Impermanence

Some musings and links


It has been often written, and often said, that long ago a great king wished one day to challenge a wise man;

In some traditions, it is a king of Persia, in others King Solomon of Israel. Many details vary, but the common telling speaks of a request for a magical ring—this ring bearing an enchantment such that it might bring happiness to any who is sad, but so too bring down the spirits of any overjoyed. In most formulations, this paradox is presented by the speaker with a self-assurance of its intractability, and in most the wise man resolves it easily. In all, when the ring is presented, the great king is astonished and humbled by the simplicity of the enchantment. The ring bears only a simple inscription:

“This too shall pass.”

Like many a student of physics, I have come to think of life with a grand error brought on by Newton’s first law of motion. When I have been told that

An object that is at rest will stay at rest unless an external force acts upon it.

I have come to think inertia is the way of things.

But as the learned Dr. Hamlet warned his grad student on the way back from their late night recitation: “There are far more forces in heaven and on Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your natural philosophy textbook.”


Change is the way of the universe, even if it does not always appear to be the way of the world. Whether we wish to speak of “dependent arising” and “vipariṇāma-dukkha”, quote Matthew 24:35-36, or look to the laws of entropy and studies on the end-of-history illusion, we may find but scant assurances in life:

  1. Things shall change.
  2. We shall not always be prepared.

Just as things merely are, they shall merely pass away.


Even in familiar surroundings, destructive forces act so often more quickly and more capriciously than we expect. I’ve come across some interesting examples of late:

  • (Public radio spoilers #1): The most recent episode of Radiolab spoke of (amongst other examples) a seed jar discovered and left in the American desert after 700+ years, found to be destroyed by erosion of the landscape in 11 years between visits.
  • (Public radio spoilers #2): The most recently re-aired episode of This American Life speaks of an abandoned home, its contents, and a whole family history, about which several cared deeply, destroyed quickly by the mere disregard and disagreement of those closest to it.
  • A recently-popular imugr album of Google Street view images from the Detroit area shows the quick reclaiming work of looters and nature.

The last is perhaps most deeply worth considering in the context of my recent writing. I spoke yesterday of the grand visions and exciting futures that might be brought into the IT industry by learning from the thought that led Japanese auto workers to victory over Detroit. The Phoenix Project speaks of helping your business win with these ideas: but it’s important to remember others may also lose.

So too, as you use these technologies in pursuit of stability, you must remember that in the most successful case you have, stability won is but temporary. So too is all achievement. On this path lies humility.


So what to do about it all? It is a question many philosophers have touched on—I spoke briefly of that the other day — and the consensus has been largely: do not worry about that which you cannot control. It can be a hard thing to do. In this vein, present appreciation of things is prescribed. To this end, there is power in awareness practice.

Take comfort too in the facts of your biology, gifted to you by history. Humans are blessed to not need external DevOps tooling: in health, we posses not only facilities of homeostasis—the autonomic ability to find stability in (restoration of) sameness, but also perhaps innate facilities of allostasis—the ability to find stability and survive through change. The world shall always change, but so too are we built for that.

Beyond these thoughts, I can’t claim to have much advice.


If you happen to be becoming acquainted with me primarily through my writing here, you may not know of my love of music. I think that music can be deeply helpful in appreciating moments, and in receiving the captured appreciations (happy or somber) of others. To this end, I leave you with two highly relevant songs you likely haven’t heard:

https://soundcloud.com/mc-lars/12-buddhism-for-dummies

In this B-side, Stanford graduate, “post-punk laptop rapper” Andrew “MC Lars” Nielson contemplates the dangers and horrors of life and how he’s tried to cope with awareness of them over heavy droning synths. It’s simple and rather a bummer, but it captures the dis-ease of this idea very well.

Most of Lars’s work is much more playful.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvL0DB615PE

“Do You Realize??” is a fairly well known song by the Flaming Lips which contemplates that in life we (don’t) take for granted, and a prescription for dealing with it. The original is good, but I find the more subdued instrumentation in this cover to better befit a contemplative tone. I find it to manage to be an ultimately cheerful song, despite some heavy thoughts; and I think that is fairly powerful ☺.

And with that, I bid you adieu until tomorrow. Be well as you are.