for entertainment. If we were guaranteed of eternal life, would we be able to appreciate life fully? Maybe something can only be truly precious if you know that it will someday be gone. So often, people convinced that they know the answers to life’s great questions have seemed somewhat smug and callous to me. The struggles of the rest of us unenlightened mere mortals, after all, must seem rather distant to them. By realizing the “truth,” they were freed from fully experiencing the pain caused by the temporary nature of all things. In my view, by immersing themselves in the “spiritual,” some people lose a certain amount of empathy for those struggling with their humanity. In a sense, “the enlightened” are no longer fully human.

Maybe real joy, sacrifice, ethics, and compassion can only exist in a temporary world filled with pain and uncertainty. After all, if we were given a guaranteed path toward eternal life, then our choice to take that path would be, to some degree, selfish. But if you choose a sacrificial, ethical path without any guarantee of a reward, then you have done something truly selfless. Pain, injustice, and death – and the possibility that this life may be all that we have - stink, but without the things that make life tough, can we ever be truly joyful, compassionate, ethical, and, ultimately, alive?


  1. So very heart warming to know you love your parents so much and are so caring and concerned.
    Prabha Muthukrishnan

  2. I've re-read this post a few times. It's beautiful, Paul. I'm sure I'll return to this when I'm battling demons.

    For the time being, I prefer a weekly puff to la la land than the weight of mounting pain & injustice.

    Oh yeah. Anniversaries. We count them, too.


  3. What if a person sincerely believed there is an eternal afterlife, but that person forfeited it for the benefit of a more enlightened point of view? That would be an extraordinary sacrifice.

    In a way, this is the sacrifice anyone who turns from faith to atheism makes.

    Terry Crewse

  4. On your concluding sentence, one explanation I have heard to human suffering is that it makes us more intelligent. Actually, I think that is the lesson of the Virgin Mary's heart piercing prophecy - not that I have read the Bible though. :P

  5. Cm and Prabha, I'm glad you liked it. This is probably one of the more heartfelt posts that I have stuck on this blog. (And good point about anniversaries.)

    Terry, that would be quite a sacrifice, although I am not sure why you would reject something that you firmly believed. Atheism is a courageous point of view, but I'm not sure if it should be adopted in the name of being courageous. My point was that a person should be ethical even if there is no reward. Maybe the act is only ethical if there is no guarantee of getting anything for it.

    Human suffering can have positive effects. If nothing else, our common struggles can drive us closer together.

  6. I think we would never appreciate the beautiful things in life if they lasted forever. In addition, the painful things in life pass away just like everything else. In psychology land, we know that a person's overall satisfaction in life increases or decreases with a sudden, extremely positive or negative event such as winning the lottery or losing a limb. However, as time passes, the person's life satisfaction gradually drops back to their original level.

  7. First things first,

    A very happy birthday to your father. God bless him perfect health and a beautiful old age.

    Its good if you feel that way.
    About afterlife and all, I believe that if somebody can stay happy as long as he believes in a beautiful lie, a lie which can do no harm, its worth believing in, even though it is a lie.

    Take God for example.
    Who knows he exists or is just a manifestation of our ancestors. But as long as his love and fear can restrain us from evil, its worth believing in him, for this is what he would expect God exists. Its better to be on one boat, rather than having both legs in different boats.

    And well, I wont say much about the enlightened ones, coz no one exactly knows what they were or what they believed. Its all what their followers interpreted.

    A Thoughtful post indeed.

  8. Anonymous Someone, you pretty much summed up the Unitarian position. If a belief system leads to positive behavior, then it is a positive thing.

  9. To say there is no harm in believing things of this magnitude is to trivialize one of mankind's greatest endeavors; namely, the pursuit of truth.


  10. Since no one knows the answers to some of life's great questions, I am willing to recognize that different beliefs can often have equally positive results. The problem is that some - both religious and not - are so convinced that they are correct that they are unable to recognize that people who disagree with them might have something valuable to say.

  11. I think so much of life is about letting go...especially as a mom, I have to constantly let go of the little person I know and love in order to receive an almost different person as they grow. i.e. the baby I loved and held is no longer here, instead I have a little girl who likes Hannah Montana and dressing up cute. Soon the little girl will be gone and I will receive a teen, with all that is unique about her. It's letting go and staying open to receiving. With my dad having just passed away, I had to let go a part of myself and stay open to those who are still here. Great post Paul !


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