Everything changes, all the time. The problem is, most people resist change with more passion than they resist almost anything else.
We resist change in ourselves. If we are past our twenties then we resist birthdays, completely forgetting how as children we looked forward to them with anticipation. We don’t much care for the newly hired people in our department at work, or the new policy that was announced yesterday. We resist the new politician in our city even when the sitting politician is completely ineffectual. The new hymnal at church is even worse than the new pastor, which is saying a lot. We love our new car until it gets its first scratch and our new Apple product until Apple releases the newest version six months later – and we fail to see how manipulative that process is. The list goes on an on.
Buddhists have a word for the truth that everything changes: impermanence. The truth is that it is the nature of everything to change, so to believe things will stay the same is to go against reality. It’s equivalent to wishing the sun would never set – no matter how hard we wish, somewhere between four and nine o’clock in most of the world the sun is going to set. In fact, if it didn’t the consequences would be cataclysmic! If we could just set our fears aside for a moment, we would see both the truth and the wisdom of impermanence.
It is the nature of human beings to age, get sick, and die. As much as we want our loved ones to remain with us and not die, living with the consequences of aging for eternity is not a pleasant prospect. If you doubt that, visit a nursing home. Even in the finest nursing home there isn’t a whole lot of stimulating activity going on. Another example is a person with cancer. Radiation and chemotherapy are among the most difficult treatments to endure. Cancer patients either go into remission or die, and that’s a good thing because indefinite radiation and chemo would be a miserable way to live. Then there are teenagers. If teenagers never became twenty-somethings the suicide rate among parents would sky-rocket precisely because things weren’t changing!
When we resist things like marriage equality we are denying the reality of impermanence. Perhaps the best aspect of impermanence is that even our ignorance, prejudice, and intolerance doesn’t last forever. We can, of course, choose to fight against the truth of impermanence by digging in our heels and resisting change – but even that changes us by rendering us irrelevant old fools who no longer have an impact on friends, family, or society at large. In letting our fears rule our lives, we in fact live less and less. I don’t believe that is an existence any of us desires.
So, when considering a change and our response to it I believe we need to ask ourselves some questions. The biggest of those questions are whether the change is life giving or life denying. In other words, does the proposed change allow people to move more fully into the human beings they are meant to be, or does it hinder and diminish them in some way? I believe this is the ultimate moral question, much more important than any list of behaviors in any religious or spiritual text. We can run a list of behaviors against this question and quickly see how effective it is. Stealing, violence, murder, abuse, driving while intoxicated, lying, and a host of other behaviors are clearly life denying because they diminish both the actor and their victims – though diminishing even just one person is enough to qualify the action as life denying. On the other hand generosity, love, concern, compassion, empathy, work, play, family, forgiveness, recreation, listening and a host of other behaviors are clearly life giving.
The life giving vs. life denying question also allows us to consider what are often called the grey areas of life. If a man steals medicine from a pharmacy that will safe his wife’s life because he cannot afford it, we can ask ourselves what is life giving or life denying for everyone involved in the situation. We can use these criteria to evaluate issues of social justice as well. Is it right that life saving medicine should be out of reach for the economically disadvantaged? Isn’t that life denying?
Often we make issues of morality and ethics – and just about everything else for that matter – far more complicated than they need to be. Developing a few simple tools to use can go a long way toward helping us evaluate behaviors and cope with change – including the fact that one day all of us will die.