Rethinking the Passage of Time

Former Thammasat University Rector, Charnvit Kasetsiri giving a eulogy at Thammasat in honor of Professor Benedict Anderson who passed away last December. Photo: Sa-naguan Khumrungroj / Facebook

By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer

Yet another year is behind us and we are a year closer to death. The passage of time reminds us of the fleeting nature of our existence. It begs us to consider what’s truly important in life, what does it all mean and how we might like to spend the rest of our ephemeral existence.

Unless you have a religious epiphany, or pre-ordained concepts on what constitute a good and moral life and even the afterlife, you will probably face existential doubts with questions like: what’s the meaning of life and the reason for us being here and how can we best lead our life?

\Staring at photographs of people long dead, I am reminded that, like it or not, I too shall join them one day- and probably sooner than I think or would like to. Death of your loved ones and even strangers are wakeup calls to live life while it lasts.


One of the deaths which touched many Thai scholars last year, was the passing of Professor Benedict Anderson in December. Anderson was a distinguished professor at Cornell University, where he worked as a Southeast Asian expert. I was lucky enough to meet him on several occasions and his death partly inspired this writer to revisit the topic of the fleeting nature of life.

When it comes to grasping the fleeting nature of life in a poetic way, traditional Japanese culture is up there with few to match. In Japan, there’s the concept of “mono no aware”, the sad and beautiful recognition of the impermanence in life. The sad beauty of bidding farewell to unrequited love, a final goodbye at funeral to those who are dear to you: these moments are not just sad, but also beautiful as it’s very much a part of our human condition. 


The Nature of Life

There’s also a Japanese saying: “ichi-go ichi-e”, which literally translates as “one time, one meeting”. This phrase is meant as a reminder that a chance meeting with a good friend may be your last; so make the most of it and cherish it as if it were a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

In a way, it’s a good thing that we’re not going to be around forever for we have to concentrate on what’s important in life. The limited time we have is like a finite blank canvass to be painted.  

Because human life is so fleeting and fragile, life is serendipitously precious and should be made meaningful as we discover various simple joys in life.

Because life is brief, we’re confronted with the question of how we can make the most out of our limited period on earth. As we all know we won’t be around forever, we can try to rise above our mundane and petty existence, above our lower instincts, be it greed, gluttony, ambition, lust, or vanity. Because we’re aware of the ephemeral nature of life we can be brave and face challenges with fortitude.


Marching On

The relentless march of time will take us away, so we can perhaps be more generous, caring and courteous to others, including strangers, because we know that we all will be gone soon enough. We can learn to see that in the end, we share the same destiny – rich or poor, smart or foolish, selfish or selfless, we all will have to die. Moving music, witty words, applied and pure arts, these are free gifts to humanity, from one generation to the next.

Knowing that we won’t be around forever enables us to be less attached and beckon us to not to be grounded by our mundane daily existence and to seek to contribute to others in whatever we excel in. Unless you are so poor as to have to lead a hand-to-mouth existence, contemplating whether there’s more to life than studying, working, marrying, having children and other daily routines we have taken for granted may not be a luxury as it enable us to distance ourselves from whatever we have been doing and contemplate the more fundamental question about how we have been leading our life so far.

While there are people who lead a more selfless existence due to acute awareness of the fleeting nature of life, some ended up using the same precondition to argue for the opposite and become nihilistic. They argue that life is purposeless since no one will live forever, not even the earth and the sun are permanent, so there’s no point caring for anything or anyone.

No matter which path you choose, it’s our ability to look at our daily existence from a detached distance and being conscious of it which partly makes us human. The search for a meaningful life should be more than just for the sake of it, but in order to understand what life actually is.   


Pravit Rojanaphruk can be followed on Twitter at @PravitR




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