Loving, Leaving, and Letting Go
LOVING, LEAVING, AND LETTING GO
(“Time Will Come and Take My Love Away”)
Shakespeare writes of eternal change, of Time, which brings an end to all things, of decay, which nothing on earth escapes.
When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death,
which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
The poet gives voice to our deepest fear – our fear of loss, of death, and of change. He speaks of the sad effect the knowledge of mortality has on the living of our lives and the enjoyment of our days. He confronts our tendency to deny all that, our tendency to deny death most of all-time’s inevitable goal. He makes this confrontation by pointing to the things which, despite their seeming permanence, time, inexorably, brings to change and decay. The lofty towers – the castles built in the proud arrogance of Lords and princes to outlast their enemies and to be monuments to their special state and nobility – these razed, crumbled into dust, not, after all, through the violence of invaders with infernal wall-breaching machines, but quietly, silently, by Time. The shore gives way to the sea, despite all human efforts to hold it back and, in fair exchange; the sea gives way in other places to the earth.
Change and loss are a certainty, which nothing escapes and Shakespeare says, “This thought is as a death… which cannot choose to weep to have that which we fear to lose.” He writes of what seems to him a cruel irony, that we are given great treasures and with them are given the knowledge that Time will come and take them away. And so we weep to have that which we fear to lose.
“Time will come and take my love away.” This is a knowledge that is my particular malady. I profoundly resist change in my personal environment and I dread loss to such an extent that I often find it difficult to fully engage with whatever time will come and take away. Of course, I’ve always wondered why this is so. Part of it could have to do with my infancy, separation anxiety and all that, which, I’m sure, had I the time and money, some Freudian analyst could eventually uncover.
A simpler explanation would be in part that I spent my early childhood years in a time of great impermanence – the Battle of Britain in World War II. During those years, the city I lived in, Leicester, turned its textile machinery industry to munitions productions and tank parts for assembly in nearby ill-fated Coventry. Naturally, the city became a major target of the Luftwaffe.
Living in a target area, no matter how young, as many Israeli writers have attested, can have lasting profound psychological, physical, and even philosophical effects. One learns, at an early age, the lesson that nothing is permanent. The familiar building, passed each day on the way to school, may be, the next morning, nothing but a smoking pile.
I was not old enough to comprehend much of this on a rational level. Perhaps that’s much of the problem. It registered more on a level of being, non-rationally, experientially. The ever-present risk of loss sank it to the level of “this is how the world is.” I understood, on the child’s level of knowing, that life is of the moment.
We have all suffered our losses, experienced the death of someone close to us, the loss of something precious to us. We know the threat of loss and change. It is this knowledge of loss, fully known and experienced, or half-consciously lurking behind thought, which makes loving, valuing, and investing painful. “Time will come and take my love away / This thought is as a death, which cannot choose / But weep to have that which it fears to lose.”
The love the poet speaks of, that for which we weep in fear of losing, is not only the love of persons, but of whatever it is that we bear precious at the center of our being, anything of real beauty which moves us. We sometimes say we were “moved to tears” by an experience. I think the tears often come out of that knowing that we cannot keep what moves us so.
There are moments of such painful beauty, in music for example, painful because even as we thrill in the moment, we know, on some level, that the moment cannot be held. We may play a recording of what we heard, play the same recording again, and hear the same piece played at another concert, but we know that it will not be the same. For one thing, we will not be the same. That combination of our being in those moments and the music in those moments cannot be repeated. Every powerful experience (that which Abraham Maslow called the “Peak Experience” and which others have called “Mystical experience”) grows out of the relationship between the experience and the self we bring to it in the moments of experience. Only very rarely could such a combination of self and event ever be reproduced. That is one of the reasons why we can’t go home again. “We” are not the self that once was at home there.
One of my memories of that “peak” or religious experience in which there is both joy and sorrow is of a deserted beach at a campground in Maine. I was camping with my children, shortly after their mother and I divorced. It was one o’clock in the morning and they were asleep. I, suffering the many losses which loneliness brings to mind, could not sleep. I walked to the beach, marveling in an unrepeatable combination of the most clear night-sky I could ever recall, air that was neither too warm nor too chilly, and an ocean neither calm nor violent. I sat on a timber, washed from some other shore, staring out to the horizon along a tapering path of moonlight formed by a full, clear moon.
My response was one of love – that is, of the passion of being, oneness with the beauty experienced, the surrender of thought to pure experience. And my response was to suffer, at the same time, an unnamable hurt, and to cry uncontrollably.
Though I stayed until the moon was swallowed by the waves, I knew the experience must be lost; Time would come and take this love away. The inevitability of the loss of those precious moments opened the memory of other losses.
Some years ago, at the very beginning of our sabbatical in England, my wife and I drove over to the nearby cathedral city of Wells. I think we took a wrong turn because we came up behind the ancient city, crested a hill and there, below us, was the jewel of English cathedrals, set perfectly in the gentle green hills, evening sunlight shimmering in the moat around it. We got out of the car to stand by the side of the road gazing down and across at those eight hundred year old towers. I couldn’t stop the tears from coming. Chris asked me what was wrong. Perhaps she thought I was just overcome with the beauty. But, I said, I was so sad because, soon, I wouldn’t be able to have this sight again. This was day two of a six month sabbatical!
I suppose this capacity we human beings have for knowing that Time will bring loss, that all things die, that we shall die, is something of a mixed blessing. It is hard to conceive of what we would do with our lives if we did not know that we will, some day, or, indeed, that we may in any moment, die. It could be that time is the primary motivation, the reason for being, the reason for doing. We could think that knowledge of impermanence spoils love – the passion of being, the beauty of experience ruined by thought of loss; “this thought is as a death,? Shakespeare wrote?the evil that must be taken with the good.
