Quite a few summers ago now, before the children came along, Lorinda and I headed down to London for a couple of nights. We had tickets to see a Shakespeare play – Henry V I think it was – at the Globe. The place was lit softly and we had a perfectly agreeable time, leaning into the balconies, sipping our wine. We had had our Tudor experience, alongside several hundred others, with our mobile phones and Oyster cards tucked into pockets and purses. Afterwards we walked along the Thames and I was struck by the sense that London is alive now as it was in the 16th century. The Shard was towering above us and the full Moon passed over that. But I was caught by a feeling of sadness. I remarked to Lorinda that civilisation just marched on and on and would long after we were both gone. I felt sad that we would be left behind. London, in a very real way, lives, and will be living long after we little people have played our parts.
We’re all going to die. Every human being, the old perhaps before the young. Oak trees. Blackbirds. Bumble bees. Foxes. Deer. Salmon. Mice. Roses. Each gorgeous form arises out of inorganic but fertile matter, passes through the life cycle and then disappears again. Whilst one human life is playing out, many generations of blackbird might come and go – they fly for a while and then they die.
I am reminded of something Sogyal Rinpoche observed in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:
Every time I hear the rush of a mountain stream, or the waves crashing on the shore, or my own heartbeat, I hear the sound of impermanence. These changes, these small deaths, are our living links with death. They are death’s pulse, death’s heartbeat, prompting us to let go of all the things we cling to.
Impermanence is a central idea in the Buddhist worldview, and it is a physical reality. So goes the second law of thermodynamics: the entropy of a system can only ever increase. What does that mean? Literally it means that heat concentrated in one place will dissipate outwards and be lost. A cup of tea goes cold. The heat will never return to that cup of tea. Likewise the Sun is constantly putting out heat into the vastness of space – ‘we’ would never be able to claw that heat back. It’s gone.
But entropy has a further consequence: that everything we take as ordered in the universe moves in the direction of disorder. A tidied room will become untidy. A neglected garden will become overgrown with weeds. This tendency towards dissipation and disorder also applies to our selves, our loved ones, all the living creatures. We are all impermanent, and we will all fall into dissolution one day. Rinpoche speaks of clinging because in Buddhist thought it is recognised that if we cling to any one thing it will only slip through our fingers.
And that is a heart-breaking thought. But also one of the realities of life that we must come to terms with.
Freud wrote about this in his essay ‘On Transience’. He had been taking a summer walk with a poet, but whilst Freud had been delighting in all the signs of nature in full bloom, the poet was mournful that everything beautiful that they could see before them would die in the winter. Furthermore all the splendid things that man created – art, literature, knowledge - would one day all vanish. Freud argued in his essay that rather than diminish the joy that we feel in the beauty of all these signs of life, we should appreciate the privilege of witnessing them even more, for knowing that the moment is now and will pass. We are privileged to witness this flower that blooms only for a single night. For Freud, their transience, their fleetingness makes them all the more precious.
We might have felt this too with our loved ones, in the intensity of our love: a flash of knowing, that one of us will die first and then I’ll never be able to tell you how much I love you again. We are called to cherish this moment – this present – because it will be gone forever. I have often thought back to when the twins were both babies; their smell, the little noises that they made, the way they fell to sleep in your arms. We now have two five year-olds tearing around the house, and there is some sadness in thinking that I’ll never see those little babies again. Five years from now I will no doubt feel the same about these times.
We live in a kingdom of impermanence. What was it Arya learned in Game of Thrones: “There is only one God and his name is Death”.
But what if this is not the whole story?
I’m noticing the chill in the air as we head into autumn. I imagine our ancestors millennia ago on this rugged island we call Great Britain. Only ourselves to huddle together for warmth. The steam on our breath, as the Sun rises on a cold morning. Crows that caw in the morning mist. The steam represents entropy: the heat that leaves our bodies never to return. But the caw is a strike-out for life. Crows are thought to be detrivores – hence their association with Death – I now understand this not to be the case. However true detrivores such as vultures, or fungi – they too, in their growth, in their reproduction, are securing a future for life.
An owl hooting in the cold, windy dead of night is its own striking out from the kingdom of impermanence: “Not today”.
The boundaries between life and death are extremely thin. This too feels particularly pertinent at these times as a vast sweep of animal species prepare for dormancy or hibernation over the winter. The other day I found a dead spider in the bathroom. I couldn’t be sure it was dead until I tried to move it. But all the animation was gone, and all that was left was the shell of the physical form that was once animated.
The cold comes and the insects that depend on the warmth become slower and slower, until they enter their state of suspended animation. They will either return after the winter period, or die within that body shell.
Ladybirds huddle together for warmth under plants or tree bark. Many aquatic insects just sink to the bottom of the water, insulated by the water above. Five species of butterfly go into dormancy in adult form: the red admiral, the brimstone, comma, peacock, and the small tortoiseshell. Other animals that hibernate or which go into a state of torpor include bears, hedgehogs, dormice, hummingbirds, bats, frogs, and bees (but only the queen bee).
Creatures that die in their sleep: either they will be reanimated when heat returns, or they will not and that situation is permanent. This makes me think of people that die in their sleep. We go into sleep with a kind of faithfulness that we will be reanimated, but only if the body shell still has vitality, continues metabolic processes. Without these we have no means of return.
As long as we have been a religious species we have held to a belief, a hope, that there is a force above death. Whether in the pagan times as they celebrated the Sun’s victory over night on the Winter Solstice, or in Christian times as Jesus’ victory over death is celebrated at Easter.
Physicists speak of entropy as the arrow of time – because as we progress along the fourth dimension the total entropy (think disorder, or spread-outness of heat) of the Universe is always increasing. Just as we can only go forward in time, but never back, we can never reverse entropy. But what if there was an also an axis of time, based around a hypothetical universal memory? The Universe ‘remembers’ its own birth – the evidence of the Big Bang is all around us in the form of background microwave radiation. What if all the life that we see striking out against the kingdom of impermanence is in some ways allied to Memory? (Capital M here suggesting something that exists above and beyond ordinary, fragmented human memory)
I have argued elsewhere that without Memory there is no flow of time. There I argued that Memory is conveyed through the fourth dimension through material etchings: these might include human actions like the creation of a book, a story, a picture, a house. These might be biological such as neural pathways created in the brain, or the DNA in our cells. The material etchings are a little bit like the black box that survives the crash of the plane. The etching survives the creature(s) that made it, but only survives itself to the extent that future generations pick it up. They are like seeds in that they are sent forth into the future.
The September 11th memorial provides a visual illustration of this: the two beams of light representing the fallen towers. Memory is immaterial in and of itself but remembers form from previous times.
Jackie (2006) 911 Memorial September 11th 2006. Shared under a creative commons license
So mortality is all around us, but Memory survives this motion. Memory is, in this way, immortal.
The dead of winter is seeded with the birth of spring – in the dormancy of eggs that will hatch when the temperature reaches a critical point, and in the hibernating animals which will wake from their sleep. But perhaps all our nights are seeded with memory of our days, and all the dark seeded with memory of light.
Freud, S. (1957: 1915). On Transience. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol xiv, pp.305-307