Working Through Loss and Change
"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like." (Lao Tzu)
OK, so I know Lao Tzu is right, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I'll admit it, when it comes to change, I tend to be a curmudgeon. When you receive this month's BEACON, you will see that I already fessed up to this, and to the annoyance I sometimes feel when the flexible optimists in my own life, with their cheerful, chipper voices, remind me that change can be creative and energizing, all while I am sighing heavily and trying to talk them out of whatever cockamamie suggestion they have just made. It makes me feel like my grumpy Uncle Albert.
But I did welcome some exoneration for all this when I a remarkable book, some years ago, by futurist and physician Dr. Richard Swenson, called Restoring Margin to Overloaded Lives. (As an aside, let me say this is one of those "eat the meat and spit out the bones" book recommendations, as Swenson is an evangelical Christian, although not at all heavy handed, and the book overall is truly remarkable.) In it, Swenson looks at the rate of change in the last fifty years, particularly related to the quantity of information and complexity the average person must now absorb and assimilate in order to even pretend to "keep up." He concludes that for all of history, change could be measured by a gradually increasing graph line, but that in the last third of the last century, that line suddenly shot up to a steep J-curve. We went, and really quite suddenly, from an incremental, absorbable rate of change, to an exponential rate of change, and he states that we consistently underestimate the effect this has on us as a culture.
So maybe this explains why I go just a little bit ballistic when I open my home page and Google has changed something fairly fundamental, and it all looks different, and I have to launch an all out search to figure out where they moved all those little features that I had only just come to use habitually. As if there isn’t already enough to re learn and re process because of that exponential rate of change these days? Google has to mess with me? Word has to come up with a still more complicated version that relocates everything and gradually renders obsolete the version I had only just come to master? Really??? This. Makes. Me. Crazy.
So it helped when I first came to understand that there are, in fact, predictable processes that occur when change happens. It's a form of grief, really, although far less intense than the grief we talked about last week. And, OK, I'll allow as to how one doesn't usually think of a new word processing program as causing grief, but in a way, it can because it creates anxiety. (I know, I know. For some of you, it creates thrill and opportunity, bless your cheerful, little hearts. But for many, dare I say MOST of us, it’s right to at least some degree of anxiety. And it helps to know that for most of us, it takes time to absorb and incorporate change at nearly any level.
And so I would ask you to consider the visual on the front of your bulletin. Jan Van Beezler, from the UU District Office, brought this model to the Board and Transition Team when she met with us in October. It is originally from the Alban Institute, and it gets at the response to change process that churches tend to go through, although I think it works, really for any organization, or for us on an individual level as well. The idea is that when there is significant change, there are fairly predictable feelings and behaviors that tend to play out, and a process which has to include a decision either to stay the course and stick with the change, despite the anxiety and confusion involved, before a new normal, hopefully a better normal, can emerge…You’ll notice that the Y axis shows the energy level related to feelings on the roller coaster itself, and the X axis measures time. Substantial change usually takes time to absorb and integrate.
This model really helps me because I tend to be a second guesser. When the uncomfortable parts of this process get rolling for me, I tend to think, "I must have made a mistake!" And I am tempted to want to take it back. And that may, on occasion, be appropriate. But more likely, it is just this process working itself through. And if we know these responses are normal, it helps us be OK with staying the course.
And here is the other thing that helps: knowing that even though it’s true that all things are impermanent, and the only constant is change, in another sense, that isn’t true at all. Because really, the only constant is this, present moment; the eternal "now" that is the only place we ever really live. I used to think that life is like a journey, and we are constantly travelling on, through the years, through our experiences, meeting different people along the way, picking up and putting down various metaphorical items, tools for the journey, perhaps.
But I have come now to think of it differently. Now I think of it not as a journey, but more as a parade where I stand still, and life moves by in front of me, and I go out from the curb and participate in each scene as it comes. What comes indeed changes. We can welcome or resist each scene, with its various cast of characters and dramas, and eventually each scene passes by. But we basically stay put.
I like this model better because it gets at that most basic, spiritual principle of centeredness in the now. And connection to the spiritual resources that only, ever exist there (or should I say here?) It is here and now that we can tap into God or love or the collective unconscious or own inner wisdom or whatever you happen to call it. And that is what never changes: the eternal present, the still point at the center, the fulcrum around which everything else moves.
Eckhart Tolle, in a tv interview I recently watched, characterized it visually. He put his hands up, and created a space around him, and said, "this is where we live" Indeed, we need to stay here, because this is the only place where we can be rooted in the power to respond and interact creatively and lovingly with what presents itself, and it’s that connection, that rootedness, that never changes. I think this is why we feel the same age on the inside all our lives. It’s because the soul, the distilled essence of who we are when rooted in presence doesn’t exist in chronological time, and is ageless. The Greeks had a term for these two kinds of time. Normal chronological time they called chronos. But this time (gesture) this rootedness in the eternal low, and the love and wisdom that is available there, they called Kairos- spiritual time. As the fulcrum around which everything else moves, it is motionless, and in a sense, changeless.
My hope for you is that whether you are a person likes me who tends to resist change, or whether you are one of those cheerful optimist who sees opportunity everywhere, (and God bless you if you are, because if I may be so presumptuous as to speak on behalf of curmudgeons everywhere, we really do need you, just as you sometimes need us to help you find balance…) Anyway, my hope is that however we are wired in response to change, we can grow in depth and learn to stay rooted here (gesture). My hope is also that we remember the predictable processes that almost always unfold in time, and that even when we find ourselves in the uncomfortable parts of the roller coaster of change, we remember that "this too shall pass."