There’s a saying in Latin, Tempus edax rerum; “Time, the eater of things.” The Germans put the same idea this way: Alles wird vergehen, und auch Du; “Everything will pass, and that includes you.” I’m sure, if I investigated it, I’d find similar ideas in many other languages as well: the transitoriness of everything in the universe. Even the Rocky Mountains, my western neighbors here in Boulder, Colorado, are on borrowed time. It doesn’t seem that way, of course, but sooner or later—actually much, much later—erosion will do its job, and as we hear in Handel’s Messiah, the high places will be brought low.
Yet there’s a countervailing idea as well. Several, actually. The first is the Christian belief in everlasting life. To be sure, it’s not in this body, our spacesuit for our short life on Planet Earth, but in our spirit, either in heaven or in the place of eternal punishment, imaginatively described in Dante’s Inferno (ca.1308) as a firepit or, alternatively, a deep freeze, depending on our type of sin. If the former, the unfortunate soul is miraculously never consumed so it can endure eternal torture without the possibility of relief. All this, by the way, is implemented by a just but rather uncompassionate deity who overlooks such mitigating factors as poor parenting, unfortunate genes, inadequate nutrition and medical care, mental illness, or even His/Her/Its own role in permitting the creation of such a misguided individual in the first place. If ever there was an example of blaming, then punishing, the victim, this traditional Christian concept is one.
The second more optimistic concept, if I may call it that, is reincarnation, brought to the world by Hinduism and Buddhism. Here good and bad acts are rewarded or punished by successive lives in which the soul gets to enjoy an easier, more meaningful life or work off bad karma by experiencing the sort of unfortunate actions they inflicted on others in their immediately preceding incarnation and, it is hoped, learning from these unpleasant experiences. For those of you who’ve attended American summer camp, the idea of reincarnation is a kind of cosmic camper-counselor day in which the soul gets a taste of its own medicine. The third more positive concept, finally, and my personal favorite, is the idea that consciousness of the finiteness of human life will encourage us to use our short appearance on life’s stage wisely and well. Robert Herrick (d. 1674) in his famous poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” basically an argument for them to marry before it’s too late, puts the matter this way: “Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,/Old Time is still a-flying;/And this same flower that smiles today/Tomorrow will be dying….” I also think of a short essay by the early 20th-century German novelist Thomas Mann (d. 1955), “Lob der Vergänglichkeit.” His point is that the relative brevity of human life is what makes everything we do or don’t do valuable. So we should be careful in our actions and time on the planet. True wisdom is thus what helps us do so. May each of us therefore cultivate our capacity to make much of our limited time here.