The Great Burning of 1987: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Legend has it that in the year 64, Emperor Nero danced as he watched his city of Rome burn to the ground. Fast forward 1,923 years when the tyrannical Empress of the Martin Empire — my mother — danced and sang as she watched flames engulf her sons’ most prized possessions.

To be fair, I was at school when the Great Burning happened. So I never actually saw her singing and dancing around the old burn barrel in the backyard. But given the emotional toll I suffered from the atrocity, that’s how it played out in my head.

You see, my younger brother Nicholas and I had spent weeks creating paper monsters in our shared bedroom. We invested countless hours sketching, colouring and cutting out all manner of goofy and ghastly characters. Unfortunately, the collection quickly outgrew the two carboard boxes we were storing them in, and soon, eight-eyed trolls, fire-breathing sharks and spiky-haired werewolves were strewn everywhere.

It was as if our imaginations had barfed all over our bedroom floor.

However, not everyone appreciated our artful expulsions. And by “not everyone,” I mean our mother. One day, while Nicholas and I were at school dreaming up our next batch of paper monsters, Mom made her way upstairs and into our room.

Mistaking the piles of paper for trash — or more likely just fed up with the countless times she told us to clean up our messes — Mom scooped up our masterpieces and shoved them into a garbage bag.

When we got off the school bus that afternoon, we could see wisps of smoke coming from the still-smoldering burn barrel at the end of the laneway, oblivious to its recent role as the crematorium for our childhood innocence.

That is, until we walked into our room to find it spotless. It was the only time I had hoped to find a monster under my bed. Alas, Empress Louise had left no papery beast unburned.

Becoming pals with impermanence

The Martin Monster Massacre would be my first lesson in impermanence: the idea that nothing lasts forever. One moment we were ankle-deep in the fruits of our hard work and creativity. The next we were staring at an empty floor and choking back tears.

Impermanence is a core principle in traditions like Buddhism, reminding us that change is constant and all things eventually come to an end. Buddhist teachings on attachment are directly connected to this idea, arguing that suffering results from clinging to things that are inherently transient. For example, there was a direct co-relation between the deep pain I felt from losing those paper monsters and my deep attachment to them.

In many ways, the idea of impermanence is an uncomfortable one. Nobody likes thinking about losing the things — or people — they love. But just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t change the fact that it’s a reality we all have to face. Because the harsh truth is that cherished family heirlooms break. Careers end. Hair turns grey (or simply falls out in the case of my bald noggin).

And far from being depressing, learning to accept and even embrace the temporary nature of life can have a lot of positive effects. Here are a few benefits to consider related to becoming pals with impermanence:

1) This too shall pass. If all good things come to an end, then the opposite is also true. When you’re going through a tough time — whether you’re fighting the flu or feeling heartbroken — reassuring yourself that the discomfort and pain is temporary and will eventually fade often makes it easier to cope.

2) Memento mori: remember that you will die. This Latin expression may sound morbid, but I see it as a powerful prompt to make the most of the time we’ve got, recognizing that we all have an expiry date. I remember one of my professors explaining how ancient philosophers would keep a human skull on their desks and place two fingers in the eye sockets as they wrote as a reminder of their mortality.

Of course, your office mates might balk at you lugging a human skull with you to work. So another similar idea I’ve seen online is to take a walk through a cemetery as an opportunity to reflect on your finite existence and how you want to spend it.

3) Nurturing an attitude of gratitude. Similar to the point above, knowing that nothing lasts forever helps and that there are no guarantees in life helps foster appreciation for the things we have. Strawberries in Ontario taste all the sweeter knowing they’re only in season for a few weeks. A walk after your broken ankle heals feels amazing knowing what it was like on crutches. Hugs with friends linger longer after more than a year of pandemic-fuelled physical distancing.

4) Letting go to grow. A painful breakup becomes more painful if you refuse to accept it’s over. Meanwhile, staying angry at your mom for weeks on end because she incinerated your paper dolls is energy better spent working on a new project. Making friends with impermanence helps us move forward from negative experiences by facilitating detachment.

And detachment isn’t about not caring. It’s simply a willingness to let go — to stop clinging to the things that cause us pain, pull out a fresh sheet of paper, and start creating something new.

Josh Martin
Josh Martin is the creative force behind Badge of Awesome. He is the author of "Misadventure Musings: Lessons learned from life's awesome and absurd moments" and "The Overcoming Obstacles Handbook."

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