The Fear of Impermanence and the Notre Dame Cathedral

There is but one experience every human being will share and that is death. The death I am referencing is, of course, physical human death. There are many kinds of death aside from this though; the death of relationships, of personal identity, of paradigms, of isms, and of innocence. These are all traumatic extencitions, each just as ontologically terrifying as the next, which brings me to the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral, a shock to the world, especially the developed West.

The stunning scene of the great gothic cathedral in flames, the collapse of the spire, and the charred remains of the altar awoke something latent inside many Americans and Europeans, and indeed many outside of that sphere. Personal reflections accompanied by retweeted articles flooded social media, governments made gestures of support both in spirit and monetarily, and parisiens gathered together to sing hymns in solidarity and to find connection.

All in all, it was a very beautiful human moment, but it left many wondering why so many who had no personal attachment to the cathedral would care at all. What does it say, if anything,  about being and existence?

An excellent question.

I believe this confluence of experience over the burning of the Notre Dame cathedral is connected with the existential fear of our own impermanence. The near death of Notre Dame (much of it is still there) triggers a fear that underlies much of our postmodern culture, which is the attempt to create meaning in our lives while simultaneously facing the eventuality of our own non-being.

The charred remains of the cathedral pulls back the facade we so desperately want to believe in; that our individual lives and civilization as a whole is stable and strong, almost eternal, just like Notre Dame, a symbol of western culture and values over the last 800 years, a stalwart in the face of modernity and societal flux.

Adding to the bewilderment is the way in which the disaster began. In a matter of hours, the once indomitable cathedral was reduced to ash, not because of some strategic Nazi bombing or Parisian mob aggression (many have pointed out the multiple historical events through which Notre Dame as persevered), but rather an acciential, unassuming spark began a fire. The perceived meaning behind the cause is as meaningless as our own existence in the face of impermanence.

The juxtaposition between the perceived should be versus the clearly what is is psychologically jarring, resulting in a need to ontologically moore one’s self to some kind of meaning in the face of impermanence. This is why so many people are donating to the reconstruction efforts that will take decades to carry out, why some gathered to sing hymns together, even if some did not believe in the religious notions to which the hymns express. The idea being, perhaps if we can rebuild the cathedral, we can rebuild our own selves, our own lives.

But we can’t fix the should be, not entirely or eternally. Maybe what is called for is the acceptance of what is as a remedy. Stoicism speaks to this idea as well as Eastern philosophy and the Serenity Prayer; that if we are able to recognize and let go of the things in our lives that are out of our control, we would live a much more contented life.

It is the fear of our own impermanence (and a bit of hubristic ego) that compels us to rebuild even as we live in a universe that is continually in the business of creation and negation, synthesis and decomposition, sending and returning, all of it, all around us, all the time.

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