In 1859, before he was president, before he suffered through that harrowing train ride to Washington on his way to office where many thought he would be killed before he arrived, before the Union tore itself to pieces and around 750,000 people died in the Civil War (the total number dead is still unknown), Abraham Lincoln gave a speech at the Wisconsin State Fair. The subject of the speech was supposed to be agriculture, but Lincoln decided to go a little deeper.
He told the story of an Eastern king who asked his wisest philosophers to provide for him a sentence that would be not just true in each and every situation, but always worth hearing too. “They presented him the words,” Lincoln said, “‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride!—how consoling in the depths of affliction! ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’”
Did Lincoln know that this story was a core teaching in Buddhist philosophy? Did he know the incredible triumphs and fiery trials that lay ahead? Could he have been morbid enough to sense that it applied to his brief existence on this planet—that he had less than six years left to live, with which to do his work, before he too would pass away?
Marcus Aurelius certainly understood this, writing that we must “keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come.” The events of the world—good and bad, beautiful or tragic or terrifying—flow past us quickly. None of them are stable, each of them disappears with due time into the rush of the water, and is never seen again. “It would take an idiot,” Marcus wrote, “to feel distress or arrogance or anger.” Just wait a second—whether you’re being elevated to the highest office in the land or sucked into the awful carnage of a civil war or locking yourself indoors during a pandemic.
This too shall pass. It will be taken care of soon enough.
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