Chaplains’ Corner: Embracing impermanence

Valerie Bailey

This op-ed was adopted from a speech first presented during the Two-Year Pandemic Vigil on March 11, 2022.

The first moments after that email two years ago were surreal. Being dismissed from school in March 2020 was not a scenario that anyone had dreamed of, even as news of the pandemic grew more alarming with each passing day.

Then it happened. And even then, we thought that the lockdown would be temporary and could end by the summer.

But as the summer grew closer, our suspended animation became the new norm. Things that we had taken for granted — the solid nature of the academic calendar, the simple habits of running into people on the street and seeing them in stores, without masks — these were things that faded away and were replaced with face coverings, isolation, and uncertainty.

It has been said that it takes about six months to really adopt a new habit. I suppose that means it takes just about as long to lose a habit, or a rhythm of life.

Now, at the two-year mark, what have you lost, and what have you gained during these last two years?

Today, COVID-19 is still ravaging countries. China is looking at a new lockdown and the only reasons why we at the College can let go of masks today is because of our commitment to past periods of lockdown and good weather. Other countries are also facing surges while we in the United States are hoping for herd immunity. All of these are reminders that are still in the midst of the pandemic.

Is it too early to talk about closure?

If we have found closure about anything, we can say that we may be done with the belief that things can change into a specific result, just because we worked hard and we did everything right. If the coronavirus taught us anything, quoting John Lennon, life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.  How many of us have finally let go of the plan to graduate in four years, or that you would graduate into a job market that has any kind of stability? Perhaps letting go of a belief that plans equal results means that we are ready to embrace impermanence.

Impermanence is the state or fact of lasting for only a limited period of time. This is a very difficult concept for those of us in the West. Other cultures, especially in the East, have embraced a philosophy that things do not last and the only constant is change.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn wrote the following:

The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent — flowers, tables, mountains, political regimes, bodies, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. We cannot find anything that is permanent. 

Flowers decompose, but knowing this does not prevent us from loving flowers. In fact, we are able to love them more because we know how to treasure them while they are still alive. If we learn to look at a flower in a way that impermanence is revealed to us, when it dies, we will not suffer. Impermanence is more than an idea. It is a practice to help us touch reality.

When we realize that the things that we value and love are not permanent, they take on even more meaning. Knowing that everything is temporary reminds us to enjoy these things as much as possible, but to also be ready to let go of them.

Perhaps the closure that we need now is an appreciation of how most of our reality is rooted in the present, and that even our present reality fades away. Perhaps the closure we need is as simple as inhaling and exhaling, realizing that this breath, although fleeting, is what makes us alive.

As we move into another phase of COVID-19, remember this too, like everything else, will pass. Despite this new awareness of impermanence, don’t let go of the new habits, new relationships, and new perspectives we have gained, and enjoy them for as long as they last, which we now know, is only for a season.

The Reverend Valerie Bailey Fischer is Chaplain to the College and Protestant Chaplain.