I recently gave a reading in a gallery displaying the paintings, done in Italy, by Anthony Holdsworth (see www.anthonyholdsworth.com). One of them, portraying a run-down, boarded-up farmhouse, bore the title, Questa Era Bella. This was beautiful. Holdsworth made it the title painting of the collection because it expresses his artist’s sense that Italy, that most human-scale of countries, is Americanizing so fast that the ancient, effortless beauty for which its villages and landscapes are known is being gobbled up and ruined by its rush to industrialization and commercialization. In this sense, the title fits perfectly the more general feeling I would like to portray here, the spirit that runs through human affairs, through life itself: that each moment is already gone by the time we perceive it, and that we all exist, thereby, in a constant state of nostalgia and regret over what’s going.
We are always told, of course, not to regret what’s past: as Edith Piaf sang constantly, Rien, Je ne regrette rien. But it’s neither that simple, nor, fundamentally, in the control of each of us as individuals. That is to say, each perception, especially of what we consider beautiful or precious, is always already compromised by our knowledge that its beauty is, in some way, enhanced, even created by the knowledge of its passing. That’s because when we think of what’s most beautiful and precious, it is always those things that last for moments only. A flower—aside from the vain attempts of florists to make it last—is really a momentary thing. That is what makes it beautiful and precious: the fact that we know it must quickly fade, turn brown and fall. So is a baby. We know that it is going to grow up, is going to soon be assaulted by the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ but for the moments that it is innocent and takes joy in every small aspect of its world, we value it and envy it and subconsciously mourn what we know will be its passing. All things are like this. The grass of spring is glorious, as are the wildflowers that sprout at the same time because we know they are ephemeral, here for a moment, and then gone. The peak of an athlete’s performance is thrilling because his or her peak lasts only for a short time, and will soon be buried in aches and pains and injuries, to return no more. The pristine beauty of a landscape or a city after a snowfall aches our hearts because we know with certainty that too soon its purity will melt away, or be blackened by soot and shoes and motor oil and plows that will make piles of the filth it has become, that must be carted away. And though we like to think that only others—other things or other beings or distant landscapes or cities or civilizations are marred by this truth—we eventually must come to see that the same truth underlies our own nostalgia for our very selves. For the lives we once imagined we would always have.
The story of a classmate of mine appeared recently in my alumni magazine. Barry Corbet was one of the chosen ones, model handsome with the highest IQ of any freshman who ever entered the college. Not only that, he was a superb athlete, mountain climber, geologist and skier who spent much of his time climbing and conquering both college buildings and peaks in the Grand Tetons. After graduation, he was selected to join America’s first official team to attempt Mount Everest, along with several of his classmates, one of whom was killed in an avalanche on the second day of the ascent. Though he had paved the way for the historic attempt to reach the unclimbed West Ridge, the death of his friend affected Corbet deeply, and he insisted on yielding his right to two others in the party to make the climb to history on May 22, 1963. After that, Corbet continued his career in the mountains, branching out into acting and filmmaking as well. On one filmmaking expedition near Aspen, CO, he agreed to shoot aerial shots from a helicopter. Unfortunately, the low-flying helicopter snagged on a bump and crashed. Corbet was nearly killed and, though he survived, it was as a paraplegic who would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. It took him a while to pull out of the resulting depression, but he eventually decided he had to keep moving, and set out to become “the most active gimp who ever lived.” He was. Since river kayaking requires mainly upper body strength, he became a daring kayaker and a pioneer “Super Crip.” But so much stress on his upper body eventually injured the rotator cuffs in his shoulders, and he became not just a paraplegic but a quadriplegic. Yet again, Corbet fashioned a new life, first as an advocate for disabled people like himself, and then as editor of a magazine for the disabled, New Mobility. It was at this point that he took up meditation and began to see himself, and all others in a different way. Everyone, he said, “should accurately be described as TABs, or ‘temporarily able-bodied.’ Everyone will be disabled at some point—it’s just a matter of time” (all material and quotes from “Second Chapter,” by Broughton Coburn, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, July/Aug. 2013).
