The meaning of immortality

Scenes such as this put our troubles into perspective. Bavaria, Germany, August 2005

Scenes such as this put our troubles into perspective. Bavaria, Germany, August 2005

“The wise understand the meaning of immortality, and do not seek the never-changing in the transient.”Upanishads

No small part of my sorrow in life comes from my abiding difficulty in accepting that nothing on this earth will last forever.  This reluctance to let go encompasses the entire spectrum of my life, from a treasured trinket to a useful appliance to more expensive investments such as houses and cars, and ultimately on to intangible blessings such as relationships with animals and other people, as individuals (such as friends and loved ones) and as groups (such as church congregations, schools, and neighborhoods or community circles).

I think this longing for something that lasts, even when we look for it in all the wrong places, is one of the surest evidences we have of immortality.  Descartes, among others, asserted that a finite being could not, on its own, conceive of an infinite one.  (See item 2 under the summary section on Meditation III.)  As much as humans tend to crave novelty, we also seek endlessly for that which is unchanging and reliable.  So in one sense, it’s logical that we want unlimited warranties for our material goods, and undying commitment from the people in our lives.

Growing up in a family that embraced Christianity as the source of eternal truth, I have been taught from my earliest memory that eternity is real, and what we think of as our earthly lives are only a relatively small piece of the overall picture, however central a role these perceptions play in our everyday existence.  Why, then, do I have so much trouble throwing away a magazine I have not read, or a memento of a long-ago vacation?  This may sound like the ultimate leap from the sublime to the ridiculous, but I know some of you will understand.  😀

I think I need to repeat this quote from Upanishads as a sort of mantra next time I undertake another of my seemingly unlimited series of efforts to clear out my belongings and bring order to my home  — or to my mind.  Fortunately, there are some handy symbols of eternity to which I can cling in my anxiety over loss.  The sky, the mountains, the seas, and even the reliable life cycles of nature all hint of the reality that life is everlasting.  These beautiful visual aids put my Goodwill donations and full recycling bins into perspective, don’t they?

Today, when you find yourself stressed, frustrated or annoyed, try asking yourself the ultimate question.  It’s not “Will this matter in 100 years?” though that is indeed a worthwhile inquiry.  But how much more powerful is the question “Is this a matter of eternal significance?” Relatively few of our troubles will merit a “yes” to that question, but for the few that do, that’s a clear indication we need to go straight to the source, so to speak, and leave the matter in the hands of God.  Easy to say, hard to do.  But infinitely comforting.

One year ago today:

Connected to something bigger


  1. It’s a journey isn’t it! Three times in my life I have discarded almost all my possessions – except for my immediate wardrobe and my beloved books. I have moved around the world, scattering possessions as I went. I have learned they are not important. To me what is important is my personal freedom and the people I love. Yet I always end up acquiring more possessions ………… Part of me longs to be rootless and free and the other part of me longs to be settled and surrounded by beautiful things. I sometimes think it is my own struggle with the earthly and the heavenly aspects of our beings.

    • Pauline, I can so identify with that. I don’t know how I accumulate so much either. Partly from not clearing things out, I guess. But I don’t really shop often, so most of what I have in in the “well-loved and shabby” department. Which, for me, makes it even harder to get rid of sometimes! It’s a nice problem to have, though.

  2. Oh Julia, you make me think so hard, so early on a Monday morning! 🙂
    I’m going to say “yes, and no. ”
    The way that bringing up our children is made up of our patterns and habits and overall behaviors, and doesn’t hinge on one really terrific or horrible parenting moment – that’s how any moment or decision affects eternity, generally. Not one moment, but the sum of all of them.
    Now regarding my excessive wardrobe … is it really doing eternity any good, hanging in the closet? Wouldn’t it “live again” (so to speak) if donated to someone who just loved it and actually wore it? I have an interesting sleeveless silk blouse that I can’t envision ever wearing. You’ve helped me decide – out it goes!
    Thanks, Julia! Your Daily blog enriches my life. Does that affect eternity? I think it does. Maybe I’m a romantic, or banking on “the butterfly effect” , but I think it does. (For the good, let me add! )

    • Susan, I like the idea of “the butterfly effect.” And while it may be a slight exaggeration, I do believe our smallest acts can create ripple effects. I totally agree that the cumulative effects of lots of small efforts can be amazing and really can turn some very huge tides.

