Higher Living Reflections

Shifting Ground

In James Michener’s Centennial, Gray Wolf teaches his son, Lame Beaver, about impermanence. Sort of. “Only the rocks live forever,” he says. Of course, that’s not true. Eventually, rocks erode into particles, which, in turn, can become ground into ash, which, in turn can get blown away then absorbed by some being or merged into other formations… and so on.  

Over the past four billion years, the configurations of Earth’s land masses dramatically changed due to the planet’s colliding tectonic plates. Around 250 million years ago, several mini continents bumped into each other and formed the supercontinent, Pangea. About 50 million years later, Pangea split into what are today’s seven continents. We can only imagine what the alignment will look like 50 million years from now.

There’s a maxim about the importance of standing on solid ground. There are even biblical exhortations to do that. But the idea of a stable ground is a myth. The truth is that the ground beneath you is constantly shifting, moving.

Plate tectonics explains why that happens. It also explains how mountains form, why volcanoes erupt, and why earthquakes shake things up, particularly in vulnerable regions, all of which has immense importance for every living being. Survival depends on adapting to one’s changing environment.  

Throughout eons of giving itself facelifts, Earth has experienced five mass extinctions. In that time, over a billion species have come and gone, including many incredibly large and fierce creatures that make today’s most feared ones look puny and merely rambunctious in comparison. Yet, while species have come and gone, life has tenaciously hung on in one form or another.

That understanding of an ever-changing landscape provides the perfect metaphor for looking at the human condition and the current state of human affairs. They are like Earth: constantly in a state of flux. People live, people die. Fads, like generations, come and go. Culture morphs. Efficiency and productivity relentlessly increase to the point of boredom. Technology evolves inexorably. Advanced medicines and procedures extend lifespans. Communication methodologies outdo previous ones by leaps and bounds.

Those and more impact everyone, from the personal level to the cultural, national, and global theaters. The lesson to learn from that is things continually come together and then they fall apart, sometimes more frequently and rapidly than others. And when that happens, it invariably causes tremors in the social and cultural realms and in the body politic. In time, they can cause social, cultural, and political earthquakes and eruptions.

After cataclysmic events, the natural proclivity is to begin anew by adapting to the new normal. But that disposition isn’t a dominant part of everyone’s DNA. There are those who, when things get disjointed or disrupted, yearn for and even insist on a return to a mythical past they maintain was more than good. They call it the Good Old Days. The problem is on a societal or global scale the Good Old Days are akin to the Big Rock Candy Mountain. A fantasy.

An intriguing way to look at American history is through the lens of a traditional timeline, but one with multiple line graphs: one above the dates and a multitude of different colored ones below them. The upper line would trace the up-and-down flow of peak periods of social upheaval—the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement arguably among the highest—and the stretches of relative social comity. The various lines below the dates would model the underlying social pressures pushing up and against the status quo: slavery, Jim Crow laws, women’s rights to vote and reproductive freedom, child labor, workers’ rights, segregation, homophobic laws and practices, and more.

The overall graph could be likened to Earth’s ongoing, never-ending metamorphosis: The upper-line correlated to Earth’s shifting tectonic plates, and the rife of underlying lines similar to the upward, potentially explosive force of Earth’s churning hot magma.

Gray Wolf, as wise as he was, was scientifically ignorant. He likely had no concept of erosion let alone plate tectonics. Supposedly, we’re more learned. We should know that nothing lasts forever and once-upon-a-times are places of myth. Which loops us back to impermanence.

Another way to say nothing lasts forever is change is the one constant, which is another way to say the only thing permanent is impermanence. Like the literal shifting ground beneath our feet, the ground upon which we build our human constructs is constantly on the move. And with that in mind, everyone must choose: adapt or go extinct. A good thing to keep in mind, especially on Friday, May 17th, which is Endangered Species Day.

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  • Reply
    Bonnie McCune
    May 14, 2024 at 11:33 am

    I may have to live with impermancne, but I don’t have to like it. Nail on the head, as usual.

  • Reply
    Tami Hrivnak
    May 14, 2024 at 1:15 pm

    Agreed. One of my favorite quotes is ““If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.” Eric Shineki
    But you know me–I am one who thrives on chage, much to my husband’s dismay 😉

  • Reply
    Melanie Mulhall
    May 14, 2024 at 5:11 pm

    A very Buddhist post. 🙂

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