Embracing Transience

* Here’s a throwback article written a long time ago, but never posted.  I think it’s dense, overly florid, and wildly digressive.  It wallows in the abstract without a foundation of objective support.  Nonetheless, flux is the single most important topic I will write about, so I’ll broach it here.

“Isn’t it sad how some people’s grip on their lives is so precarious that they’ll embrace any preposterous delusion rather than face an occasional bleak truth?”

~Bill Waterson

Years ago I was lying on the coarse carpet beneath a desk in a dimly lit office cubicle. In the waking hours of my shift there was little to do, so I would hide in that little nook for a few desperate minutes’ rest. I remember the eerie, dark silence that occupied the space. The aroma of machine oil wafted off my dirty clothes violating the sterile, ventilated air. The jeans that wrapped stiffly around my legs were torn. My cotton jacket was warm. My eyes were closed.

As I laid there on the scratchy synthetic carpet, delaying work with desperate brevity, I thought about how I’d be free one day. My mind rose above the building, above the industrial block of town. It flew out to the imagined paradise of foreign lands, and I knew that fate beckoned from there. Back in reality a contented smile curled my lips. And I promised myself that, when I’d made it abroad, I’d think back to this person shirking work by hiding in a dark nook.

Writing this, I’m sitting in a cafe in Raglan, New Zealand overlooking a panoramic view of crashing waves that look like sea-foam stallions rushing the shore. An endless beach sprawls before me. Distant rolling hills and a sky full of billowing white clouds mural the horizon. My face is dry and cracked from days spent surfing under the austral sun. My muscles are spent. My spirits are high, and so am I on the elation of being free once more.

Here’s a riddle for you. Is the laggard in the office the same person as the vagabond in the cafe? When is the Ship of Theseus not his ship anymore? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus

I need to discuss flux; its ubiquity, its rate, and its nature. Because flux is everywhere, is everything, and adapting to it is crucial for avoiding many many pains in life. Rigidly adhering to any notion that doesn’t admit to flux is like carrying chocolate in your pocket and expecting it not to melt. The delusion of permanence is one of the single most odious notions.

It is easy to see flux on quick enough time scales. Humans can watch the cycle of day turning into night and back again. They can follow the tides rolling in and out; see clouds passing overheard; witness fire turn a stump into ash. Seasons come and go as the planet orbits the sun. Puppies grow up before our eyes. Mold consumes cheese from one day to the next.

With technology we can even watch pea plants wind up scaffolding, and sunflowers track the sun. We can see the stars move across the sky like a firefly highway.

Slower changes are more difficult to witness. Their effects can only be seen in the imagination. But just the same, pillars of marble in the desert collapse. Pipes in lazy rivers corrode. Lush ecosystems invade barren deserts and retreat back again. Bedrock is carved by glaciers, shattered by tectonic shifts. Mountains crumble and erode. Stars explode. Even atoms fuse together. These things are all in flux too. Nothing in the known universe is permanent.

Why would people be any different?

Most people recognize that their identities change over time. Anyone who reflects on who they were ten years prior will grasp the magnitude of their transient nature. But since the change is so gradual from day to day, it is easy to be lulled into a sense of constancy. This assumption is dangerous because it leaves us confused when it is contradicted. And it will be.

So it boils down, finally, to the specific nature of the flux. The question isn’t ‘if’, but ‘how’ our identities shift over that time. Change is not a clock ticking down that suddenly unlocks a new person when it strikes zero.

Priorities shift as slowly as continents. Qualities of character sprout slightly faster, like forests on a mountainside. Opinions and beliefs grow like individual plants and trees. And thoughts scurry around like the animals among them. We are paradoxically changing and remaining the same in every moment. Our personalities resemble the landscape of a vast island.

It is reasonable to believe that a forest remains the same forest when a single tree falls within it, or that it’s unchanged when a new generation of squirrels begins harvesting its acorns. No one would object that the Earth is still the Earth when a new island bubbles up in the Pacific ocean.

