The Wonderful Lightness of Being

| March 9, 2013

Every so often, I receive inquiries from High School students charged with writing about an artist of their choice. It  warms my heart to know that even at that early age, some already have an appreciation for beauty and art. My own High School experiences are, for the most part, best relegated to the dusty attic of unimportant trivia. Of course, they did not seem that way at the time, but with the advantage of hindsight they are easy to place in such context. That is to say that if any High School students are reading this post – don’t worry about the stresses of this confusing episode in your life. It get better – much better.

Still, some High School memories do stand out more vividly than others. One, in particular, was a literature class in which we were required to read Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” The teacher, casually reading a note from the teacher’s edition of the book, explained that the moral of the story is that, given our mortality, nothing we do has any permanent – or, ultimately, important – consequences. All our doings and wrong-doings are eventually forgotten and erased, much like ourselves, and, therefore, should not be considered with too much gravity (hence the unbearable lightness). Even at that young age I still remember being astounded, wondering if she was fully aware of the implications of the words that just left her mouth.

Someone Was HereI was reminded of it again recently while hiking through a deep limestone canyon in the desert. Limestone consists of the remnants of ancient marine life, accumulated, a speck at a time, over hundreds of millions of years. Trillions upon trillions of living beings, most no longer distinguishable, reduced to tiny grains in massive solid deposits, anonymous and inanimate. No one will ever know of their deeds and antics, their fears and desires, their successes and failures. No one will take note of them ever having existed as individual beings, let alone remember them as they truly were.

Among the limestone walls, faint shapes carefully pecked into the rock a mere few thousands of years ago tell of human beings passing this way millions of years after the seas had gone, mountains raised, and the land turned into a harsh and arid desert. Their identities no longer discernible, their loves and doings, their beliefs and yearnings, enterprises and downfall no longer known to anyone living today. Their faces and names never to be resurrected and their traces soon to be erased, too.

Wait long enough, and nothing matters.

It is hard, in the face of such things, to hold on to the illusion of permanence, preservation, importance or legacy. It is hard to argue with a rock. Harder still to argue with a rock that used to be a living being, that saw the rise and fall of species no longer in existence, let alone the feeble and fleeting lives of humans like ourselves. If there is any conclusion to be drawn, it is that anything that matters, matters now. That anything worth striving for is found in the moments, the days, and the years of our own lives. The rock belies the folly of fame and riches, of conflict and competition. If contentment is not found here and now, then when? If a life is not filled with beauty and wonder while it is still a life, still alive, still able to appreciate the great gift of consciousness, it will not be found later. Later is rock.

It is the most liberating notion of all. Nothing matters, except for the short blip of existence – the greatest gift any of us will ever be given. It is the reason to not be distracted from the proper tasks of life, from what beauty there is, or from the satisfaction of simple virtues, art, empathy and compassion. The rock is the great equalizer and the great liberator, the great reminder, the great setter of priorities, and the great debunker of illusions, dissonance and delusions of grandeur.

Once a Sea

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (11)

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  1. Mitch says:

    Nicely written Guy! It reminds me of some of the sentiments from my days of reading Joseph Campbell. Your words are so very true Thanks for inspiring me this Saturday morning.

  2. Dan Baumbach says:

    I agree with what you and Kundera say, but there’s more. If all there was was “Life is hard and then you die”, it would seem that we should just pursue sex, money and power.

    The body, the mind and the personality are temporary, but what we may call beauty or the simple stillness of nature is timeless and lives on. We love being out in nature, creating art or appreciating art because it allows us to touch that perfect stillness.

  3. Marylynne says:

    Thanks for helping me remember what it really means to be PRESENT.

  4. Robert Sachs says:

    Okay, I’m going to find some rocks and stare at them for awhile since that’s my future. And even then those rocks could be smashed into a thousand pieces and spread across the universe. So nothing is permanent.

    How depressing.

    And that’s why I photograph. To capture those moments in time, because that’s all they are, moments in time.
    Tomorrow they might be gone, but at least I had the chance to see their beauty.

    Excuse me, but I need to go out and photograph a rock. How ironic…

  5. Mike says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and meditative post.

    Mike

  6. Tyson Fisher says:

    Great article, Guy. Rocks are our teachers in a sense. There is no better place than the present moment. Keep up the great work!

  7. John Martin says:

    I’ve got a slightly different take, Guy. I think that everything we do lasts — to some degree, at least. A chance remark to a child could (and some would say does)change that person. And that changed person makes a life decision that is slightly different than it would have been before. Ad infinitum. Sorta like the butterfly flapping its wings in China — or was it India.

  8. A great, thought-provoking article Guy. Can’t agree more that we need to seize the moment. Nature provides ample opportunities to do so. Appreciating what’s around us may (or better, should) counteract the (very true) notion “that nothing is permanent”.

  9. Keith Corson says:

    Guy,

    I am consistently inspired by your thoughtful insight.
    Thank you for keeping me in the present.

  10. Most of us find it challenging to adopt such a universal perspective without becoming depressed. This is because our egos want to have some sense of control and when we lose the control, we feel lost. However, giving that all up, as you say, brings the greatest sense of freedom. We tend to want to argue with the rock, to believe that for me, at this moment, there will be an exception. I will be the first immortal. I will defy death. I will live forever. We think we are liberated by this. We believe we feel more alive when we challenge the rock, fight the rock, strive for something, achieve, do, strive, struggle. However, if we try surrender, if we let go, if we accept death, accept that we are mortal and limited, then we become truly free to live to the fullest, not the other way around as our egos would try to fool us into believing.

  11. Greg Vaughn says:

    Yes, live life fully in the moment, but also be aware that you can, and you do, matter. Even if you are just one polyp in a coral reef, or one bit of fossil embedded in the sandstone, the universe wouldn’t be the same without you. And what you do, who you are can have a lasting legacy. Don’t we marvel at those “faint shapes carefully pecked into the rock”?