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Embracing Impermanence

Craig Van SlykeA few weeks ago, I came home from work and, much to my dismay, a house was being built on the lot next to us. When I left home that morning, the lot was, as always, vacant, with a magnificent, old tree smack in the middle of the space. Now the tree was gone, little more than a huge pulled stump and a pile of logs. I’m no arborist, but the tree had to be decades old, and now it was gone. Years of growing, giving home to birds, bugs and squirrels, standing tall and firm … gone in between leaving for work and coming home. At about the same time, an even more tragic event occurred: we lost one of our student veterans who was killed trying to assist a family that had just wrecked on I-17. One minute, full of life, the next, gone.

While these events were certainly very different, together, they made me ponder the impermanence of life. The early Stoics advise us to think of everything we have, and everyone we know as being on loan from fate; fate can recall the things and people we love at any moment. In other words, all we have, including loved ones, is impermanent.

To some extent, this is a sobering thought … in this life, nothing is permanent. One could become pretty bummed out about this reality. But impermanence can actually help us live better. Everything we’re given, even our own lives, is finite and therefore should be enjoyed to its fullest, for whatever time we have it. We can’t change life’s impermanence, but we can control what we do about it. Here are some thoughts about this, none original, but hopefully helpful.

Philosophers, pundits and self-help authors have said this in many different forms; live each day as if it’s your last. We make dozens of little decisions each day. For each decision, the little voice inside of your head should be asking, “What if this is the last thing I ever do?” It’s hard to live this way every day, but imagine how much richer your life would be if you could live up to this standard even one day a week.

One way to make this a bit more automatic is to have a purpose for your life. Regular readers know my beliefs about purposefulness. In my opinion, a strong sense of a guiding purpose is the key to a happy, meaningful, fulfilled life. Living a purposeful life means that, when you’re gone, there is little doubt about the mark you made. When I die, I hope people will say, “He did what he could to help people live better lives.” What will your legacy be? What purpose have you served? A life filled with purpose is a life well lived, no matter the length.

Impermanence means that our time with loved ones is limited (hopefully not too limited). Appreciate – no, that’s not strong enough – cherish the time we have with one another. Our relationships are what give life to our existence. Use the limited time we have with our friends wisely, As Seneca wrote, “Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long the privilege will be ours.”

Practice self-compassion. It always amazes me that so many of us are so hard on ourselves. Little things that we might forgive in others cause us to beat ourselves up. What a waste of time and energy. It’s fine to be reflective and to seek growth by critically analyzing our thoughts and behaviors. But it’s a total waste of time to berate yourself for your mistakes. Learn from them and move on. So much time is wasted on regretting the past, often over things past. The idea of impermanence tells us that our time is a finite resource. What a shame it is to fritter away this most precious of resources on regret and self-berating. Cut yourself some slack. Give yourself the same compassion you give others.

Finally, remember that it’s not the number of pages in your book of life; it’s what’s written on those pages. Once again, Seneca puts it well, “It is with life as it is with a play, it matters not how long the action is spun, but how good the acting is.” Act well, live well, and live fully. FBN


The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to many great teachers. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to:, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.


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