But when it comes to identity, to the person you are in a given situation, that rigid belief of sameness can lead to strife. The nature of consciousness contradicts that metaphor for the self. The self is too complicated, too nuanced, for such a static conception.

The problem is scope. The proper application of ‘self’ is in need of subtlety. Sure you are the same ‘self’ when drunk or hungry, tired or sick. You retain all your memories and preferences. All your beliefs and passions. But to suggest you are the same in all these states is like someone in the desert and someone in the jungle proclaiming that they are on planet Earth. It’s both true and horrendously misleading.

The more practical scope of self is in the nitty gritty. It’s down at the individual level where person-hood is in greater flux. When we’re angry or sore, mirroring others or laughing hysterically, we aren’t our forests of memory. We aren’t at all times our wise lakes, our passionate tropics, our austere deserts, and our triumphant mountains.

Our present condition transports our will to different regions of our ‘self.’ Our full capacity for wisdom, patience, tolerance, or foresight might be inaccessible in certain states. For example, our balance and coordination is inaccessible while drunk. From the metaphorical outer space those regions are clear and present. But expecting yourself to exhibit all your best qualities at all times is preposterous.

Acknowledging this flux within ourselves can eliminate regret. It takes some trust as well. Trust your past self that he acted the best way he could given the knowledge, wisdom, and foresight available to him. Trust that he did his best in spite of the emotions encumbering him at the time. Indeed he acted in the only way he could have. Forgive yourself his mistakes.

Being aware of this flux can foster qualities for the future; the endurance to withstand hardship, and a deep gratitude for prosperity. Those residing in the melancholic tundras of their minds can have faith that things can change. Those souls must hike, hike each day toward warmer climes. But with the belief in flux, they can take that first step.

Oppositely, anyone thriving in fertile valleys can recognize the brevity of their bliss, so they can appreciate it all the more. They can enjoy their fortunes more keenly, and stoke hotter the embers of joy. The gratitude gleaned can then salve the ache when those times have passed.

Knowing that we can develop new habits and qualities tomorrow by shifting our perceptions today can empower us to move beyond hardship. To move out of depression. And to move forward towards an imagined ideal.

Finally, by recognizing flux, we can enable harmony in the present. This is the trickiest advantage because it requires keen self-awareness to know when an impulse has been influenced by emotion. But by understanding how the emotional and cognitive tumults of life can skew our perceptions of a situation, we can account for them, make allowances for them, and accept ourselves at our non-ideal.

So my answer to the riddle is this. No, those people are not the same. And Theseus’ ship is no longer his ship as soon as a single piece is switched. The paradox is only a paradox because of the dissonance between labels and reality. Labels are static and unchanging. Reality, as the author has attempted to show, is amorphous and transient.

Your beliefs about the shifting nature of identity, and when Theseus’ ship is no more his ship, are at your discretion. Debating it is as meaningless as arguing over how many grains of sand make a pile.

But it has done me well to abandon the label of identity. My paradigm of myself operates on the belief that I am a different person everyday, every hour, every minute. I am shifting in different ways, at different rates, all the time. My thoughts scatter wildly from one minute to the next. My emotions more slowly bloom and droop. My beliefs thrive and wither in response to the steady flow of life experiences. And I spend no small amount of energy, over years spilling into decades, carving out qualities of the man I want to become.

We are at all times only a momentary expression of an ever changing unity. The humid weather that at times oppresses. The ginger tea and coffee and cigarettes that crafts a mood. The energy and attentiveness brought to bear by a good night’s sleep. The enthusiasm for the topics that inspire each day. And the memories and stories that divert conversation, and reflect those of others, will never be, and can never be, replicated in just the same way to produce a particular expression of self-hood.

I wasn’t this person yesterday, and I won’t be me tomorrow.

Thank you for reading.


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