Godtalk: Changing times


Change and transience

‘HOME is where we start from.’
T. S. Eliot describes an experience that can be felt both as a freedom and as a  heartache.  For some people the place they grew up in forty years ago has changed in so many ways they would hardly recognise it if they returned today.

Already in 1970, Alvin Toffler, in his famous book, Future Shock, pointed out how transience and impermanence are beginning more and more to shape our psyches, as things, people, places, knowledge, and organizations pass through our lives at an ever-increasing rate. And he wrote this long before the impact of information technology began to reshape our lives even more radically.

The transience and impermanence that Toffler describes in 1970 are dwarfed  by information technology. By today's standards, things, people, places, knowledge, and organizations were passing through our lives at a snail's pace forty years ago, in 1970. Today, more than the buildings of our youth are disappearing from our lives.

What does this transience say about our lives and our times;  is this good or bad?   We're probably still sorting this out. Transience and impermanence aren't wrong, though they aren't necessarily virtues either. They seem a mixed bag, a mixed blessing.

On the positive side, they've brought us a new freedom. For many centuries, people were too much imprisoned by the suffocating permanence of the things, places, and knowledge of their time. They had stability, everything held firm:  but too firm, few new doors ever opened. The transience and impermanence in our lives sets us free in a way that allows us to let ourselves be nourished and blessed by our roots, even as we aren't bound by them.

Yet there's a heartache in this as well. Constantly having the familiar disappear can grieve us, and it should. It's healthy to want to go back to visit the old houses, schools, neighborhoods, and textbooks that once nurtured us. So the loss of the things and places of our youth can be painful.

But the pain of transience and impermanence in our lives also helps point us towards the things that don't change, namely, faith, hope, and love.    These can never be bulldozed or burnt-down, or rendered obsolete by newer software. In this world, scripture tells us, we have no lasting city, but we are already inextricably bound up with things that do last forever.

Centuries before Christ, the biblical writer, Qoheleth warned us that everything in this life is vanity: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ However he uses the word  in a different sense from today. For him, ‘vanity’ simply means  a passing mist, transience, something that disappears too quickly.

Experiencing that transience can give us a heartache; but it can also make us search more deeply inside  this impermanence for that which is everlasting. 

Peter Knott SJ