Sadness and Beauty
Whitehead's God and Japanese Wisdom
by Jay McDaniel
The Tsunami And The Cherry Blossom, directed by Lucy Walker and nominated for the 2012 Oscar Documentary Short, depicts the Japanese sense that sadness and beauty go together. We encourage you to go the website, learn more about the film and the work of its director: <http://thetsunamiandthecherryblossom.com/>
It begins by showing the tsunami of March 11, 2011, which was devastating for many Japanese. It ends with scenes of cherry blossoms. The two are connected and show how, for many Japanese, renewal does not come from a denial of tragedy, but from recognizing the primacy of transience and beauty.
“Even when the flowers fall, we love it. That’s the heart of a Japanese person,” says one survivor. “It’s beautiful because the life of the flowers is so short.” “Awareness of transience heightens our appreciation,” says still another.
These sayings can sound too easy when put in bare form, but when you listen to the voices you hear a depth, a renewal born of pain. The responses reveal a certain kind of democracy: a democracy of sadness and beauty. As Buddhists recognize, we all suffer from dukkha, the sadness that comes through what Whitehead calls "perpetual perishing."
Perpetual perishing is the idea that everything is passing away all the time. This is true of mountains and monuments, but sometimes it is easier to understand if we take something small and beautiful. Think of a cherry blossom. It has a short life, and in the very shortness of its life, there is a beauty that would not exist if it lived longer. Brevity is the price paid for beauty.
In Whitehead's philosophy, every moment of our lives is a cherry blossom. We are living and dying and every moment. The cherry blossoms of our own past experiences, beautiful and poignant, are now past, never to be retrieved in their subjective immediacy. Most of us can live with this fact. We do not expect our own pasts to be recovered.
The more difficult feat is to accept the passage, the disappearance, of those we love. We miss them. We carry them in our memories. We wish they could be alive again. We would die just to touch them again. And yet, in the missing, we see how precious they were. Sadness and Beauty.
Are they alive in some way, even as they have passed out of our own lives? Are they remembered for who they were, in their preciousness? Is there a receptacle of life's sadness and beauty: an everlastingingly Deep Memory.
We cannot know on this side of death. But Whitehead's hope, articulated in Process and Reality, is that there is a Deep Memory in whose heart the forgotten are forever remembered and loved, for who they were. No, for who they are as they exist in the Deep Memory. All lives, in their preciousness, are prehended in this ongoing life, whose name is God.
If this is true, if God truly exists as an everlasting act of appreciation for what is transient in life, then the very transience of life is seen for its beauty. There is consolation in this. But it remains true that, for us, our loved ones never return.
We must live with this non-return. This acceptance of sadness and beauty is what makes us fully human. Our human calling is not to pretend that we are the Deep Memory. It is to trust in the Memory and live with the transcience. Every moment is a cherry blossom. Every day is the only day we have today. If today lasted forever, we would not love it so much.