CY, our elder daughter at Oregon, came to visit us this week. And she gave me three books, knowing that I'm an avid reader like herself. One of the books is The Year of Magical Thinking (Alfred A. Knoff, 2005) by Joan Didion. I have covered about thirty pages so far, which are primarily centered on her life as she sees it in the aftermath of the sudden demise of her husband.
In her words, which also constitute the first paragraph, in italics for emphasis, of Chapter 1:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
Then on page 5:
In the midst of life we are in death.
These words, albeit precipitated by a traumatic event of having lost a loved one, struck an emotional chord in me as they resonate with one of the tenets of Buddhism, impermanence. Some prefer to call it perpetual change, for nothing stays the same, not even for a moment that may last for a nanosecond or shorter. Sure, we do recognize things don't stay the same: cars depreciate in value, the volatility of stock markets, the whimsical weather, bus routes that are never punctual, and at times of frustrations, that people change. We may even quote a popular Chinese refrain: there is no dinner that does not adjourn, during farewell parties.
But we seldom think of ourselves, our loved ones, in those terms. As far as we are concerned, departure from this world is a distant possibility, not even a certainty. And we prefer to be buried in our dailiness, a term I picked up in Joan's book, instead of being prepared for this inevitability when it comes, regardless of which day it is. Consequently, when personal tragedies hit, we may spend an inordinately long time wallowing in grief, in self-pity. Or as a former Maryknoll priest wrote, as quoted in Joan's book:
“We might, in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean's bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far, buffeting us with recollections.”
When reduced to such a cocoon state of self-imposed incarceration, we become leaden and fail to be energized by the cherished thoughts of having known a great human being. The world still needs the living, and I'm sure the departed will rest in peace, knowing that we continue to contribute in our own small way to global well-being.
Being prepared to face the mutability of life does not in any way connote a fatalistic acceptance of what life throws at us. Or we meekly await for the day of reckoning, wasting each day in wanton pursuits that pander to the sensory organs. Conversely, we embrace life in all its elements: be awed by human ingenuity, be amazed at the wonders of nature, be happy for others' achievements, be compassionate to others' misfortunes, be demanding of our own work ethics, be forgiving of other's faults, and be grateful for whatever we have, right this moment.
Yesterday is but history. Tomorrow is but a dream. But today well-lived makes every yesterday a fond memory, and every tomorrow, an anticipated challenge.