The transience of human life makes me sad. It always has. Often I’ll be listening to music, or taking a walk in the woods, or even out at the bar or a party with friends, and suddenly the melancholy hits me like a bullet. I look around at everyone laughing and talking and drinking and I think to myself, “This will not last forever. This party will end. We’ll all go home. One day we’ll all most likely part ways, and we probably won’t keep in touch. We’ll grow apart. And even if we do keep in touch, one of us will die first, and then we will never see one another again.” My entire life suddenly seems to be pulling away from me, like sand running through my fingers.
However, there is a particular kind of Stoic reflection that I find lessens the sadness, and that, while seemingly morbid, can actually be quite liberating. I want to start with a quote by Marcus Aurelius that outlines the technique, then give an example of how I’ve applied it, then discuss the effects of the technique on my life. First, the quote, from Book VI of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:
“When we have meat before us and such eatables we receive the impression, that this is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig; and again, that this Falernian is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dyed with the blood of a shell-fish: such then are these impressions, and they reach the things themselves and penetrate them, and so we see what kind of things they are. Just in the same way ought we to act all through life, and where there are things which appear most worthy of our approbation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted.”
I’ve never seen a name in the Stoic literature for the technique that M.A. mentions here, so I’ll call it “destructive analysis.” This sounds fancy, but it’s quite simple. We mentally destroy something by separating it into its component parts; then, we think about where those parts came from and where they’re going.
When I got on the bus today, I had this thought: “Here is a vehicle. It is made of many materials, but it is mostly plastic, metal, and glass. The glass is probably melted sand, formed into sheets in a factory. The metal was smelted from ore dug out of the earth. The plastic is made from oil, most likely pumped up from deep wells in a desert or ocean. All of these things were manufactured and sent to a factory, where they were assembled into this bus. One day, the engine will die, or the axle will break, or some other technical problem will cause the bus to be scrapped. Then, it will be crushed and separated into parts, some of which will be reused, others of which will be sent to a landfill.” In awe, I went on to think to myself, “The atoms comprising this bus are probably billions of years old, and will exist for billions of years after the bus ceases to exist. This bus is a temporary arrangement, a blip in time, a mere nanosecond in the vast history of the atoms that compose it. It is as if a tornado assembled a thousand grains of dust into a sand castle for a split second, and then destroyed it.”
When I realized the effect that destructive analysis could have, I eagerly began to apply it to other things. My prized possessions, such as my guitar? Merely wires and wood that will one day rot and rust away. The buildings around campus? No different from anthills that will one day be condemned or abandoned. My hometown? A temporary settlement that will last no longer than the human race does, if that. Mountains? Ripples in the Earth’s crust that are worn down by erosion, a few minutes in the history of the universe. My family? Mortal humans who will one day die. Me? A complex of nerves and arteries and bones and brains, miraculously assembled, but no less transient than anything else.
This all sounds quite morbid, but in my experience, it’s really very liberating. All of the material possessions and trinkets and toys I used to value are suddenly detached from me. The feeling of sand running through my fingers is still there, but it’s no longer anything more than sand. The contemplation of the transience of all material things eventually leads to a realization of the transience of intangible things, too.
The really powerful aspect of destructive analysis, you see, is its application to my most important relationships. At first, I felt like a monster. I felt simultaneously guilty and frightened, as though my rational part were dragging me, kicking and screaming, to look at the eventual death of my parents and the inevitable parting-of-ways with at least some of my friends. And yet, despite being bitter medicine, it’s really a blessing in disguise: I’ve come to realize that there is a difference between valuing someone and being neurotically attached to them. The former is healthy, while the second will only cause you pain when that person inevitably dies or leaves. Destructively analyzing your relationship with a loved one increases your appreciation of them and your valuation of their presence in your life, but paradoxically, it also lessens your neurotic attachment to them. Now, part of me wants to say, “But how can you just let go of someone like that? Wouldn’t you want people to mourn your death?” I cannot deny that yes, part of me does want that. But that part of me is, simply put, selfish.
Don’t get me wrong: I want to be remembered, and I want my friends to reminisce about the times we had together, and I want my children, if I ever have any, to tell their grandchildren about me. But to ask that someone mourn you, to ask that someone feel pain because you’re gone – that is selfish, pure and simple. It’s as if I’m requesting validation from someone, except it’s validation that I’m never going to see. And if I don’t want other people to mourn me, why should it be my duty to mourn them?
The reason for all this morbid rumination on transience is, of course, this: transience is ineluctable. There is no way around the fact that everything is temporary. To say that this is a good thing would probably be dishonest (who are we kidding, really?), but perhaps it can be at least accepted. Through destructive analysis, we can become less attached to the things we value and thus, more accepting of the inevitable. At least, it works for me.