Perpetually Perishing

In the dark recesses of my “things once read” is the phrase “perpetually perishing.” Blowing the dust off this memory revealed the name of the twentieth century mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the almost undecipherable father of Process Philosophy. Philosophy 101 was the only college class for which I received the grade of “D.” So, please forgive me for only being able to comprehend the smallest sliver of Whitehead’s work.

Age has the nasty habit of chiseling the reality of “perishable” onto the ever failing human ego. As 2009 careened forward, more and more people experienced Whiteheads Process Philosophy even if they didn’t understand it. The promises of “change” in the 2008 election brought hope. Yet, President Obama went on to oversee one of the worst downward flows since the Great Depression. Double digit unemployment, single digit interest rates, greed and ignorance perpetually blasted apart our consciousness if not our actual lives. President Obama said he wanted to avoid the death spiral once experienced by the Japanese economy. Don’t know about you, but I became dizzy during this cyclonic spinning that didn’t feel immediately life giving.

As I wrote this in 2009, I was in the midst of just such a not-so-hope-filled change. Life’s inevitable climate change and sudden down bursts fired up those neurons about Whitehead and “perpetually perishing.” I was mad and was sad and I believed nothing would ever feel “normal” again. And, that sucked. So, I went searching for good ol’ Alfred and found an article titled “Process and Emptiness: A Comparison of Whitehead’s Process Philosophy and Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy” by Thomas J. McFarlane*. Great, now two philosophies to understand with my ‘D” grade brain. The journey was worth the angst.

Yes, Whitehead is the dude who wrote about perpetual perishing amidst his philosophy of impermanence and “flow” into the “entities of reality” (which I totally don’t get). Yet, nestled in all that impermanent flow downer was this quote: "The actual entities of reality are thus never static, but are in a process of becoming and 'perpetually perishing.'"

I had forgotten that other part, “becoming.” Yikes, there is hope in perishing because it ebbs and flows with becoming. May I be so bold as to conclude that Whitehead would agree if I declare “no, nothing will ever be normal again because normal has never been?” Wow, that sounds so philosophical I’m not sure I even get it. The Buddhist part of the article suggests that “suffering” is the result of the human ego refusing to “get” impermanence.

Hope resides in the fact that “what is is” is not a static state. It is the green room for what is coming. The fearful part is believing that “what was” is better than anything that could ever “become.” Looking over my impermanent life, Whitehead’s process of flowing, growing (while groaning), perishing devolving and evolving into “what’s next” has proven to be a pretty meaningful journey. In fact, some of the most feared perishings of my life preceded the most surprising “becomings” which my D grade brain couldn’t have dreamed up all on its own. And, the suffering along the trail was self created by refusing to believe anything but that which I called “normal” was acceptable. Suffering done. I was on to becoming.

Once again, dusting off this article I wrote in 2009, nearly 2 years later, the “becoming” was a vast improvement on that which perished. Truthfully, I like how our lives are evolving now better than the previous “became.” The smallest of changes has left our society and economy in not much better shape than it was two years ago. Personally, a now much simpler life is filled with surprising joys and the knowledge that everything we needed was there when we needed it. Driving to work, yard signs announce entrapenurial energy with individuals offering their “gift” for financial security: “Teaching Piano Lessons”; “Yard landscaping and maintenance services … call …”; “Baking ‘Mortgage Cakes’ to stay in my home”; “I do toilets, too.” Less credit and more cash means the average person has “got it” even if our Congress hasn’t. I remain perpetually grateful for perishing. Looking into the next new year, I am curious about what which will become.

* McFarlane, Thomas J. Process and Emptiness: A Comparison of Whitehead’s Process Philosophy and Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy. Spring 2000, Revised and edited for the web March 2004

Copyright Mary Ewing Rixford, M.A.,LMFT, LPC, 2011, All rights reserved.