"By Definition, Don't All Relationships End in Tragedy?"

Steve Wishman
January 24, 2022

It's almost unbearable to think that everyone you love, every connection you hold dear, will eventually end in tragedy. When you put it in those terms, it's no wonder we humans are born with perceptual gating of time. Who would dare enter a relationship with the constant awareness that one day, one of you will be left with unbearable grief as a result? Even those of us who struggle to live in the present moment seem to be adept at ignoring the eventuality of heartbreak and despair. It seems to be a reproductive imperative, otherwise who would sign up for this ride?

"Better to have loved and lost than to have never loved," as the saying goes, and I agree with the sentiment. I have always believed that if you only get one ride you might as well drive it till the wheels fall off. If you're destined to experience the lowest lows, you might as well pursue the highest highs. But that still doesn't preclude the notion that unbearable, crushing tragedies await me, somewhere down that road. The thought of it absolutely keeps me up at night sometimes, and this kind of thinking can lead a person down dark paths to nihilism—a place I'd rather not end up. It's like being unable to enjoy your weekend because you know that Monday is coming. Obviously, it serves us well to be a little myopic sometimes.

I think there is a more lasting solution than denial and short-sightedness, however. I think to truly rid ourselves of this suffering, we need to reframe the entire idea of loss—a concept that is predicated on our desire for permanence. On having and not having. We merely borrow these bodies for a short time. We choose to travel together for a bit, and then we return to the earth, transformed. These are nothing more than transitions (albeit significant ones) and we continue to merge, dissolve, and reemerge. Impermanence is just resilience in disguise.

Or as the late Thích Nhất Hạnh once said, at the Plum Village monastery in southern France,

This body is not me.
I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born,
and I have never died.

Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars,
manifestations from my wondrous true mind.

Since before time, I have been free.
Birth and death are only doors through which we pass,
sacred thresholds on our journey.
Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek.

So laugh with me,
hold my hand,
let us say goodbye,
say goodbye, to meet again soon.

We meet today.
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.

It's no easy task to reframe your understanding of birth and death, beyond the limits of the human experience. But I think it's a necessary practice for those of us haunted by the intensity of our own love. Our loved ones are always with us and we are always with them. We are, very literally, one endless thread.

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Steve Wishman

Steve Wishman is the founder of Zen and the Art of Caregiving, and author/illustrator of How Mom Died, a webcomic/memoir chronicling his experiences as a caregiver for his mother at the end of her life.