Not meant to last forever - the Stoic wisdom on impermanence
Carina Barbosa
Aurelius Foundation Supporter

The word impermanence comes from Latin, meaning it lasts for a limited period of time, and this simple noun is the cause of most of our sufferings. The Stoics knew that and worked on dealing with the fact that most events, people, objects in our lives are temporary, and as such, we shall not be disturbed by them following their impermanent nature.

Human beings, relationships, possessions, none of these are meant to last forever, and we know it, but even so, we behave otherwise. Stoics had a great conviction that acknowledging the impermanence within and of our existence is the key to be free from suffering.

Comfort zone has become one of the most popular expressions of all times. Everybody is looking forward to getting to that point in life, we want to be living in our comfort zone. We work hard to get to that moment when we realize we don´t need to learn anything new. We don´t need to impress the boss, we don´t need to seduce the partner, we don´t have to conquer someone´s trust. Guess what? That place doesn´t exist. Because all that safety we feel within the comfort zone is subject to impermanence, which means, it´s temporary.

Look at your smartphone, if it is the latest model, by this time next year, there will be at least another 10 upgrades, and we are talking about a product that is made to last for a long time. Like us, the carcass of an electronic device, may take longer to wear out, but the technology inside is a whole other story.

You may be thinking, but if I live like nothing is going to last, I won´t have any peace of mind. That´s because you are leaning that peace in the wrong place. We should not trust our serenity to something we cannot control. That´s the Stoic wisdom, to live our days as if it was the last but knowing it might not be.

According to stoics, we should be doing our best all the time. If you think that it would be very tiring, you are not thinking about YOUR best, you are probably considering the best OTHER people expect from you. Put this practice together with another stoic teaching, there are things we are not able to control. Now let´s see an example.

I am a mother, doing MY best means being there for my kids, making sure they are fed, dressed and on time for school. My best includes quality time, checking on learning development and teaching them about right and wrong. That is the part that is under my control. I shall not live like they belong with me, and I tell myself all the time that they must feel free and supported to follow their own path. If they get sick, if they decide to go live with their father (yes, I am divorced), if they don´t make the most of their classes, it´s up to them and I have no control of it.

I can treat their illness and provide the best care I can afford, it doesn´t mean they will get better, but it means I have done my best. I might want to try to talk them out of the idea of leaving my company, but still, it´s their choice (a difficult one to accept, not saying otherwise). I keep telling them that learning is the most important thing they can do while they have no other responsibilities. I tell them stories of my parents, of myself, enlightening how useful knowledge was to us, still, I can´t be in the classroom, controlling their wandering minds. At the end of the day, I know I was the best mom I could be. Not the one I wanted them to have, or the one people expected me to be. I was MY best, and that is it.

This is the key to not struggling with impermanence when related to my kids. As Khalil Gibran said “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.” Realizing my kids are not meant to be with me forever, that they themselves are not meant to last forever, that I won´t last forever is the most difficult assignment I have but is the one that sets me free from the outcomes of their upbringing.

We can apply the same example to our work, health, our relationship with loved ones. And avoid any suffering that could come out of it by doing our best, keeping in mind there are things we cannot control and remembering forever is an illusion.

Don´t think it won´t hurt, if and when it happens, it will. The big difference is that it won´t rule your life.

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