Most people alive today have experienced more personal, social, and technological change than was experienced over many generations in the past. This rapid acceleration of change, bringing with it a constant pressure to adapt—all of this sometimes threatens to overwhelm us, and pushes us into various patterns of behavior that don’t always serve us.
Margaret Mead once said that future generations would need to know how to build their nests in a storm.
Many of us today, caught as we are in a perpetual stormy whirlwind of change, realize we must not only build but constantly rebuild the structures of our lives, again and again, and, it seems, we must increasingly maintain and rebuild the changing structures of our society, all the while attempting to keep some sort of internal balance within ourselves. This may be exhilarating, but it is exhausting.
Change is, of course, nothing new. But the quickened pace of change these days sometimes staggers us.
Not all change, of course, is bad or troubling. There is also good change. But even that can be stressful. Psychologists talk about euphoric stress, which our bodies experience as an intensity of emotion that can be as draining as negative stress.
And so how do we cope?
“Pace yourself,” our health providers say. Right. “Let go and let God,” our ministers say. “Go with the flow,” our gurus say. All good advice, but occasionally we feel burnt out, tired, ready for a reprieve from all this intensity of change. What are we to do?
Of course, Different people use different strategies, with varying results.
When there is so much change, it can seem that nothing is permanent, reliable, trustworthy. Some people, seeing this, say, “Why bother to believe in or trust in or work for or commit to anything. It is obvious that it will all change again tomorrow.” They begin to shrug off any concern about how things are or how things change; cynicism takes hold. This may result in an unmoored social connection, a loss of moral compass, an individualistic willingness to blow with any wind and to not take any responsibility for participating in shaping or attempting to improve things.
Some of us, not cynical, really, concerned, but not wanting to be forced into taking sides in the culture wars, have just checked out, not watching the news, not being involved, sheltering in place, as it were. We often say we simply don’t have the energy to deal with all that is happening, or even to care, anymore.
Other people actively rebel against change and actively resist it.
I am reminded of the character in Oscar Wilde’s story called The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which a man, looking at a picture that had been painted of him, said that he wished that as time passed, he could stay as he was, young, virile, strong, handsome, and it would be the painting that aged instead of him. And, it was so, in the story. The painting was kept hidden in the attic, and the image of the man in the painting indeed did change, age, while the man remained just as he was when he made the wish. But things didn’t turn out all that happily. The man became absorbed in his own increasingly self-centered way of being, became careless of other’s feelings, and eventually turned to behaviors that were evil. Somehow in the story, though, a time came when he looked in a mirror and really had a sudden moment of self-realization of what he had become. He, then, remembering the painting and his wish, taking no time to think things through, to make changes, to make amends, whatever, he instead rushed upstairs into the attic, and, seeing that the image in the painting had changed, had turned into a grotesque, vile-looking creature, the man was so upset he took a knife and plunged it into the heart of the image of himself in the painting, at which point, of course, in the story, the man himself died, was found the next day, the very old, vile-looking being that had been detached from his everyday consciousness and projected onto the painting, he now was, but both were destroyed.
Projection onto something or someone else, refusal to take responsibility for our own relation to changing circumstances, these are dangerous dead ends.
There is a great need for all of us to withdraw projections, look clearly and carefully, and yes, even gently, at ourselves, to confront the reality of change, inward and outward. None of us is the same person we were some years ago, and neither is our world, our culture. We, and our attitudes and ways of being must adjust, go through a sometimes challenging and even painful self-evaluation of various parts of ourselves.
And we must also look anew at people and situations outside of us in the world around us to evaluate anew our relationship to what is happening.
Some people, of course, find this almost impossible to do. They are so threatened by change that they rigidly resist; they very consciously stay firmly committed to what they already believe, cling desperately to certain attitudes or ways of life, are unwilling to change with the times, fight a desperate rearguard action against change. Such fear of change, conscious or unconscious, produces all sorts of reactions that may or may not be helpful or healthy.
Oscar Wilde himself said, later in his life after writing that story and after various traumas he endured:
“What lies before me is my past. I have got to make myself look on that with different eyes, to make the world look on it with different eyes, to make God look on it with different eyes. This I cannot do by ignoring it, or slighting it, or praising it, or denying it. It is only to be done fully by accepting it as an inevitable part of the evolution of my life and character: by bowing my head to everything that I have suffered…” And, Wilde said, “Do not be afraid of the past. If people tell you that it is irrevocable, do not believe them. The past, the present and the future are but one moment in the sight of God, in whose sight we should try to live.”
