All things pass

Today I spoke with someone in deep distress. The voice on the other end of the phone droned on in a monotone occasionally punctuated with a choking sound.  Hearing pain on the other end of the phone and being unable to offer physical comfort, I was left with a constipated kind of feeling. “Time heals, ” I said, knowing those words wouldn’t be particularly helpful.

The day is weighed down with the morning’s conversation and the November rain makes it all worse.  I thought maybe I’d send a poem, so I pulled out “All Things Pass” by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (and translated by Timothy Leary, of all people).

All Things Pass – Lao-Tzu

All things pass

A sunrise does not last all morning

All things pass

A cloudburst does not last all day

All things pass

Nor a sunset all night

All things pass

What always changes?




These change

And if these do not last

Do man’s visions last?

Do man’s illusions?

Take things as they come

All things pass

All true, and comforting to me, as someone who is removed from the situation.  But to someone in the midst of grief or despair or even seasonal affective disorder, “All Things Pass” seems inadequate.  As true as the words are, the poem feels dismissive of deep pain, a little unfeeling.

So I turned to a short passage from a favorite novel of mine,  A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr.*  The book is narrated by a World War I veteran who spends a summer uncovering a medieval mural in a village church in the north of England, and recovering from the pain of the war and his failed marriage.  But at summer’s end, the lovely countryside, the perfect weather, the engaging work, the good friend he’s made, and the vicar’s wife he fancies must all be left behind.  He has to go back to real life.  He writes:

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours forever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face.  They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

Ah, much more human.  Ask and ask.  And wait.

*Just found out that this novel was made into a movie starring Colin Firth, Natasha Richardson and Kenneth Branaugh.  On the top of my list.

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