Two friends of mine were driving on the Grapevine, which is a braided ribbon of highway climbing over the hills one hour north of Los Angeles. They were high school sweethearts, they had just gotten engaged, and they were in the middle of a knock-down-drag-out fight over something neither of them can now remember.
At one point, the bride-to-be had had it, she rolled down the window, and she chucked her engagement ring as far as she could.
As soon as she did, they stopped fighting. They forgot all about their squabble, and they yanked the car to the shoulder to find it.
But after hours, they couldn’t. Dusk fell and they had to give up.
They tried to laugh it off and told themselves they didn’t like that ring anyway.
But over the years that followed, on separate occasions unbeknownst to the other, they each rented metal detectors and headed back up the Grapevine in the hopes of remembering the spot and striking gold. But they both failed.
On their fifth anniversary, they once again happened to be driving up the grapevine. They laughingly confessed to each other they’d both been back with metal detectors. Then they tried to remember the spot. And they began to argue once again about exactly where it was.
Now heated, they pulled over, got out and started walking.
And there was the fucking ring…
Haecceity (hex-AY-idee) is our impulse to assign uniqueness to something despite the existence of identical copies.
It is the this-ness of things.
We gradually replace every cell in our bodies every seven years—each of us is quite literally a different person than the one we were when Obama was elected—and yet we have the sense that we are still uniquely us.
The Sistene Chapel might be restored over the centuries, but it remains in our minds the work of Michelangelo.
Despite a world where everything is duplicating itself all the time, where the very basest urge operating within every living thing is to simply procreate a copy of itself, we nevertheless have the insatiable desire for the genuine article.
“It succinctly captures most people’s intuitions about authenticity that are increasingly threatened by the development of new technologies,” says Bruce Hood, chair of psychology at the University of Bristol.
But every day I watch my son grow attached to sticks and pieces of litter he brings home, and then devastate him when it’s time for the litter to go in the trash. Totaled cars, phones in puddles, and moving days demand these micro-funerals in our minds at the weigh stations of life’s relentless march forward.
Attachment to things we value, said the Buddha, and I’m paraphrasing, is an unending pain in the ass. The brutality of loss, or even loss through change, is a constant source of anxiety when we choose to assign meaning to things. But we cannot seem to stop doing it.
In my first month of grad school, I passed the dean on the street and he said, “hey Brendan, come meet Fiona Shaw with me.” Fiona Shaw is a powerhouse Irish actress of stage and screen and I leapt at the chance. At the talk, she spoke among other things about mastering accents for her screen roles, and specifically about the differences between English, Irish and American accents.
“It makes perfect sense that the British invented iambic pentameter,” she said, “because they are AB-so-LUTE-ly SURE that THEY are RIGHT.” We laughed hard. “The Irish, meanwhile, speak in D minor… wouldyoulikeacupoftea?” her voice trailed of into the distance so we could barely hear the word tea. “Americans,” she said, “emphasize possessions,” and she began pointing at imaginary things around the room, “house… car… boat…”
As Americans, nouns are our sickness. John Steinbeck explained why socialism never took root here by pointing out that we see ourselves “not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We are cursed with a compulsion to assign meaning to things, but in so doing exclude the reality that everything will change. Time, the element that allows us to recognize change, is against us.
Everything we care about is in the very urgent process of rotting into the earth.
“In the end,” writes Alan Lightman, “you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the Universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.” That thing you love, temporarily held together on a molecular level by bubble gum and prayer, has an impending appointment with atomization.
So what the fuck do we do? We can’t all become Buddhists, we’re dyed-in-the-wool capitalist pigs whether we like it or not. So if we must assign meaning to nouns, the odd verb, and maybe a quality or two, I’ve tabled out how it might go down…
The challenge, therefore, seems to be welcoming the inevitability of change into the picture. Starting from the temporary nature of all things, and assigning meaning from there, seems to be the only sane way to have a shoebox of keepsakes.
We have to eliminate our notion of time as the enemy.
This thing I’m holding is future dust, and I know that now, before I’ve committed any emotion to it, but it will be here for precisely 100% of the duration that it will. And in that window, I will love it. After that window, I will fondly remember it and know that this time that it’s gone was always on the way. And that it would arrive too soon, as it always does.
As it always does.