Saturday, June 12, 2010

This Too Shall Pass

I went to the Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh yesterday and enjoyed a marvelous afternoon viewing the works of contemporary artists from all around the country. I also enjoyed a delicious lobster burger for lunch. My only regret was that I was too full to eat a falafel later. I haven't had a good falafel since I was last in Jerusalem.

While walking through the festival at "the Point," I spotted a tattoo inscribed on the nape of a young woman's neck. It read in script "This Too Shall Pass." It appeared not to be a temporary tattoo, but one that would not pass away until she did.

I wish I had stopped the girl and had a philosophical discussion. But how do you broach the subject? "Excuse me, miss. You don't know me, but I wonder if I might have a closer look at your neck?" It sounds like a  line from Twilight. Anyway, I waited too long, and then she was lost in the crowd.

I probably would have been disappointed by her reasons for branding herself with these words. She may have simply been mimicking her favorite celebrity rather than making a philosophical statement. Now at least I can pretend that she had these words inked on her skin for profoundly spiritual reasons.

The words are ancient, likely first penned by a Sufi poet in Persian. Jewish tradition says they are much older, having been spoken by Solomon. Abraham Lincoln made the saying famous in a speech that he gave before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  This is how he told the story:

"It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: 'And this, too, shall pass away.' How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!"

For me the saying communicates the transitory nature of life. I like to think that the young woman wearing these words was wise beyond her years, knowing that her earthly frame that bore those words would one day pass away like all things do.

I take comfort in this truth. It leads me to cherish the present moment yet not try hold onto it. It provides me with hope, not despair. Even though I know that I will eventually lose all things, I also know that they are not really mine now. How can you lose what was never yours?

This brings freedom and joy. Rather than trying to capture the moment by freezing the flow of time, I jump in and enjoy the swim! This too shall pass. How wonderful! The passing sweeps over you like a waterfall on a hot summer's day.

It also means that even impermanence will pass away. Scripture says that heaven and earth will pass away. It will roll up like a scroll to reveal a new heavens and new earth where eternity reigns. As the Lord said: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away."

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