This struggle with holding on to the past and fearing change is as old as humankind.
Think of the ancient Biblical story of Lot’s wife, who, with Lot, was instructed by God to go forth out of the place where they lived, leave everything familiar behind, and go into an unknown and frightening new world, and Lot’s wife was told, to not look back lest she be turned into a pillar of salt.
This warning goes with us, too, as we, in our own lives, attempt to go forth into the unknown, often while tasting the salty tears of regret over what we have been forced to leave behind. We do look back, to return back even, regardless of the consequences.
It is not easy to change, of course. By the time we are adults, most of us are pretty locked into certain ways of thinking that connect us to certain sets of values. When something forces us to rethink our positions, to realize that what we thought was true may not be so, to acknowledge the need for us to change, the amount of emotional stress that we experience can, for a time, feel utterly disabling. Although we may seem to be moving on with our lives, we can also be still somewhat caught in the past. It takes time to get our bearings.
But then there are other people, or other times for all of us, when we are truly innocently unaware of how we are dealing with change. We are hiding out in unconsciousness of our own reality, how we keep ourselves in the dark, so to speak, about our own inward and outward attitudes and behaviors in the face of change. We don’t “know ourselves” well enough to react or respond in the best ways.
There’s an old medieval folk tale that I have cited several times in workshops over the years, the moral of which speaks to this condition. It is about the beautiful Berta, a Princess of Hungary, whose parents arranged a marriage for her with the young powerful King of France. Berta, with her entourage, made the long journey from home to Paris, a journey that took them all far away from all they had known before. The folk tale goes on about the many things that happened as Berta changed from a princess to a queen, from being indulged and entitled, to being responsible, not only for herself but for a whole kingdom. I won’t go into the whole valuable story, rather than to point out here that repeatedly the modest and innocent Berta wanted to stay innocent and untouched by changing events. Over and over, she wanted to hide away, even from herself, and to “look the other way,” to pretend that things were different, and not even to reveal to others her true identity. But, as in so many folk and fairy tales, suffering inevitably ensued. Berta went through much painful change, was required to make many adjustments and adaptations, before she stepped fully into her own center, into living out her own core values, into being willing to claim her nobility and her responsibility and her true identity. The happy ending of this long folk story is that, as Berta’s life unfolded, she became the mother of Charlemagne the Great, as well as the mother of a daughter whose name meant Pleasure.
Many of us today, I imagine, would, like Berta, prefer to hide away if we could, to avoid getting involved with unpleasantness.
I, myself, disliking any sort of confrontation, have those inclinations; however, they are often followed by the opposite, a passionate drive to get involved, to fix things, somehow, to resolve all the division, to get on with saving the planet and improving the lives of, well, of everyone around me. I can drift from one extreme to another. I am often divided, being of two minds about it all.
An ancient fanciful Chinese story speaks to this. It seems, in the story, that a young woman’s parents arranged her marriage, but it was not with the young man she was in love with. So the young woman and her young man slipped away secretly in the night, rowing a boat across the wide lake under the moonlight, and later made their way to another place, far away, where they created their own happy life, had children, etc. But the woman always remembered her parents and that childhood home, and her previous life, and she was always still troubled by the way things had happened back then. So finally, her husband, seeing her distress though she tried to hide it, said, “Listen, it’s been a long time, and things have changed, so let us make a journey back there, see your parents, perhaps then you will feel better.” And they did. And here’s what happened. When they arrived at the woman’s childhood home, the aging parents came out to meet them, but the parents seemed stunned and confused and refused to believe that the woman standing there was their own daughter. To explain why they were so convinced, the old people led the younger couple into what had been the young girl’s bedroom, and there, lying on the bed, covered with beautiful coverings, apparently sleeping, was…the very young girl herself, the daughter, just as she had been the day before she ran away from home. She had been lying there ever since, with no outward awareness, but there, alive, just the same. There were the two of them, the one lying on the bed and the one standing at the doorway of the room, both the same person, but different. After the initial surprise, the woman in the doorway came into the room and reached out to the one lying there on the bed, and that one on the bed slowly arose, and they embraced, and they were then joined into one now whole being, and, of course, everyone rejoiced.
The name of that story is “The Divided Daughter.” How many of us are divided, some psychological part of us, say, still caught, back there somewhere in our past. We may be going on, seemingly ok, even happy, but we can remain split. We may have to journey back, inwardly, to that old place, that old history, that old attitude, whatever, to see it for how it is, how it is stuck, unmoving, and we may have to recognize it somehow, to take it into account, if we are to heal the divisions within ourselves, to become whole.
