“the Road is Life” is my oldest tattoo, the first one I got while I was still living in Lawrence. In a way, it is the foundational philosophy of my life, and thus a very fitting starting point for the body ink.
But another tattoo, “This too shall pass,” is a phrase that has been swirling in my head even longer. I remember being a senior in high school, painfully shy, depressed at the (seemingly) limited prospects for my future and living in an apartment with my mother while she struggled through the first years of a divorce. It was not a good time. I would look at myself in the mirror, agitated, and that single phrase would echo through my mind: This too shall pass.
Back then it was a life preserver, a hope that I had to hold onto to get through.
But with time, it’s become as true a maxim of my life as “The road is life.” The bad periods don’t last forever. Neither do the good ones.
King Solomon and the Magic Ring
While researching the phrase for potential tattooing in Charlotte (along with “Silent Silence,” “This Too Shall Pass” was my first tat while in the midst of the 10 Cities Project), I discovered that it actually has a root in various ancient myths, including old Jewish folklore that tells of King Solomon (the wise king) asking one of his trusted ministers to bring him a “magic ring” that, when looked upon, would make a happy man sad, and a sad man happy. The idea was to humble the minister since Solomon knew no such ring existed.
Long story short, the minister has a ring forged with the phrase “This Too Shall Pass” engraved on it. When Solomon sees it, his smile fades to a frown (happy to sad) because he realizes all of his wealth and wisdom will pass.
Now, this story isn’t in the Bible, it’s just one of the many apocryphal stories that is ascribed to Biblical figures but can just as easily be told using figures from any other religious or historical background.
The point isn’t the veracity of the story, but the message. We have a limited time on earth. Even if you are one to believe in an afterlife (I am not), you have to acknowledge that life spent on earth is a self-contained, moderate period of existence. It’s not short, it’s not long, it’s just all you have. It depresses me when I hear of people “living for heaven,” with this notion that they just have to bear life on earth so they can get to their reward afterwards. Bullocks. Life is not a cross to be borne upon your back. It’s all we’ve got.
Even if you do believe in heaven, why waste your life on earth worrying about or hoping for it?
Life is Short?
I’ve always felt that “Life is short” epiphanies were largely meaningless. In my experience, wisdom gained from an epiphany is short-lived and shallow. If you aren’t already living with the obvious knowledge that this life is all you’ve got, a near-death experience or terrible tragedy isn’t going to make any long-term difference in your perception. You might make a few changes in your day-to-day routine, maybe take a few extra risks, but ultimately you’ll settle back down to your natural plateau.
Working towards a life goal, living with a purpose; these aren’t decisions you resolve to on New Years Day.
So, this too shall pass. This life. This struggle. This honeymoon period. This job or this school or this lover or this loneliness. Not all endings are sad, not all endings are happy. The message of “This Too Shall Pass” is not, “Make it count,” but rather, “Be flexible.” Because the corollary of “This Too Shall Pass” is, actually, “The Road is Life.” We are all on a path, and if the scenery isn’t changing, you aren’t living.
The Question of Art
This isn’t a question of wasting your life. You can do with it what you want, it’s really all you’ve got, the only thing you have a right to. You’re the only one who can determine what is ‘wasted’ time. I have days where I accomplish nothing, days where I watch movies and television, listen to music and read books, and by the time I sleep, I haven’t produced anything in terms of financial or literary worth. But, to appreciate art, to enjoy the work of artists, well, that is one of the great pleasures of life. Let no one say that a solitary day of art consumption is wasted.
It’s not about “Living every day as if it were your last.” I want to live my life so that when I pass, something will be left behind. Sometimes that means foregoing immediate pleasures or “Once In A Lifetime” opportunities in order to accomplish my larger goal (1o Cities/10 Years).
The wealth of kings has passed. The territories of empires have been lost. The power of nations have dwindled. America is slipping from its perch atop the world. These things all pass.
But art lasts. We still read Shakespeare. We still read Beowulf. We still read the Iliad and the Odyssey. If anything can be considered eternal, it is art.
This Too Is Passing
Everything else, though, will pass.
I’m moving in two weeks. Yet another ending, yet another beginning. Nashville is passing, Seattle is arriving, and in time it will pass as well.
Life is passing, death is arriving, and in time I will return to star stuff, infinite yet ultimately finite.
You too, friend.