Not Just Marking Time

By participating in rituals that mark life’s passages, says Sylvia Boorstein, we acknowledge impermanence. And in accepting impermanence, we are reminded to be kind. 

One weekend this past summer I went to: an eighth-grade graduation (my grandson Nathan’s), the wedding of the daughter of good friends of mine, a memorial service for my close friend Martha, another memorial service for my longtime neighbor Richard, and a wedding of friends, contemporaries of ours, at which I was the officiator. During this weekend of rituals, I often felt touched by how steadfastly celebratory human beings are, how we mark special moments in our lives. No matter that we all come and go, each of us one life among billions, we keep saying, “This person is important to me, this moment is important to me.”

Each ritual was moving in its own way. I loved seeing photos of Richard jumping his horse in a competition forty years ago, looking like a young, handsome version of the Richard I knew at the end of his life. I loved that the young couple being married had living grandparents who could be present at the ceremony. I was touched by the choice of music—the soloist sang “At Last”—at the wedding of my middle-aged friends. At the memorial service for Martha, held at the home she shared with Joelle, each guest chose one of Martha’s framed photographs—there were dozens arranged on the walls like a curated museum show—to take home. I picked the Eiffel Tower reflected in a puddle in a Paris street.

Although a grade school graduation is, on the face of it, not as momentous as the other rituals, I found myself weeping, perhaps because there were so many people there, each celebrating a different person. Hearing “Pomp and Circumstance” and seeing everyone in the audience, including me, craning their neck, scanning the moving line of graduates, looking for “their” person—the ritual overwhelmed me with its sweetness. “Look, there is Nathan,” Trish said, spotting him far away at the other end of the quad. “He is the one with all the hair!” My mind flashed on the possibility of guessing the number—it would be very large—of parent/teacher conferences, applications for Girl Scout camp, dentist appointments, midnight trips to the emergency room, and last-minute shoebox dioramas for history projects that the audience had, collectively, under its belt.

Also, I thought about the fact that some of these apparently healthy and mostly smiling fourteen-year-olds would not have the wonderful time in high school the valedictorian would soon tell them about. I thought about how some of them would thrive and some of them would struggle. I imagined the accidents and illnesses and other unexpected misfortunes that befall people, and felt—with disturbing alarm that, I think, may have accounted for the tears—how the life of any of these youngsters, victorious on this evening in cap and gown taking photos with their parents, could be radically different tomorrow. It was as if I were saddened, on behalf of myself and everyone else there, in anticipation of future disappointments.

Many years ago, as I was describing to my meditation teacher what felt like a newly profound awareness of temporality, I said, “It is so sad. The end of everything is in its beginning. Nothing lasts.”

He said, “It’s not sad. It’s just true. You are making it sad by your commentary about it.”

I wonder. I think the awareness of temporality, of the inevitable losses that are integral to life experience, compels the mind to pay attention. I think that’s a good thing. I think I can be aware of the inevitable loss and disappointment that are part of the human experience without being depressed by it. In fact, I think it’s awareness of the vulnerability to sorrow that human beings share that keeps me kind. As I watched the graduates file across the stage and get their diplomas, I wanted so much for each of them, along with their parents, to thrive that I could not have brought to mind a grudge, or found fault, or done anything other than be grateful for that moment. It was as if I understood, newly, the gratitude blessing I had learned as a child, a thanksgiving for having been “kept alive and sustained until this moment.”

Being moved by the precariousness of life turns the mind toward gratitude. Celebrating passages—birthdays, graduations, marriages, funerals—are all ways of saying your life is (or was) meaningful to me and that something important is happening, or has happened.  The rituals that we use for passages—Elgar for graduations, Pachelbel for weddings, Bach for memorials—are comforting. They mean, “Everyone does this.” We can allow ourselves to feel delighted or saddened, knowing that the feeling will pass as the event becomes part of the past, and knowing that we are supported by caring company.

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