      I am so honored that you think my blog enriches your life, whether or not it has any eternal effects. Meanwhile I will try to remember your words about clothes, next time I tackle my own closet. I gave myself a break after the last haul, but it’s time to get back to work. 😀

  3. P.S. Your topic this morning was so broad that it could take books and books to even start to answer, so I stuck with the first couple of aspects that came to mind. Like you, I was brought up to belive the best is yet to come. For a while this caused me to brag / complain /act the martyr : I’ve stored up so much treasure in heaven that I don’t have any left here! (I just want to go Home! )
    But surely we can find purpose while we’re here, even if I don’t have the money, power, or charisma to make a huge eternal difference every day. Some days my hope is just to do less harm than good.

    • Susan, I do think what we do here matters a great deal. The fact that the world is still here tells me that God cares about what we are doing here too. But I share your sentiment about some days, hoping just to do less harm than good. I feel my energy waning so quickly and I guess it’s primarily my age (and the cumulative stress of the past 18 months). Perhaps my reluctance to part with old and worn-out things is a sort of transfer of anxiety about those I love (including me) wearing out. I feel better when I remember that the eternal parts of us — our souls — never wear out!

  4. Jack

    At my home presently, we, mostly my wife, are dealing with a mother that has early stage dementia, has recently lost her husband of 60 years and is clinging to every last bauble that reminds her of this great love relationship. She needs help, medical, emotional and spiritual, the kind for which we are ill-equipped to provide. Her possessions are robbing her of a chance to move somewhere that she might receive help, for she simply insists on being “near” to all her stuff. Three well meaning siblings disagree to varying degrees on what to do about money, possessions and mostly about their mother, so, of course, the mom remains in limbo at our house, a victim of her things, her illness and to a lesser degree, her children.

    I’m trying to understand, to make sense of all this, how something so trivial as stuff can have such a divisive effect on a family that genuinely cares for and loves each other. Throw it away, give it away, be-gone-with-it suggestions, simplistic in the offering, are useless and even offensive (but magazines, really??). Other than the certainty that this will ultimately work out, I’ve redoubled my efforts to discard anything of only temporal value. Less is more, except in matters of grace, where a little always opens the door to more. Defeat despair indeed!

    • Jack, thanks for this thoughtful and incisive comment, which really makes me think “I don’t want that to be me” and I know it very easily could. The one advantage I’d have is that our older son, who would be tasked with get rid of any stuff I/we might leave, will have no problem doing so. He’s a light traveler who saves very little of anything, which I see as a strength. But reading what you wrote, I can so imagine being in your mother’s shoes. And I can think of more than one person I know who could say the same thing. I believe the stuff is indeed trivial, but it stands as the only tangible symbol we have for things that are much more important. (Even old magazines bring back vanished eras, and images of various aspects of home life, which was the axis of existence for women of our mother’s generation, and for many of ours too. I think this may be something a lot of men can’t understand.)

      From the time I was a very young girl, I always thought it terribly cruel that one spouse almost always outlives the other one. My heart really goes out to your mother right now. When I am plowing through stuff that I know would mean very little to anyone but me, I try to hold in my mind the image of the huge and distasteful job that would fall to someone who would have to, in essence, clean up after me if I die and leave it all behind me. Now your story, which I appreciate your sharing here, will lend added urgency to the process. I will pray for your mother and for a healing resolution to what must be so painful.

    • Jack, I work as a professional organizer in California so I understand the emotional tug things can have on people. In the end, of course, its not the things, but a fear that lodges in people that letting go of something tangible is the same as letting of a memory, or worse, a person. If it’s in the family budget, and assuming you live in the US, I encourage you to seek the help of a professional organizer in your area. In the US, you can search the NAPO site (National Association of Professional Organizers) or in Canada, POC (Professional Organizers of Canada. There are organizers that specialize in working with seniors, as well as other specific populations. Best of luck.

      • Thanks so much, Alys, for this helpful comment. I can’t hear it too often enough myself. Jack’s story touches my heart because I can so easily imagine being where his mother is right now.

  5. bobmielke

    I’ve experience a pleasant phenomenon as I grow older. I no longer cling to any materialistic possessions. I’ve lived in 182 square foot apartments for over 4 years in a row so space demand that I lose excess stuff. My attitude toward things like motorcycles has changed as well. While I still enjoy a 200 mile ride now & then I don’t obsess about it anymore. I get great gas mileage from my SmartCar so it makes little difference which vehicle I choose. Age tends to bring wisdom and temperance in all decisions.

    • Bob, I agree with you that age tends to bring wisdom, so considering how far off from wisdom I still am, I have to wonder what in the world I was THINKING for almost my whole life!!! 😀 😀 😀 Seriously, I read an interesting note today about Andrew Carnegie, who (among other things) helped to build so many libraries all over America. Supposedly, The “Andrew Carnegie Dictum” was: To spend the first third of one’s life getting all the education one can. To spend the next third making all the money one can. To spend the last third giving it all away for worthwhile causes. Now, I can’t say I agree with that absolutely, but there is a kind of natural progression in a long life that does enable us to start letting go of all the things we once aspired for, or worked to own. It is very freeing to be on the other side of that hill, isn’t it? Downhill walks are a lot easier.

