“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, ‘And this too, shall pass away.'” – Abraham Lincoln
One of the core teachings in Zen and throughout Buddhism in general is that all things in this life are impermanent. This means that everything we hold dear, including those closest to us, will one day be gone.
If we really absorb this into the deepest part of our hearts – that nothing is permanent and we will one day lose all that we have – then we are left with two choices: despair, or gratitude.
Rather than being a cause for despair, we can choose to be grateful for what we have while we have it. By keeping in mind that all things are impermanent – our parents, partners, children, pets, jobs, money, houses, cars, etc., we can profoundly appreciate all that we have for the relatively short time we have it – precisely because we know that at any moment they can be lost.
And while infinitely more difficult, once we have lost what we hold dear, we can also learn to be grateful for what we had while we had it.
These lessons were never made more abundantly clear to me than in March of this year. On 10 March 2016 I lost my mother, the very person who taught me the phrase, “This too shall pass” (as she used to say it) which she used during every difficult time she ever faced.
My mother was in many ways like the Rock of Gibraltar throughout my life. No matter what twist or turn my life took, she was always there for me – seemingly permanent and immovable, unshakable in her resolve to assist in any way she could, if at all she could.
While I intellectually knew she would one day pass – it never seemed like she actually would, even as it became evident her health was declining. But then I got the call, and that day, it all became real (though at times it also seems surreal) .
Then, ten days after I lost my mother, we had to euthanize our eldest dog, Baxter, a beautiful all white Lab very much like the one in the picture. Only those who have had a close bond with any kind of animal and then lost them can appreciate how that feels. Baxter was the first dog my wife and I had together. He was, in all aspects, the perfect dog – playful, loyal, goofy, and gorgeous.
And here too, while we knew that Baxter would one day pass, it never seemed real. Then, as it became evident that his health was such that keeping him here would no longer be for him, but for us, we made that most difficult decision. We had the vet come over to our house, and we held Baxter as he passed.
The one-two punch of these two losses in such close proximity was tough. For weeks there was nothing but grief and despair. But as time went on, I realized that I could continue to mourn and ground myself in sorrow, or I could begin to change my perspective and be grateful for the time that I had with them.
Learning to be grateful in the midst of grief is not an easy lesson. Gratitude is not a magic wand that suddenly makes everything better. But what it does do in a time of grief is temper the hurt, temper the sorrow, and ever-so-slightly loosen the vice-like grip that grief holds on our hearts whenever we think of those we’ve lost.
And gratitude can do one more thing. It can remind us not to wait until we’ve lost what we hold dear before we learn to appreciate what we have.
So I leave you with this: appreciate each and every person, and all you hold dear now, in the present moment. Hold them in your hearts as you would a precious bird in the palm of your hand – ever so tenderly.
Appreciate them while you have them because you know in your heart of hearts that this too, shall pass away.