I recently watched again the wonderful documentary on the life of Woody Allen, and, having been a fan of his films since my teenage years, It was something of a delight to see it again. Whilst re-watching the documentary I was struck by an episode he shares about growing up in Brooklyn, as a small boy. He says “My mother use to say that I was a very sweet, happy kid right from the start, and then somewhere around five or so I turned grumpier or sour. I can only think that when I became aware of my mortality, I didn’t like that idea, ‘What do you mean this ends? This does not go on like this, no you vanish forever.’ Once I realized that I thought, ‘Hey deal me out, I don’t want to play in this game’. I was never the same after that.”.
In his film Annie Hall he takes this story into a funny scene, where we see him as a small child sitting on the couch at home in Brooklyn, with his concerned mother and a doctor who has been called to examine him because he is depressed and cannot do anything. He tells them he is depressed because he read that the “Universe is expanding and that means that someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything. So what’s the point of doing my homework!”. I think this is a humorous example of a possible response that we can have when we become conscious of our own mortality and the impermanence of all things.
For some people this realization can have a profound effect on their lives, plunging them into a state of existential angst, whilst for others they appear to go through life as though the thought had never occurred to them. For me, growing up as a small boy, it was only when at the age of 10 that my grandmother, whom I loved very much and was very close to, died of cancer, that the full extent of this experience of impermanence, loss, and mortality really became a reality. Looking back, I believe I was probably depressed for a while and also felt quite shocked and upset by, not only my own grief, but that of the adults in my family, who were devastated and were trying to make sense of their own loss.
At the heart of Buddhist teachings we are told that all things are impermanent and subject to change and flux. Simply stated, nothing in the world around us, or ourselves, is fixed or solid; there are no things, just process and flux. A common response to this experience is the one Woody Allen had which, we could say, is more of a view of Nihilism (the word comes from from the Latin nihil, meaning nothing). Put simply, it argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. It is also sometimes associated with a general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence.
Maybe we could reflect that, although things change and many events in our lives are beyond our control, we, ourselves, also have the ability to grow and change? Impermanence does not have to be associated with the negative; it is just how things are; only our view of it makes it good or bad. Coming to terms with the fact that things are impermanent is a lifetime’s work of radical acceptance. I have been humbled again and again in my own life by how easy it is to feel confident about an abstract concept like ‘all things are impermanent’, and then respond very differently when in the past my girlfriend tells me our relationship is over. So, maybe, rather than falling into a state of despair or burying our heads in the sand, we can slowly open ourselves a little bit more each day to life, change and all its wonder, mystery and beauty.
“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.”
― W. Somerset Maugham Writer