  6. Amen!
    “in His will, is our peace.”-Dante Aleghieri
    “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in Thee.”-Saint Augustine

    • Thank you, Alan!

  7. For those of us who feel the constant pull to nesting, it is a bit of a struggle to let things go. I read Pauline’s message and nodded. As hard as it was, when we moved from the lake, I gave away a number of things including antique furniture that I’d had for 25 years, as did someone else before me and someone before them. So it now begins another life with a new family. These histories, or providence as they call it in the antique world, actually give more value to the item if known and verifiable. I kind of think of life a bit that way. Even a seemingly simple life can become extraordinary if say one hundred years from now someone finds your diary, photo album or artwork desirable. We can never know what impact our words or art will make long after we’re gone. Not unlike Emily Dickinson and Vinceint van Gogh who were both far more known after they lived. So while it is hard to purge or let go of things, it only helps to add to their providence or possibly their cache if our fame is yet to come long after we’re gone 😉

    • I’ve found that it’s much easier to part with something if I think someone else can use it. It’s throwing things away that bugs me. I noticed when Jeff and I were buying furniture off Craigslist, there was this one young couple who was selling some nice maple dining furniture that had belonged to her parents, and you could tell it was an emotional experience for her but also she was happy to know we loved it and would enjoy using it. Wouldn’t it be neat if antique and consignment things had a sort of diary or tracking device attached to them, sort of like they use on BookCrossing? We were talking before about how much fun it would be to have a huge library-like sharing site for dishes and whatnot. It would be even better if each item could have a “travel log” attached to it. Then the painting or clock or tablecloth or whatever would spend a year or two gracing one home and then move on to another, maybe with photos of where it’s been posted online. Hmmm, I need to think about this. It might make a fun online project.

      • It does sound fun! It would be fascinating to see where things come from and go to. I have a set of glasses, half of which were purchased in a junk / antique store in Missoula, and the second half in a New Hampshire Goodwill! Someone’s got a story to tell, but they aren’t talking!

        • Susan, if I figure out a good way to do this online, I’ll let you know! I love it when I know the history of something. I think that’s why Christmas ornament collections are such favorites with some of us.

      • MMmmmmm, I typed a reply and hit enter but it’s gone into the ether.
        What I said was, that’s a great idea Julia! I like it a lot. Maybe we could do a smaller version for our Skype Tea group. Each of us could throw an item into the mix. Then we’ll exchange, say keep it for 3 months, take photo’s of it in use. Then we Skype again an pass each item again to the next person. With 6 of us, it’d be an18 month project. We could each take a turn writing a post with stories and photo’s (the non-writers would repost). What do you think? I think it’d be so fun. Let’s say I put in a table cloth. Maybe it’d do breakfast in Australia, picnics at the ocean in New Zealand, Book Club in San Jose…..etc.

        I think you’re brilliant and I’d be totally in for the fun. xoK

        • I do think it would be great fun. I would want to figure out the most efficient way to send the stuff re: postage rates, because if we didn’t plan carefully, you and Dani and Pauline would be stuck with way higher postage than the rest of us. I don’t know how international postage rates work, and the USA doesn’t sell IRCs (I think) but maybe we could figure out something like that to do, AND/OR just make sure we keep the items very small and light! It might also be fun to send ornaments around that way, of course that would take 5 years but we’d each get a very well-traveled ornament with lots of stories to tell! 😀

          • Oh, a christmas ornament would be really fun Julia. What a tour they would have. The postage probably would be least fair for Pauline and Dani. You make a good point. I think we could probably all come up with a small and light item. I’m not sure what IRC’s are so maybe we don’t have them either. We have more idea’s than we have money I’m sure, LOL.

            • I’ll work on using the ideas to fix the money issue… 😀 …where there’s a will there’s a way…

    • I absolutely love that: Providence!

      • Yes, it’s like a double meaning!

  8. MaryAnn

    This is very deep, thoughtful provoking on many levels, from our wonderful lady who does a great job of having us THINK! Your bloggers bring more insight to this discussion, also.
    I am not a “stuff” person, but at the same time, I have rooms full of clutter. Recently, I attempted to pare down my collection of Bible class materials. I have great lessons for each story in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation geared to ages 2’s & 3’s. It was a precious time for me from 1964 to 2004 teaching “my” babies at church. As they grew up, married, had children; they brought them to my class!
    It made it easier to part with some of the “things” when I discovered a preschool teacher at a Christian school who wants my “stuff”. She told me that what she doesn’t use, she will send to their preschool in the Philippines. This blog will get me back at the task of sharing. Only a very few items are not to give away. My sister made me a beautifully hand-crafted lesson for “The Good Samaritan” when she was 16 years old!
    I believe, as you do, that Eternity is the ultimate goal; so I want to spread God’s Love each day. Some days are better than others on that desire. You help SO MUCH as you guide me to the positive, the higher road, bringing the good to mind.

