We know that life is change; we see it all around us. Yet, we value permanency, dream about lasting bliss. We celebrate significant birthdays, long tenures at jobs, endurance in marriages. Individually, we want to remain the same and we want the people in our life to be stable and unaltered. Our fairy tales end with life happily ever after and our doxologies envision a world without end. But, of course, life is not like that, and our beliefs and desires for constancy set up a basic paradox that is the cause of much anxiety. And this may be particularly true regarding the changes of aging.
Intellectually, of course, we know that things change. After Darwin and Lyell, we learned transformation happens on a large and slow scale to the world around us. (Although global warming may be speeding things up.) We know from our own observations that babies grow up, have children, suffer successes and tragedies, cope or fail to cope, and age. Yet, we choose to worship the illusive stability rather than the pervasive change. In our culture we have very few metaphors for the benefits of change; it is good to be as solid and stable as a rock, but it is not usually a compliment to be a chameleon or a shape-changer. And woe to the politician who admits to changing his mind! But – if we haven’t learned the lesson in earlier years – aging teaches us change in inevitable.
Ovid, of course, knew. He was at the end of an era which internalized myths in which physical metamorphoses were used to demonstrate the power – for good and bad – of change. His tales (Metamorphoses) are full of transformation, starting from the changes that formed the earth, moving through the conversion of people to trees, birds, deer, and ending with alterations in his own world, including contemplations of the changes death will make on his own body. Ovid puts the most direct sermon on the subject of change, however, in the mouth of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher of music, vegetarianism, and reincarnation who admonishes us (and note the word suffer in the last line):
The heavens and all below them, earth and her creatures,
All change, and we, part of creation, also
Must suffer change.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses are tales of change; while they may signify psychological or spiritual change, they are mostly stories of physical change. The intangible becomes manifest. Perhaps to understand change, we need a material phenomenon. Perhaps it takes powerful evidence to remind us that stability is an illusion. The fantastic is necessary for us to comprehend that reality is a constantly metamorphosing world around us. It is a paradox.
Ovid’s extraordinary changes also remind us that we cannot live without metaphors. (In another post, I will explore how metaphors for aging have changed over the years.) In the seventeenth century, the western world lost one set of metaphors, but eventually new ones appeared. The void must be filled. There are things that we cannot understand by thinking about them in abstract terms; we need metaphors and the imagination. Milton calls the imagination as the chief faculty serving reason:
But know that in the soul
Are many lesser faculties that serve
Reason as chief; among these fancy next
Her office holds. (Paradise Lost V)
Of course, we must remember that metaphors are simply correspondences, Correspondences that require imagination (fancy). Ovid inspired me to write a number of stories of metamorphoses set in the current era. I have started by posting “Gift to the Widows.” Let your fancy roam and see if it can bring anything back to nourish your reason. And feel free to chortle.