It happens every year around this time. Accustomed to complaining about the summer heat and how frequently the grass needs mowing, you suddenly notice the number of fallen leaves sprinkled across the sidewalk and realize summer is giving way to fall.
For some of us, the prospect of change prompts feelings of joy. “Bring it on!” we say. “Autumn’s the best season of the year!”
But many of us resist the fleetingness of things, and find ourselves emotionally off balance. “Seems like summer just started a couple of weeks ago,” we mutter. “Nowadays everything goes by so fast!”
When it comes to other forms of change, our resistance grows apace. We treasure our old photos, hold tight to outworn clothes, mourn the passing of relatives and friends, sigh at the obvious fact that nothing lasts. We pray to the everlasting and eternal, but know in our bones that everything in this world passes away.
All that we see, all that we touch, all that we love is fated to disappear. Physicists call it the second law of thermodynamics. Despite our yearnings for permanence, the universe is relentlessly wearing down, falling apart, and generally edging toward chaos.
Over its four-and-a-half-billion year history, our lovely planet Earth has gone through momentous changes, and will no doubt go through more of them. Evidence points to the fact that primitive Earth had no oxygen in its atmosphere and that today’s continents once formed a single giant landmass before breaking apart and drifting into their current locations. At the collision of tectonic plates, whole mountain ranges are lifted skyward, only to gradually erode away.
A glance in the mirror reveals the parallel shift in our own bodies. In the middle years, skin sags, muscles slacken, eyesight fades, hearing declines. Our bones themselves shrink and grow brittle. We know at some point we will cease to be.
And yet, in the face of all these changes, certain mysteries remain. Life, it appears, is somehow more than the sum of its material parts. The writer/scientist Steve Grand invites us to “think of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it?
“But here is the bombshell: You weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place ... Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made.
If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.”
We live in a temporary world. But something about us transcends the purely physical. ’Tis a great puzzlement. And, I submit, a great reason for joy.
(Columnist Craig Nagel recently published a collection of past Cracker
Barrel articles in book form titled “A Sense of Wonder.”)
Copyright 2012 by Craig Nagel