Every now and then, I think back to the first house I ever lived in. I imagine the rosemary bushes still growing in the front yard, and the decorations my mother adorned the windows with still hanging. I loved that house, but unfortunately, with my younger sister growing older and needing more space, we were forced to move to a house that seemed strange and unfamiliar to five-year-old me. At that time I had great difficulty accepting the seemingly huge change in my brief life. Of course, having to deal with change is a problem we all encounter throughout our lives, be it a move, the end of a relationship, or even the discontinuation of your favorite smoothie at Panera. However, I find that by borrowing from Japanese cultural philosophy I am better able to cope with change.
The Japanese people are no strangers to change. Imagine living in a world where even the mountains on the horizon and the land beneath your feet cannot be counted on to provide a sense of permanence to your volatile and ephemeral existence. Such is the life in Japan, whose unique geographical position along the Median Tectonic Line causes the populace to be assailed by earthquakes and volcanoes regularly. The ground shakes and splits as the mountains explode, and a deep sense of evanescence imbeds itself within the Japanese psyche. Nothing is ever constant, and everything is always changing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this realization that nothing is constant has historically been the source of a great deal of sadness amongst the people of Japan. For, if there is love, it will surely be fleeting, and if there is a great success, it will no doubt be followed by failure. How then is meaning created in the ever changing, sadness-saturated world? The answer, like many Japanese innovations, is simple and ingenious: the aestheticization of sadness and impermanence.
Finding beauty in impermanence may seem difficult, though the Japanese understanding of this cultural tenant is both simple and logical. The reasoning is simply that if all that is good and beautiful lasted forever, their value would not be understood by us. It is only when the flowers wither and die that we understand the beauty of their fragrance and blossom. Thus, the logic behind the aestheticization of impermanence is that the ephemeral nature of life creates a greater appreciation for the present moment, and the present moment is as changing as it is beautiful.
The aestheticization of sadness is a bit harder to nail down, though it becomes clear when dovetailed with the beauty implicit in impermanence. The Japanese fuse the aestheticization of impermanence and sadness into a logical formula described by Charles Inouye, who explains it as follows:
“A: Life is evanescent and, as a result, sorrowful.
B: Sorrow heightens the beauty of things
C: Therefore, evanescent life is beautiful”
Thus, the Japanese create beauty in the mortal life that they perceive as fundamentally transient and sad. Life is sad, and so life is beautiful.
While the beauty of impermanence is a pillar of Japanese cultural history, thematic parallels are not inaccessible to the western mind. Think, would the sunset be as beautiful if it weren’t so fleeting? What about a shooting star? I would argue not, as the beauty of a sunset or a shooting star exists not in the color of the skies but in the power of the moment. Something about the ephemeral nature of these natural phenomena excites the aesthetic bone within the body, and one can easily be swept away in the majesty of nature, wishing that the moment could last forever. But of course, the sun dips below the horizon, the streak of light in the sky fades, and we are left feeling wistful that the experience is over but happy that at least we could witness it for the brief amount of time it was present. If you’ve experienced this, then you already possess some understanding of the beauty of ephemerality.
Western parallels can similarly be found in the aestheticization of sadness, in the understanding that one cannot know happiness without knowing pain. This sentiment is well articulated by the American writer Harlan Ellison, who writes, “I know that pain is the most important thing in the universes. Greater than survival, greater than love, greater even than the beauty it brings about. For without pain, there can be no pleasure. Without sadness, there can be no happiness. Without misery there can be no beauty. And without these, life is endless, hopeless, doomed and damned.” Thus, the appreciation of sadness and impermanence is not unavailable to western minds, and it can be adopted in order to help our own experience with change and pain.
Perhaps those of us who are facing bad luck or significant change can find inspiration or even solace in the Japanese mindset. Maybe you lost your job, you are moving to a new city, or a family member has recently passed away. Regardless, remember that life would not be quite so beautiful without sadness. The Japanese believe that as failure must always follow success, success must always follow failure, hence the Japanese expression, “Fall seven times and stand up eight.” So fear not, for your sadness is as ephemeral as your happiness and your failures as ephemeral as your successes.