Editor’s Note: I think it’s probably true that all religions are a mix of wisdom and foolishness. How much or how little of each quality determines my hierarchy regarding the five great faiths. In other words, I see all of them on a continuum from less to more silly and from less to more profound. It’s just my opinion, but Buddhism has the least silliness and most profundity. As to which one is at the other end of the spectrum, if you’ve read much of my stuff, it will probably be easy for you to guess. BTW, the title of this article comes from the title of a song from the 1960s by folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary.
I’m the least religious person I know, but I admit to being fascinated by Buddhism. This isn’t as contradictory as it sounds, because Buddhism is more a way of life than it is a doctrine or a faith, but even if it were a religion, it would be the one that makes the most sense to me.
Some years back, Tibetan Buddhist monks visiting a church in Old Greenwich, CT, spent weeks meticulously placing individual grains of colored sand in a frame to create a mandala. When it was finished, the monks carried it down to the beach and let the breezes blow it away. Observers, myself included, found it a bit unsettling that, after going through so much work to make it, they’d cast such a beautiful work of art to the wind. However, the mandala is a metaphor for the transitory nature of all material things, a concept the Western mindset often finds enigmatic. As the title of the late Beatle George Harrison’s best album put it, “All Things Must Pass.”
From the galactic to the subatomic, and everywhere in between, impermanence is woven into the fabric of existence. The fear of life’s ephemeral nature underlies much of our religious fervor. Of the billions of people who’ve ever lived, not one has escaped death, and, despite the myriad myths and legends about the afterlife, not one of us has a wisp of evidence or can verify any of the doctrines we might hold concerning the reality or the nature of eternity.
In the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang, change has been the norm throughout the universe. New stars continue to be created, replacing those that burn out or go nova. According to the physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, even black holes eventually evaporate. The gravitational equations implicit in Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity mandate that everything moves relative to everything else. Because nothing can ever be truly at rest, the universe must be expanding or contracting at all times. And 21st century physics has ascertained that its current expansion is accelerating, impelled by what scientists have labeled “dark energy.”
The universe is also subject to the second law of thermodynamics, which states that an isolated system always moves in the direction of increasing entropy — that is, from order to disorder (think of the mandala on a windy day). Impermanence extends down to the atomic level, where radioactive elements decay, and there is speculation that even the lightest building blocks of matter (e.g., protons) decay over time.
Although many of the species that have flourished on the land and in the sea have been long-lived, in the end, they were no more permanent than the animals that failed to make it aboard Noah’s mythical ark. The Earth has suffered five mass extinction events: 250 million years ago, the worst (the Permian-Triassic) killed off 96% of marine species and 70% of those on land. The most-recent (the Cretaceous-Tertiary; 65 million years ago) wiped out the dinosaurs. The latter resulted from a collision with a meteor, and astrophysicists tell us that future extinction-level events, with asteroids or comets, are a matter of “when,” not “if.” All things must pass.
So too must the constructs of civilization. The greatest of the Roman emperors, Caesar Augustus, probably considered his empire to be as timeless as its capital, often called “the eternal city.” Two millennia later, Queen Victoria ruled an empire upon which “the sun never set.” Yet, the greatest empire of antiquity was eventually pillaged by barbarians, and the sun sets daily on Great Britain, which now occupies little more than a time zone.
Historically, all things that appear enduring are eventually fleeting. Millennia ago, the Athenians invented democracy. When the Romans conquered Greece, they co-opted its gods and adopted its form of government. However, the Roman Republic would prove fragile, and democracy would be supplanted by imperial tyranny.
Entropy and chaos ensure that random change does not equal positive progress. Science and technology advance, but the course of human events often strides both forward and backward. The 20th century was a devolution from the 19th — engendering fascism, Nazism, communism, two World Wars, the Holocaust and other genocides too numerous to mention. It represented several steps backward.
Following centuries of slavery and racism, 21st century Americans were able to pat ourselves on the back for electing Barack Obama; however, this moral advance was transitory, as only eight years later, we elected a white supremacist president. Luckily, this will be a one-term aberration, but damage has been done, and a positive outcome in senate runoffs in Georgia may be required to start moving forward again.
Even if there’s Democratic rule in 2021, midterm elections seldom reward the party in power, so there’s a good chance that this too shall pass in 2022. And, in four years, more than 70 million deplorables, still enraged by a shared delusion that their right-wing coup had been stolen from them, may reduce liberal democracy to chaos and entropy once again.
American Democracy is a 21st century ideal that could easily go the way of American exceptionalism. Both have been bigly eroded during the past four years, but we still need to hope that democracy survives as more than grains of sand blowing in the wind.
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