The day of my graduation, I was sitting in my nearly empty room. On my desk was a copy of Siddhartha, some sheets of blank looseleaf, and a pen. There was a grad party going on downstairs, and the pulsating music and nostalgic cheers to friends-since-freshman-year shook the floor beneath my feet. My hands were shaking too, but not from the blaring Disclosure remix or from the overzealous tequila shots. Rather, my uneasiness was a result of a lack a sleep, a sense of post-grad uncertainty that was beginning to manifest itself, and a particularly unfortunate and acute case of writer’s block.
As is the case with many stories, there was also a girl behind it all. But this girl was not my Muse, nor was she my last-chance-now-or-never crush. She was the sort of friend I’d spent boozy nights with, looking up at the stars and feeling at once fragile and enormous, alone and together. She was younger and struggled with adapting to the college environment. I was older and had a hard time coming to terms with the “what comes after this” kinds of questions. We were able to balance each other. I’d seen her at her low points, and she’d seen a vulnerable side of me, and we were all right with that. I knew that she would notice my absence next year just as much as I would notice hers. She wanted me to leave her with something to remind her of me, and so with the few books I had left on my shelf, I picked up Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and sat down to write her a goodbye letter, or something like it.
I flipped through the pages, hoping that there would be a phrase, a word even, that would lift my writer’s block. For those unfamiliar with the novel, it is about the arduous path to spiritual enlightenment. A young man feels there is something missing; he feels lost and yearning for certainty. He embarks on a journey that takes him from a comfortable existence to self-imposed poverty to tremendous wealth, over and over again. Though he is constantly moving from one place to the next, he continues to feel incomplete. As I neared the end of the novel, I grew more and more discouraged. Then I saw it out of the corner of my eye. A short little word, one that it is easy to ignore. River.
It is one of the oldest metaphors for our existence. Heraclitus told us that you can never step into the same river twice. Confucius, writing around the same time and thousands of miles away, wrote that “time flows away like water in the river.” This passing of time is an inevitable truth. You close your eyes and wander mindlessly through your days so that, at the end of it, you can spend time doing things with those you love. You do it every day. I do it every day. We do it every day.
We fall into routines that make each moment predictable, sacrificing surprise for stability. Each day feels familiar, expected. Yesterday and tomorrow become interchangeable. Each week follows the same course. As we move forward, we feel the same. Then there is a point when you look backwards and realize that the “you” from a year ago is a totally different person than the “you” that you see in the mirror. Nothing seemed to change, but everything somehow did. Yes, it is true we can never step into the same river twice. The river is constantly flowing, but we are renewing ourselves just as rapidly. It is you that has changed when you wade back into the water.
Buddhism approaches this concept in a slightly different way. There is a word, “anicca,” which roughly translates to “impermanence.” Times in our lives pass from moment to moment in what seems like a continuous stream. Events may seem inevitable or repetitive. It is no use trying to resist the current. The past is held in memories. The future, both near and far, is forever unknowable. Both the past and present are distractions in beautiful disguises. We are constantly torn away from what matters, the present moment. It is the only reality we can be sure of. We plan ahead to find security, we look backwards to comfort ourselves during difficult times. In the process, we ignore what is right in front of us. With this in mind, my writer’s block vanished and I wrote the following letter to the girl I was going to miss:
This novel has always given me a lot of peace and serenity, and I hope that by giving you this book it will have a similar effect on you. Let me explain.
I just graduated this afternoon, and am moving on to something new, still unsure what that something is exactly. All things go. The best times end far too soon and the worst times pass as well (probably sooner than you think, even though it may feel much longer). This graduation party will be over soon too. So will beach week, the summer, your sophomore year, and then your college career. That’s as far as I have gotten, but I have a hunch that the rest of life goes on just like that. Nothing is permanent, and be wary of anything that seems like it is.
Siddhartha has a way of telling you something without really stating it. You’ll read the last page and know something that you didn’t before opening the book. You’ll go back through the book, trying to find a page, a passage, a quote even that can summarize the sort of transcendence that you find. Unfortunately, you’ll never find that neat little bit of philosophy. This work exists as a whole, its meaning cannot be consolidated. Furthermore, I guarantee that you’ll take away from it something different than I did. Now, to go back on what I just said, here is what I learned from this book and the last four years:
1. Moments are always leaving us behind, and memories are not immortal either. Treat both as though they are the one you love the most, staring into the tunnel of life’s final light with only seconds and a few breaths left.
2. Memories are what sustain you, and the more attention you give to each moment, the more vivid your memories become. Don’t dwell on them though, focus on the present.
3. Hold each moment deep inside you as if your life depends on it because, well, it really does.
4. When the time comes to let it go, let it go. Do not try to hold on to it any longer; the brightest stars are formed by the things that we humans cannot possibly hold.
Finally, call me when you’ve finished this book. Re-read it, and call me every time that you finish it. I will always answer.