Barry Corbet was once a beautiful young man, a supremely able-bodied athlete. His devastating injury and a great deal of work, both physical and spiritual, led him to understand that this beauty, this ability, were more temporary than he, or anyone imagines. Shakespeare, in Richard III, puts this in a phrase uttered by Hastings, who is about to be executed in the Tower of London: “Oh momentary grace of mortal men.” We are momentary creatures, our grace, our attraction, our good fortune momentary at best. Compared to the immense skein of eons involved in life on earth, or in the evolution of the entire universe, our little lives and their successes and failures, regardless of how much we attribute to them, are brief moments in time, infinitesimal flashes of light that appear like motes in the sun, and then are gone. Mel Allen, the great Yankee announcer who reigned on the radio when I was a Yankee fan in the 1940s, had a signature call when a player hit a home run: “That one’s hit deep to left field, back, way back, It’s Going, Going, GONE!” Though Mel Allen meant it as a tribute to the thrill that is a home run, it is also, in another sense, what we are. Going, going, gone. Oddly enough, the central Buddhist sutra, the Heart Sutra, concludes with a similar phrase or mantra in Sanskrit: gate, gate, para gate, parasam gate (pron: Gah tay). The words mean something like: ‘Gone, gone, completely gone, beyond completely gone’ and, though untranslatable, refer approximately to the enlightened state far beyond human conception or expression. Or perhaps simply to all of us, who go and are beyond human conception. Our momentary grace is beyond human conception. We do not really know who or what we are. All we know is that we are temporary manifestations of something immense and mysteriously beyond. The ancient Greeks tried to come to terms with this paradox of human existence, with our knowledge of our own being-in-mortality. This knowledge, said the Greeks, is both our tragedy and our glory. Unique among creatures, we know we are going to die, which is a tragedy. But this knowledge is also our glory: we teach it to others. We humans teach each other how to die; which is to say, how to live in the knowledge of the certainty of our death, our evanescence. That is what makes us human. That is what makes human existence glorious. We know we are dying in every moment, and yet we live, if we have any wisdom at all, any culture at all (which the Greeks knew they had), with this knowledge as our glory. Our badge of courage, perhaps. The Gods, said the Greeks, have it easy (as do the animals, for the opposite reason, their ignorance). They, the Gods, are immortal and so never have to live with the knowledge of their coming demise. Easy. To live knowing that you are doomed to die, however—that takes courage, that takes grace, that is our glory as humans. We are flowers who know that our beauty is already fading, and yet...
Buddhism tries to come to terms with this same conundrum. Change is constant, and we all hate change. We all want to be permanent, permanently invulnerable, we want what is good and beautiful to last, and what is painful and ugly to pass from us quickly. We can have neither. Everything, not only what is outside us, like flowers and landscapes and animals and other humans, but what is inside us, our very organs and limbs and hair and cells and the sense of ourselves that they produce—all are changing every single moment. And while what we want is to make this change stop so we don’t have to suffer it, what Buddhism teaches is the simple but profound acceptance of this root fact. We change, we are change, we are nothing but change. And trying to hold on to any momentary grace or make it permanent is simply ignorance. Is simply suffering. Barry Corbet seems to have learned something about this, for when he knew his body was finally giving out completely, he quietly refused all attempts to keep him alive, stopped eating, and rested calm and content and without apparent regret in his now, or still going, going, gone body.
This, then, is our paradox. That which is most beautiful is that which is most fragile, most temporary. Which is us. All of us. All of our beautiful moments, from moments of supreme confidence in athletics, to moments of supreme joy in family, or individual accomplishment, or sex—all of them are shadowed by this knowledge of their passing even as we enjoy them. Even as we try to make them last as long as possible. Even as we know that this attempt to make them last is futile. Which is what, coming full circle, in fact makes them beautiful and precious. The French song, Plaisir d’amour, expresses this in music and verse. ‘The joy of love, is but a moment long.’ And the next line, ‘the pain of love endures the whole life long,’ expresses the down side, our complaint, our longing to have pleasure endure and pain momentary. Unexpressed is the corollary: the fact that pain endures and pleasure is momentary is what makes the pleasure so precious. But even that’s not quite right, because this seems to suggest that you need pain to have pleasure, and that they succeed each other in time. What is being posited here is that the beauty and the pleasure and its fading are simultaneous, more, that the beauty and the pleasure are literally constituted by the fact of their simultaneous passing. Without passing, without change, no beauty. No pleasure.
And yet, as humans we always, always try to make perceived beauty, felt pleasure, our supremely able bodies persist, survive, last. We are even now feverishly inventing plastics and prostheses and medications and computerized avatars of ourselves to outlast the fragile physical bodies which many of us have come to hate. We hire plastic surgeons to shore up our chins and our bellies and our buttocks with plastic, and starve ourselves to avoid the drooping of that flesh which has come to seem our enemy. Clinging. It is the root cause of suffering in Buddhism. The Greeks implied the same thing: fretting about our mortality, wanting to be like gods (the Romans literally tried, the emperors and their families tried to pass laws and entreat their successors to make them gods), wanting to be immortal and godlike was to ignore the real glory of being human: knowing we will die. Knowing that what decays and dies is the only thing that has real value. And the modern world in a thousand different ways is obsessed by the same ignorance: dying is terrible; decaying unto death is a fate everyone must avoid, must fight even if it causes immense pain and humiliation and a plastic world that never dies and in thus not dying creates a proliferating monstrosity that will one day put a permanent end to us all, for real.
All of which is to say that we moderns have a long way to go to reach the wisdom the Greeks and Gautama reached more than two thousand years ago.