    • Mary Ann, it’s so much easier to send something to someone who wants it, than it is to throw it away. That’s why I love the paperback swap. As you say, a few things have too much sentimental value to part with, but most of what is taking up space in my home could be used by someone else, and that’s a great incentive to send it on. In library school, one of the first things they stressed is that books are no longer rare items to be guarded, but they are to be USED, and our job as librarians is to increase the access to, and utility of, what we loan. “A book in the hand is worth two on the shelf.” Same goes for teaching materials or anything else. It’s like the old song we used to sing at church, “There is a sea.” A beautiful message if ever there was one! I wish we still sang some of those old songs.

      • MaryAnn

        Ah! I do miss some of the songs we sang that contained life lessons, wonderful words, beautiful melodies! Even in the children’s classes, I do not recognize the songs.

        • Music is something that changes fast, doesn’t it? Jeff and I always say that one way we can tell we’re getting older is that we have never heard of most of the hot music and movie celebrities! I miss how we would sing songs with many verses, almost ballads actually. And the four-part harmony was very beautiful, although some recent ones (such as “The Greatest Commandments”) also have great harmony.

  9. MaryAnn

    Some of the newer songs have great depth, for which I praise God!

    “Overcome” is a great example:
    “Seated above, enthroned in the Father’s love
    Destined to die, poured out for all mankind
    God’s only son perfect and spotless one
    He never sinned, but suffered as if He did

    All authority, every victory is Yours
    All authority, every victory is Yours

    Savior, worthy of honor and glory, worthy of all our praise, You overcame
    Jesus, awesome in power forever,awesome and great is Your name, You overcame

    Power in hand speaking the Father’s plan
    You’re sending us out, light in this broken land

    We will overcome by the blood of the Lamb
    and the word of our testimony, everyone overcome”

    by: Jeremy Camp

    • Mary Ann, I have never heard that one at all. We sing a lot of contemporary songs at church, but I think they get most of them from the Pepperdine Lectures. I will have to look this one up online and hear the tune. Thanks for sharing it!

  10. Great thread, Julia. I’ve lived with very little throughout my life, and constantly assess my belongings and move things along. I get more enjoyment from the uncluttered spaces and freedom from taking care of things, then the opposite. I’m sorry you’re struggling with this, and wish I could stop by to lend a hand.

    • Alys, you are already helping because your upcoming visit (which will be here before you know it) has given me some incentive to actually make some REAL progress with all this so things will look nice before you get here. Sort of like how people brush their teeth more often when they have a dental appointment coming up! 😀 So far, my biggest impediment is time to get to it regularly. But if Matt finds a new situation soon (which we hope he will, as one lead seems promising) I might feel so happy to have the time for it that I’ll pitch things out with joyful abandon! We’ll see…

  11. You linger over those things because
    Eccl. 3.11 …God has set eternity in our hearts.

    This longing for eternity, I wrote not long ago, is why we wish for a legacy. It is our attempt to live on beyond our death. Your closing encouragement is something I bear in mind. I remind myself so-and-so won’t remember how ridiculous I looked today ha ha. I don’t have to worry about it. I’m learning and relearning to let the small(er) stuff go where it’s not a matter of life or death.


    • Diana, thanks so much — you are one of the very best writers in the blogosphere, in my opinion, and I wish I had hours and hours to read through your blog — skimming is just not a possibility there, for which I’m grateful! But it makes me put off visiting “for when I have more time” and you know how that goes. I’ve been missing out on some great writing. WOW, some exciting things have been happening at your place – the Race Around the World is a great idea! Feel free to send us a link to the post you mentioned about wishing for a legacy. I couldn’t tell exactly which one you might have been referring to. I love all of Ecclesiastes, but the verse you cited is one of my very favorites. I appreciate your being here and sharing!

      • I certainly appreciate the praise and encouragement, my friend. I was glad to catch up on your blog. The Race was something, and gave way to the series we wrapped up last week “Outsider, Looking In.”
        I appreciate the invitation to share the link:

        No obligation at all to respond to it. I appreciate any time you give me.


        • Thank you Diana!

      • Shoot me an email if you’re interested in guest authoring on AHJ.


        • Wow, thank you! I am honored.

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