Yet it seems to me that it is probably more
that, though it is felt with sadness, the knowledge of impermanence, the knowledge that Time will come (death, loss, change) is part of the experience of love and beauty. The poet Wallace Stevens wrote that “death is the mother of beauty.”
Could it be that deeply moving experience is so deeply moving precisely because it is not permanent, precisely because it is fleeting and impermanent? The moments ofbeauty, whether they are sexual, in relation to nature, to natural beauty, or to art and music, cannot be sustained. Here I flirt with forms of philosophic thought outside my expertise, but it seems to me that it is in the nature of those moments to be temporary.
A jazz musician told me the story of the jazz player who died and went, as jazz musicians do, to another place. In the other place he met, with instruments, the eternals of great jazz. They invited him to join them in their session. This, he thought, is heaven. The first playing was the great musical experience of his life. The second playing brought some interesting improvisations. The third had a kind of sameness about it. After playing the same arrangement for a hundred and seventy-five times, the musician said to one of the group, “Hey, man, when do we break?” And the other answered, “Never, man.”
The knowledge that time will come and take our love away also puts limits on the time we have in which, not only to experience the beauty, but to create beauty. We do not have forever. We do not even have the next moment with any certainty. We only borrow against it. We have this moment. In the workshops of the Shaker communities there hung a sign in plain view carrying the words of the founder, Mother Anne, “Do all your work as if you would live forever and as if you would die tomorrow.” The message was clear and profound in relation to Time, the Changer. Don’t hurry. Do well what you have to do. Make it the best you can make it. Get the most from it that you can get. But don’t waste your time – Your precious and uncertain moments of existence.
Speaking of borrowing against the next moment, there’s something else I love that Time will come and take away, and that’s my body. Now, me loving my body could be the saddest case of unrequited love heard of. One could also say that there’s no accounting for taste. But what I’m thinking of is the ageing process. My image of myself as having a body that looks a certain way (an image mostly formed many years ago) a body that is able to do certain things is an image to love that Time will take away. Joseph Campbell speaks of the body’s ageing as being like an old automobile. After awhile, there goes a fender, then a headlight. It spends more and more time in the garage. “Time will come and take my love away. This thought is as a death, which cannot choose but weep to have that which it fears to lose.”
Anne Morrow Lindberg in “Gift From the Sea” writes of living in the moment. She compares living in the moment to a country dance.
To touch heavily would be to arrest the pattern and freeze the movement, to check the endlessly changing beauty of its unfolding. There is no place here for the possessive clutch, the clinging arm, the heavy hand; only the barest touch in passing. The joy of such a pattern is not only the joy of creation or the joy of participation; it is also the joy of living in the moment. Lightness of touch and living in the moment are intertwined.
Carpe Diem! Seize the day! Seize the moment! Take the offered gift of the moment, absorb it full with no thought for Time or loss, and indulge no grief that it will not come again.
Well, surely that’s one of those pieces of advice more easily given than taken. It is the kind of advice I remember being given when, I would fall down or bump into something. Mother or some other well intended soul would say, “There, there, don’t cry.” Why not cry for goodness sake? It hurts!
The passionate encounter with beauty that has us weep to know that we shall lose it, is not something weird about us, not something that should not be, but, to one degree or another, something that simply is. As a friend suggested on hearing about my experience on seeing Wells Cathedral, my grief response to that scene of beauty was perhaps somewhat extreme. Still, he assured me that the experience of joy mixed with sadness is common human experience, not my personal madness.
The lesson I learned somewhere in the back of my little-boy brain, raised under conditions that made life something to be lived on the edge of existence, was “Accept.” But I know that, in many important respects, that was a learning that has needed to mature from a fatalistic, cynical negative into a positive sense of the bittersweet of existence.
To accept in the face of the inevitability of death, loss, and change does not mean to take the stance of “why bother,” to lie about, dog-like (which is how the “cynics” got their name), but to learn, in any and every way one can learn, to immerse oneself in every precious moment of being as deeply and as fully as one can – despite the pain stirred into it.
The only alternative to suffering the loss of what is loved is to never have anything to lose. As another poet put it, with a wisdom perhaps turned over-ripe with age, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway on the way to a conference a few weeks ago, I stopped at the little village of San Simeon. I’ll admit my knowledge of the wonders of the world is limited, but this has to be one of the most stunning vistas in the world. I climbed up a cliff path from the village beach and stood amid acres of wildflowers about my feet. On one side was the Ocean, waves crashing wildly on the rocks. On the other side, soaring up from the sea, were the mountains crested with clear, blue sky.
It was one of those moments. I sensed Time coming even as I breathed in the beauty, felt Time’s fell hand upon me, bringing the sense of loss, like a death, bringing the weeping to have that which I feared to lose. This time I stayed with it, leaned into Time Herself, trusting that She was not death but the wholeness of life, and said to Her, “I know, I know.”
Doing this was not an end to the pain of beauty. It was the very tentative beginning of an understanding that the pain of beauty and love passing by is not a malady, not something that should not be, but something that is.
It is one of the hard sayings of Joseph Campbell. If we’re going to say “Yes” to life, we have to say, “Yes” to the whole of it. In the face of sure loss, it requires courage to love – to love beauty, to love others, to love oneself. Those who, in the knowledge of Time’s hand, choose to love accept the price that Time imposes; accept it as in the very nature of love itself.