Life Changes in The Instant
On page 36 of YOU WERE BORN FOR A REASON there is a quote from the book The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The quote is, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down for dinner and life as you know it ends.” This quote is in reference to the sudden death of the author’s husband, that happened one evening as they sat down to eat. They had been married for forty years, and in a moment their union together was over. Didion explains that she considered inserting the word “ordinary” before “instant” but she didn’t because it occurred to her that everything in life happens in “ordinary” moments. Life is made up of “ordinary” moments.
For example she says, “confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell...OR, ‘He was on his way home from work - happy, successful, healthy - and then, gone’ I read in the account of a psychiatric nurse whose husband was killed in a highway accident.” It was an “ordinary Sunday morning” when the attacks on Pearl Harbor happened, people say. And Didion continues “it was just an ordinary beautiful September day” when the planes flew into the Twin Towers on 9/11, so people still say to describe that morning, she says. In an ordinary unexpected moment, her husband was taken from her.
The shock was so great that she could not fully accept that he was actually gone, and not coming back ever. And this is what the title refers to: The Year of Magical Thinking is the year following her husband’s death and her belief that he would come back. “I could not give the rest of his shoes away...he would need shoes if he was to return,” she says.
It is hard to accept death. Maybe it’s because death is so final, and we can’t imagine that we will ever see that person again.
With death there is no second chance, unlike the many chances we get in life. In daily life if we make a mistake we can be forgiven and given another chance to do it over. We fail a test and we can retake it. Even if a marriage fails, the two people can remarry someone else. But with death there is no such second chance. Maybe this is why we struggle to accept it.
It reminds me of the story of Kisa Gotami, who had lost her only child and being grief stricken went to Sakyamuni Buddha begging for him to bring the child back. Of course Buddha could not bring the child back from the dead. Instead he taught her the impermanence and reality of life. Buddha instructed her to find a home that had a poppy seed and to bring it to him, but with one condition, that there cannot have been a death in that home. Filled with hope, she went seeking for the poppy seed; however, although she
could find an abundance of poppy seeds, there was no home in which death had not visited. Finally, exhausted, at the end of her day she returned to Buddha having realized that death is a part of life and that her son was gone.
Death is a harsh reality of life. There is nothing more tragic and unfortunate as dying. But the fact is that all who are living must one day die. Once we are born, we are destined to die. No one can live forever. Most people can’t even live to the age of 100. Compared to the life of this planet, 100 years is a mere drop in the ocean. For most of us when a person dies and once their friends and family are gone, no one will remember they existed. So what is the meaning of such a person’s life? If we are born just to live and die and only to be forgotten, then it seems to be a pointless existence, an existence of suffering and dying. Even things that we build will one day vanish. This planet and everything on it will disintegrate eventually. This is an impermanent world. For this reason, Master Shinran spent his entire life clarifying the purpose of life as laid out by Sakyamuni Buddha, which is salvation by Amida Buddha. In such a transient world, Master Shinran taught that only Amida’s salvation is the one thing that we can rely on that will never crumble in the face of any hardship, even death. For this reason it is the purpose of our life.
Frank Costelloe, U.S.A
Source: The Buddhist Village Times #13 | 2012, Life Changes in The Instant
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