The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
This closing sentence from George Eliot’s Middlemarch gave me deep pause when I first read it 30+ years ago. And gave me pause again when I came across it last week in Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks, an example of the humanism and world-spanning gratitude then emerging in English literature.
It may have struck readers in mid-19th century England more forcefully, for unvisited tombs were more the lot of most women back then. (George Eliot being the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, who could not have found a publisher for a woman author in that era.)
But it strikes me deeply in my current era of retiring-letting go-de-cluttering-donating books to the public library or the Prisoners’ Literacy Project. (24 grocery bags full on the first sweep through.)
So many authors whose ideas influenced my own thinking/teaching/writing now being passed on to others to be put to the same purpose, I hope. I’m struck by the sense of fads and fashion, even in a field as “evidenced-based” as psychology has become. New paradigms, new methods come along to guide and inspire, then be set aside on the shelves as new treatment protocols emerge into the spotlight.
Some of these authors became household names and will surely have a place in posterity – Dan Siegel, Richard Schwartz, Bessel van der Kolk, Rick Hanson, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach. Others, who greatly influenced me and so many others, in truth, probably even me, eventually, will have contributed to the overall evolution of consciousness in mental health and not be remembered individually for that once-upon-a-time contribution to the collective.
Ephemerality. Even though significant – fleeting, short-lived, impermanent. Even though ephemeral, moments that contribute to our resilience.
Like a glorious sunset, breath-taking, awe-inspiring, vanishing to dark in less than an hour. The most recent wonderful birthday dinner, so delicious and appreciated in the moment; existing now only in memory. The moments significant in raising a child or writing a book or mastering whitewater rafting., the many moments of a larger project – a career, a life of public service. All eventually impermanent. Perhaps significant in their impact; perhaps honored in memory. And perhaps not.
I’m thinking now of Pauli Murray, the black non-binary civil rights lawyer who crafted the legal reasoning that Thurgood Marshall used in Brown v. Board of Education that de-segregated America’s schools. Who crafted the legal reasoning Ruth Bader Ginsburg used in Reed v. Reed, her first gender discrimination case. Who crafted the legal reasoning used in Obergefell v. Hodges that won LGBTQ folks the legal right to marry. Significant impact. And I had never heard of her until I saw the documentary My Name Is Pauli Murray.
A core practice in the Buddhist tradition is realizing the truth of impermanence.
Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a great tree in the midst of them all. –in Buddha’s Little Instruction Book by Jack Kornfield
Part of my decision to retire was motivated by my wish to become more like a great tree in the midst of all the comings and goings that had been so much a part of my – meaningful, I hope impactful, but stressful and full of striving and strategizing – work in the world.
I’m not yet at all ready to rest in a tomb, visited or otherwise. I really do intend for retirement to morph into Renaissance. And yet, ephemerality is something I’ve been practicing with more many years. Here’s an exercise I created for Resilience after experiencing the power of it in my own efforts to skillfully let go. It’s still helpful to me now.
I’m Here; I’m Not Here
Imagining your own nonexistence paradoxically helps you feel more alive now and deepens your gratitude for being alive. Your priorities can shift when you are aware that the time you have on this planet is finite and that the possibilities for your life during that time are more than enough. If you have read Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live, you will already be familiar with this exercise; it’s a practice you can do anywhere, anytime.
1. Focus your attention on your own embodiment of yourself — knowing you are in your body, walking, standing, or sitting.
2. Notice your physical surroundings: a room in your home, walking through your neighborhood, in a store.
3. Imagine everything in your surroundings still existing exactly as it is now — without you there. It still exists; you don’t.
4. Return your awareness to yourself existing in your own body right now. You do still exist — whew!
5. Play with imagining that you exist, you don’t, you do, while the landscape remains unchanged.
Playing around with being and nonbeing, developing an equanimity in the skillful flow between the two, and anchoring your resilience in that equanimity vitally strengthens your ability to cope with anything, anything at all. You experience yourself as simply one particular amazing form of that consciousness that can — does — hold everything that has ever been or will be.