The impermanence of permanence
Human beings have a thing about permanence, about roots and foundations. We like knowing where we belong, and many of us drift through life looking for “home” with a capital H, a place in which to settle down and remain for the rest of our lives – a permanent fixture, if you will.
We are attracted to symbols of permanence: stone walls, massive foundations, even the ruins of buildings that have sunk into the surrounding landscape, silent mementos of those that went before.
We crave permanence because of our own impermanence, an attempt to ensure something is left behind when we move onwards and upwards. Our ancient forebears decorated caves to tell the world that they’d been here, people through the ages have ordered elaborate tombs, inscriptions, statues, portraits – all of it to safeguard their memory, remind the not as yet born that once they existed. A prerogative of the rich, to be sure, as the peasant working the fields of a medieval manor could never aspire to much more than a simple wooden cross on his grave, but now and then even the humble man left something behind – a carefully carved likeness of his wife or a horse, the beautifully joined three-legged stool that survived to sit in pride of place four centuries down the line, now labelled an antique.
These days, those that want to have their names remembered down the generations are somewhat challenged: we no longer build mausoleums (not unless we’re megalomaniac dictators, and very few of us are), nor do we build cathedrals or castles. The truly rich buy decaying piles and renovate them into splendour – or build a sky-scraper that rises like a giant, flawless phallus towards the skies.
The rest of us, we do as we have always done: we assure ourselves of a genetic future by having kids and leave the building of monuments to others.
We strive for permanence – a sense of context, of a past that will segue into a future – which is why some of us research our ancestors, needing the names of those that engendered us so as to define ourselves. Sometimes, these research efforts backfire, and it is with horror the amateur genealogist discovers he/she has an infamous murderess up the family tree. After all, some say that blood will tell…
It is all rather futile: the human race may have some permanence (although there are days when I wonder for how much longer) but the individuals are as ephemeral as butterflies, here one day, gone the next. The houses we build, the fences we mend – they are as impermanent as we are, albeit over a longer period of time. Ancient trees will fall and rot, mountains erode into sand, rivers dry up, diverge and reform. The continents shift as we speak – extremely slowly, to be sure, but all the same. Even our precious planet has an allotted time, and some day in the very, very distant future, there will no longer be a spinning orb of blues and greens, no seas, no lands, no life. One day, the stars themselves will fizzle out and die, replaced by others – newer, brighter. Not that any of us will be around when that happens.
There is no such thing as permanence. Deep inside, we all know that. Deep inside, we refuse to accept it, finding it quite, quite inconceivable that we are no more permanent than a cobweb – or a mote of dust, that glistens for an instant in a stray ray of sun and then is no more.