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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

Our Temporary Nature

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We often forget the temporary nature of life soothed by an illusion of stability in our day-to-day routines, lulled into a false belief that we are somehow permanent. We are reminded of this temporary nature when untimely deaths occur, like that of Natasha Richardson or the less famous faces of so many others. On Monday I spent the afternoon at a funeral where my friends were celebrating the life of their eldest son, merely 19 when he died in a tragic accident. The loss of life, particularly when young, jolts us into remembering the fragility of life.

Why ponder on this fragility and impermanence of life when the illusion is so soothing?

From my own experiences of death - fear of it when afflicted by illness to experiences of loved one dying - I know that living life fully, with a constancy of purpose and determination, arises in the realization of our temporary nature often brought forth by a brush or touch with death. I often ask myself why that would be so? Why is the removal of something so necessary to see its value and live it with determination - what might be called a permanence of purpose?

Then I'm reminded of the sky. When I see the sky -whether blue in day or black at night - I realize it is through the relationship of the sky to objects such as the horizon or clouds or stars or moon that it can be known as sky. While that may sound a little odd imagine this text without spaces between the words. Without the spaces, the letters have no meaning. Much of what we know arises from seeing that which reflects it, like seeing objects because of the background or understanding life by knowing death.

The sadness felt in times of loss are ones that words often cannot soften. Yet, in death we often discover the fullness of live lived by another and in that experience learn to live our own lives more fully. I never met my friend's son before the memorial service on Monday, but in its aftermath I found I knew their son in ways unimaginable in life. The impact he had on so many others, the love he had for music, for discovery, for words, were expressed in the words and images shared that day but more by the outpouring of love that filled the space as we said goodbye.

I found a quote by Abraham Lincoln last week - before this young man's life expired - and it now had more meaning than I could have imagined.

He said, "It's not how many years in your life you've lived but how you've lived those years". The young man's life was short but the spaces he created filled eternity with love.

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