Why do we weep at the changes of life, even things not of ourselves? What is the sadness for the loss of those things which were not ours to mourn?
We crave, all of us, our stability, even if we effect to crave destruction. Change is mournful. We may weep, or retreat into petty concerns. As Alaric smashed his way into Rome, the Emperor Honorius fed his chickens – the one thing he could still do. And Augustine wrote “Why do you weep for a city that burns so easily?”
A man who loses his wife or a child may throw himself into dulling work, or enclose himself in a dark room to try to think of nothing.
These are grand losses though – all change is loss, in a destruction of a familiar, comforting part of life. The nation mourned deeply this autumn for the loss of our Queen, truly beloved beyond the conventional commonplaces, and it seemed the world had turned, so that nothing we knew would be familiar again; but the genius of our system is of course that the King continued without upheaval, changing and renewing things but continuing our familiar patterns. These were things for which the end was ordained at the beginning, as part of the beginning. Change is necessary, to develop and grow into new endeavours, but we need not like it.
A death, or a birth, a job ends, a new one begins, moving house, or everyday things like replacing the family car, have a grip on the heart in their own way. I find even finishing a book, if a truly great one, feels like a little death; the familiar companion of the evenings has departed me. It will lead me soon enough to another book (and I have a house full of books in every room) but it is a change and change is discomforting.
Hobbes wrote that “For if a man banished, be neverthelesse permitted to enjoy his Goods, and the Revenue of his Lands, the meer change of ayr is no punishment”, but I am not so sure: in literature exile is universally a mournful thing.
It is in this necessity of reluctant change that we are presented with the famous Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes; “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:…” There is, as the Preacher says, “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;”, but for making out own changes too: “A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew”, and all through the changes of life.
There is much that we may miss from the Chapter, and the whole book: here the Preacher gives the uncomfortable observation that man is one of the beasts of the earth and goes to the same end (and there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?) In our work we create, and to create is to build something new, unfamiliar, but in that there is joy from the procreator – it is not unfamiliar but from his own self. Mournful change is often outside our control.
There are whole books on this nature of ourselves – not books taking about it (there may be; dry and unread) but every good novel ever written understands it and works its plot around our universal truths.
Change is also part of our portion. We need to embrace it – we may weep, mourn, or embrace the new way with timidity, or thrill to the new to hide the sadness of loss of the old, for all things change for good or ill and there is nothing new under the sun.
- Mourning – a mystery
- Song of the Exile
- Let us sit upon the ground
- Creatures of the Full Moon
- Of the Natural Condition of Mankind (Hobbes)
- By Thomas Hobbes:
- By Anthony Burgess:
- Augustine: Conversions and Confessions by Robin Lane Fox
- By Jordan Peterson: