As Chinua Achebe said, things fall apart. This is true in all aspects of life and a key teaching of Buddhism. All things are composed of compound elements and are subject to change, decay, and dissolution. Impermanence affects our own bodies as well as everything around us. It’s something Buddhists are taught to reflect on in order to reduce our attachments.
Impermanence is a fact, not a value judgment. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his commentary to The Sutra on Knowing the Better way to Catch a Snake in Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries: “Impermanence allows us to transform and move in a better direction. If things weren’t impermanent, your situation couldn’t change, a child couldn’t grow up, a grain of corn would never become an ear of corn to eat. . . thanks to impermanence, everything is possible . . . Because of impermanence, there is hope.”
In a house with active children, however, impermanence often seems less hopeful and more aggravating. Things break, things are broken. Lots of things. In our house, the things broken are toys, watches (so many watches!), alarm clocks, dishware, coat zippers, glasses, even little Jizo figurines. Oftentimes, the discovery of a broken item is accompanied by denials of responsibility couched in mystery or the passive tense: This is broken – I don’t know how. It just broke somehow, sometime, somewhere. Then there are the things that simply disappear: goggles, bathing suits, cameras. It’s gone – I don’t where, I don’t how, I just can’t find it anymore.
Sometimes I approach breakage and loss with equanimity, but many times I am overwhelmed by the wastefulness. Equanimity is easier when a thing breaks because of a clear accident, though as we say in our house: accidents happen because you aren’t paying attention. When a thing breaks because someone wanted to see what would happen if they did ____ or due to flippant carelessness, I find it a real struggle to keep calm. I often wonder whose practice I’m supposed to be working on – am I trying to practice releasing my attachments to material things or am I trying to teach my children to be mindful and avoid waste?
Ultimately, of course, I need to do both. I must accept the situation as it is while also seizing the teachable moment. First step: breathe calmly – there is nothing I can do now to undo what has happened; this thing is lost, this thing is broken, all things are impermanent. Second step: inculcate responsibility and awareness through natural consequences; if a watch is broken, and having a watch was a requirement of being allowed to go to the neighborhood park, then trips to the neighborhood park are curtailed until a new watch is obtained. Repeat as necessary. Unfortunately, repetition only reminds me how the second step is not working as I would like, which makes the first step that much more difficult.
And so there develops a third step, another round of acceptance that I find myself often repeating in parenting: acceptance of myself. Third step: breathe calmly – I am doing the best that I can. If at some point I figure out a better way to address this sort of situation, I will use that method then. Right now, I will accept the fullness of the present moment as it is: the thing broken, the child who broke it, and the parent trying to raise a responsible citizen of the world in the best way she knows how. This is it. Loving-kindness to all.
Lots of sorrow and a little joy
Lots of sorrow and a little joy.
Lots of joy and only a bit
Who can know
The formula beforehand?
We don’t get to watch
While it’s mixed. No one tells us
What’s in it.
We lift it
To our lips – azure elixir
That burns our throats to crystal.
~ Gregory Orr, How Beautiful the Beloved