The same may be said, I think, for our culture, with all its current divisions, divisions that involve many old attitudes, old history that still needs to be brought into the light of consciousness, into today’s changed circumstances, as we work out whatever newness of life may be available to us.
This is difficult to do while many people today are divided between those dealing with change by clinging to or finding new tribal alliances that give them some assurance that they are right in refusing to change, or on the other hand, to assure them that they are right in insisting upon more rapid change for what they believe to be better.
And then there are those of us who are focused almost exclusively on getting others to change. The psychologist Carl Jung commented on this once in a letter written in response to a fellow struggling in his relationship with his wife, as he was trying to understand why she refused to change. Jung wrote about the problem with that, saying in part:
“…If you struggle too much to delve into another person, you find that you have thrust that person into a defensive position, and resistances develop because, through your efforts to penetrate and understand, the other person feels forced to examine those things in himself which he doesn’t want to examine. Everybody has his dark side which—so long as all goes well—he had rather not know about…It is a universal human truth, even though there are plenty of people who will assure you that they’d be only too glad to know everything about themselves… It is as good as certain,” Jung said to the husband in question, “that your wife had many thoughts and feelings which made her uneasy and which she wanted to hide even from herself. That is simply human. It is also the reason who so many elderly people withdraw into their own solitude where they won’t be disturbed by things they would rather not be too clearly conscious of…”
I feel that I understand the wife Jung was referring to. I too am tempted to withdraw, into my solitude, into my regression, into my resistance to whatever feels unpleasant, whatever requires me to adjust, adapt, change, especially old, engrained patterns of behavior or belief.
But No. Something else is called for. Even at my age, it would not be enough for me to be only a recluse in the beautiful backwoods of East Texas, enjoying my quiet walks along the winding creek, nor can I excuse myself if I merely continue to wail against the winds of events that have led to the barrage of social change today, accompanied by so much violence—physical and psychological.
We all want some wisdom, some ancient formula, perhaps, that has held true through ages of change, some stillness at the center of the storm, some bedrock certainty we can personally experience as enduring.
We may look to our spiritual traditions, any of them, to find instructions about coping with the reality of change in our world. From the Hindu figure of Shiva, the creator-destroyer who dances the changes that make up our world, to the Taoist symbol of yin and yang in continuous fluid movement, the world’s religions are, in many ways, primarily statements about change and how to deal with it.
Certain Native American traditions contain the figure of “Changing Woman,” a primal element that is “grandmother” to us all. Another Native American teaching shows that all things exist on a turning, changing “medicine wheel” that encompasses all directions and all ways of being, always changing.
And who has not heard of Job, that someone who “had it all” and then had it all ripped away through no fault of his own. Job’s patient trust in the ultimate benevolence of the universe, despite all the changes, may challenge us, and we may have to come to terms with the experience that that benevolence may not look the way we think it should.
The Biblical account of Jesus’ life is a perfect illustration of that conundrum. As far as believing in any sort of security untouched by change, the whole Christian tradition speaks of the basic uneasiness of such a position. If Jesus himself, who was said to be “perfect god and man,” could not escape the cross that changed his life and our history, how can we expect things to be different?
So the certainty of change is fundamental to all religious traditions. However, a more comforting and healing message, often overlooked by modern suffering souls, is also common to most religions. The way Jesus responded, for example, when change befell him, produced triumph in the face of tragedy. His life continued, on another level. The resurrection, with its transcendent victory is the ultimate statement of Christ’s life, not the cross. It teaches us that we too, if we allow ourselves to take from suffering or confusion an opportunity to allow creativity and courage to happen, we may emerge in a newness of life, better off rather than worse when all is said and done.
And, of course, that is more easily said than done. How then can we not just theorize but experience hope and peace and creativity in the midst of uncertainty and change? That is certainly the question most of us would like to have answered.
While preparing for this podcast, I had a strange dream about a capsule, the kind of stiff capsule that holds medicine, and the kind of capsule that can be taken apart so that the medicine inside can be taken in other ways. In my dream, I was looking at the scalp of a person and there on the scalp, stuck deeply into the surface of the scalp, was such a capsule, one that had obviously been there for a long time, apparently unknown to the person involved. That person in the dream is actually someone who, in waking life I know, a friend who is struggling emotionally right now, someone who admits to being caught between the past and the present, unable to “let go” emotionally of trauma that occurred in childhood.
