Embracing The Permanent

By Kerstin Magnuson Photograph Death To Stock

I have come to believe that it is not actually change we fear, but permanence. Ordinary change – the kind that disrupts normal life but does not alter our existence or take anything from us permanently – can be endured. This sort of change allows us to be brave but still offers the comforting presence of a safety net; subconsciously, we know that we have the option of going back if we really need to. But change that alters our life irreparably is different. Change of the permanent variety is scary and haunting with its promise of forever.

I experienced my first taste of permanent change last summer, when I got a phone call from my mom. “It’s not working,” she said. “The tumors are growing. They are going to take him off the clinical trial and maybe try some chemo--they’re not sure. But it will probably only be a few more months.”
And that was the first time I allowed myself to believe, or was forced to believe, that Papa was really going to leave and could never come back. This realization birthed a sense of desperation in my heart that grew until a cold day in November when, in a moment, he was gone for good.
I felt a similar sense of desperation again recently as I prepared to graduate with my master’s degree. As the school year began to wrap up, a familiar refrain started to sound in my head: never again, never again. This feeling was so different than the one I felt when I first traveled down to South Carolina for grad school two years earlier. Then, I left Minnesota with a subconscious but very present sense that I could always come back.

Home would always be there waiting if I needed it; it was safe and permanent.

So I came down to school with light steps, and it welcomed me with open arms. It was the first place that truly became a home away from home. I loved it all: my classmates, my friends, my coworkers, my professors, my church, my classes – and together, they formed my new community, one in which I thrived. Then, in what seemed like both a lifetime and a short breath, my degree was complete and school was done. While I felt a normal sense of excitement and anticipation about graduation and what was ahead of me, what was even weightier was the sense of cold finality. I remember driving through campus in those last few weeks with a sense of loss, as if I had to grab every second, every memory, every moment, and cling to it before it dissipated right out of my hand. I knew that once I left, I could never come back. Never the same people, never the same classes, never the same experiences. I wasn’t upset by the fact that I was moving on, but by the reality that life would never be like this again.

I wasn’t upset by the fact that I was moving on, but by the reality that life would never be like this again.

And then, I was driving past the dry cleaners on campus one afternoon, feeling nostalgic about even that, when I realized that I was failing to see the whole picture. It’s been said that we don’t really fear change--we fear the loss that change brings. I realized that I had been viewing change as nothing more than that: as a creator of loss, a thing that takes from me. But by meditating on the loss change created, I made the most tragic mistake of all: I lost sight of the truly permanent and grieved the transient. In fact, what I had been mourning as permanent loss was really not permanent at all. After all, things that are lasting cannot ever be truly lost. So what was permanent? It was the things I took with me, the things I got to keep.

With that realization, my perspective shifted. I began to look at the other side of change and catalogue what I was keeping instead of what I was losing. In my desire to cling to all that I’d lose, I’d missed the biggest change of all: the one within me. The Kerstin who started grad school was so different than the one who completed it. Grad school pushed me and changed me; my character was reshaped while doing this hard, seemingly impossible thing. The very fabric of my being was indelibly colored by the people I’d known and the things I’d experienced, and that is truly lasting. That is mine to keep – that is permanent. No change can touch that.
As for death -- that, too, is impermanent. We cling to life as if it is the only real thing we have, but even that is temporary. No matter how desperately we grasp it, it slips through our fingers like sand. This life is not our final destination; we were created for an eternal reality that we cannot experience until our temporary existence on earth is complete. As final as Papa’s loss feels now, it simply is not. At this moment, he is experiencing a more vivid, radiant, wondrous reality than I can possibly imagine. The eternity he is enjoying is real and enduring – and one day, I am going to be up there with him to take it all in. Permanently.

Change will come – and it will take things from me. It always does. But I know what’s mine to keep now, and I hold onto that. It may not make the loss sting any less, but it certainly makes it easier to walk on ahead, with joy. There is so much to look forward to.