How apt the dream, where I am concerned, (it was my dream, meant to mean something about me, not about my friend, who my dream maker used to dramatize the point.) In the dream, surprised and almost frightened as I was to find a capsule attached to this person’s head, after a time of looking at it fearfully, wondering if it could be doing some damage to the brain, and fearful of what would happen now if I accidentally changed its position, and after talking about it with the person in the dream, when I finally , maybe accidentally, barely and gently touched the capsule, it fell right off, intact, no harm done. The scalp was clean and whole.
One could go on and on about the capsule metaphor the dream maker chose. About it’s being medicine that is encapsulated somehow, stuck in the head instead of being swallowed and digested, etc. But what stayed with me on awakening was the weird image of that capsule, stuck, not even in the head, but on the surface of the head, in a position that was not allowing it to do its healing work, and stuck possibly in a place that could instead eventually do damage.
The ways we get stuck. The ways we refuse to “take the medicine” of change. Some people resist change and are stuck in the past. Others are able to change, intellectually, but emotionally or physically they continue to have the same “knee jerk” reactions that they always had when the right triggers occur.
A person I know well, a man who had started out his life without much financial resource, became as an adult a quite successful, well-to-do businessman, but, nonetheless, again and again, while sleeping, he would dream that his wealthy uncle would visit, and, despite all his success in life, in the dream, he had the same embarrassed and inferior feelings he once had often had when he was a young person and the rich uncle would in fact visit. He still didn’t measure up, according to the dreams. He would wake up from each dream in a sweat and in a terrible mood.
So some things from the past do “stick to us” in unconscious ways, even though we think we have matured and moved on. That’s the challenge.
But, the good news is, as my own dream about the capsule tells me, these things can loosen and fall off, if given real and gentle and careful attention.
In my basic philosophy of life, I hold a fundamental place for change, for ambiguity, for uncertainty, for irony, even for suffering. This recognition of the givenness of the more challenging aspects of reality allows me to live despite the tensions and challenges of change.
I know enough by not to bother ask the question “Why” for very long, but rather to focus on “given that, what must I do next?” While I don’t always live up to that knowing, I do have an awareness of that possibility within me, and more and more often, I remember to move in that current rather than fighting against some unalterable reality that comes toward me.
When I can do that, I am more free to respond creatively to the situation. All my energy is not tied up in resistance. Then I also can, with the right attitude, begin to draw to me the energy or aid I may need to deal with whatever comes. I can act knowing that I am connected with everything in the universe, and that everything is resonant and responsive with and to me. Although I do not expect nor do I experience any guarantee that things will turn out just as I or my limited ego would have them be, nonetheless, however they turn out, I can be enabled to cope creatively with what is. Only when I forget or ignore that do I really suffer.
My own life has been and continues to be a testing ground for that proposition. By now I can say only this, that during the times when, despite all that would dictate otherwise, I can keep myself an “open field,” ready to receive and respond to new information, intuitions, mysterious interventions, or to whatever else may be available to help me see more and more of the wholeness of things, then I have peace, serenity.
When, on the other hand, I live in fear, denial, with an eye toward retribution or vengeance, or even just a need for some unavailable sense of ultimate security, there is no peace or serenity.
The subject of change and how we deal with it is complex and important. It cannot, of course, be adequately dealt with in a little podcast. But it feels important to me that we all turn our attention to the necessity for dealing with it in our own lives. The conditions of our world demand it of us.
I recall the words of Theodore Roosevelt who spoke about those who do and not dare to be in the arena, attempting to bring about good change: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Theodore Roosevelt knew both victory and defeat, and so do most of us. None of us is so virtuous or blessed that we don’t stumble, or resist, or hide, or misunderstand, or whatever.
But Roosevelt, like me, felt that there is a force for good, a force, if you will, within reality that always moves us all forward toward a better way of being. And we may consciously draw upon it to help us deal with change.
Huston Smith, the scholar and writer about comparative religion, in speaking of the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, pointed to that force, a condition that the Chinese call Te, which is the driving power in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life, the very force of change. Smith said of this: “It cannot be exhausted: the more it is drawn upon, the more it flows.”
Taoism, that Houston Smith referred to, is a philosophy that has served me best in my long lifetime in dealing creatively with change in all its forms. As I conclude this podcast, I invite you to check out the online course on Taoism on my website OneAndAllWisdom.com.
So, until next time, this is Glenda Taylor. Join me again next time, when some new topic will take our interest.