Don’t assume we can. Consider, for a brief moment, whether or not such a process is possible.
I love the practical conversation on how change actually works. It’s wonderful. Yet, something I’ve noticed about our culture is that, in assuming change’s reality, we tend not to think rightly about how it works. We would do well, then, to back up and start from this initial question. If you are trying to change something in your life and in the world, understanding the complex components that comprise such a process will only go to compel constructive capability.
So let’s start from the beginning.
Can we change?
Because what we might find is that understanding the very conception of the nature of change will help us do it better.
We might also find that this is the wrong question.
I don’t know who your favorite pre-Socratic philosopher is, but mine is Heraclitus. I do know that if you have a favorite pre-Socratic philosopher, you’re one strange human being. Anyways, Heraclitus (at least in written history) introduced the initial onset of what would eventually be called process philosophy. He was concerned about this very question: Is change possible?
His vindictive achievement was his discussion about rivers — that you cannot step into the same river twice.
What I love about this illustration is that we are so inclined to see rivers as a static substance — we name them, we refer to them, we use them as staple boundaries of territory and geologic locations — yet, if we consider what is occurring in a river, they are nothing like the fixed geological features our language assumes when we talk about rivers.
First, there is weathering — the transformation of geological material. Then you have erosion — the movement of that transformed geological material. Quite literally, then, the very shape of the river is different in every single moment.
A river is also, by nature, moving. This means that when you stand in a river, you are never touching the same water molecule in any given moment. Heraclitus further remarked that just in the timeframe of which you stood in the river, you have changed, too.
At last, you cannot stand in the same river twice.
One of the geological fixtures that appear to be true, then, is that change is built into the nature of topographical landscapes. Whether it is a blade of grass in your backyard or a tree or even the air — these natural components that, without consideration, seem passively stagnant are constantly different; they are constantly changing.
Can we change? Geologically speaking, it appears so.
To which Empedocles, another pre-Socratic philosopher, would argue that the change is apparent, but it is still an illusion because it is just a rearrangement of the same, fixed material substances of atoms.
We must look beyond geology for any affirmative conclusions on the subject of change.
What about culture and then fields of sociology and anthropology? Does culture change? Even with an adamancy on tradition, cultural consistency seems to be the real culprit of illusion. Just consider the handshake. In America, we shake hands to show a gentle, hospitable sign of greeting. Not too long ago, however, the handshake was used to reveal that you did not have a weapon and were, therefore, not a threat. Then it evolved; it changed into what it is now. And it will probably change again — to things like peace signs and fist bumps and other non-verbal mechanisms precluded by swift changes like social distancing.
In fact, I would make an overly absolute claim that the larger movement of history is one of change. It is why we look at pre-Socratic science and dismiss it as primitive.
Alright, so some change seems possible.
But what about us?
Do we change?
We could explore this question biologically. Your preferences in taste — have they changed? Your physical lifestyle — is it different than it was before? Do you wear the same clothes you did when you were an infant? No judgment if you answered yes to that last one. Those are too simple, though. What about your physical being? I mean, sure, your clothes from infancy might not fit, but have you physically changed outside of growing? You’re the same person, right?
Well, the 7 billion, billion atoms that constitute your being have a strange process about them. Approximately 300 million cells are altered every minute. Some speculation suggests that every month your skin is composed of completely new cells. And every seven years, your whole body is made up of atomic friends who weren’t there before.
So, yes. You seem to be constantly changing.
Philosophically, psychologically, and physically change does seem to be the only consistent reality.
But we might still be holding out hope on that psychological category. Some things, especially related to our identity, don’t change, right? We have to have this unchanging center or personality that, though abstract, is the same over time. If not, then why do our perspectives hold so steadily and why do we appear to have behavioral characterizations that are consistent?
Well, even this — though it may stay relatively the same — still changes.
Lee Ross from Stanford coined a phrase called the “Power of Situation” where he confronted this idea that we have a stable, unchanging, un-developing center with no malleability at the core of our identities and personalities; traits that are stable and consistent. What his research showed was that these are only consistent when the situation is consistent. His conclusion was that we might have dominant characteristics, but not unchanging ones. This doesn’t mean they will be completely different, but even in small ways, they at least evolve.
Or consider the famous Milgram study from 1963. Common individuals were willing to commit violent acts because an authority figure told them to. No one actually died in this study, but the participant thought they were inducing electric voltage to someone in another room, and, consistently, people who said they would never kill someone followed orders to the point that the voltage level would have been lethal. Different circumstances caused a person to behave with different actions — even if it betrayed their central identity.
What about memories? At the least, these don’t change. I mean, the existential crisis that could be caused by realizing that even your memories — those things that allow you to connect with your past in a meaningful way — are not consistent could be devastating. Yet, this is why eye witness testimony is not very reliable; because our memories change. We don’t remember anything exactly and, unfortunately, the further you get from a memory, the more it gets unassembled. Further, if you fail to encode a memory, you can lose it, and — now for the worst news — every time you recall a memory, your present context corrupts it slightly.
Change is Inevitable
Let me be fair — I’m obfuscating the evidence. Certainly, objections could be raised and examples could be given to argue an alternative perspective. So, let me return to my point — can we change?
My opinion on the matter is that the answer is yes.
Change seems to be built into the fabric of reality (if you’re still not sure after me having told you Heraclitus is my favorite pre-Socratic philosopher, then let me be clear, I do adhere to process philosophy). Maybe the real illusion is one of continuity for nothing seems static. And maybe this illusion holds us back. If we assume that how it is currently is how it will be then we miss the possibilities of a changing world and, at worst, we become victims of our biography.
The direction we can go — once we assess the nature of change — is that change offers possibility. Change doesn’t have to be a bad thing. At the same time, we must also be honest: We, as humans, also appear to crave predictability and stability and, if change is a part of reality, this means that the world is anything but predictable and stable. In fact, change makes the world a bit scary.
Yet, if we harness the possibility, change also has the prospect to be beautiful — because it means that how it is currently is not how it will be and the story is still being written.
Can we change?
In fact, there might not be anything you can do about it. Change is the theme, setting, and main character of life. Which means I may have asked the wrong question.
The Real Question Concerning Change
The real question is not, “Is change possible?” or, “Can we change?” — the real question we have to ask if change is inevitable is, “How will you change?”
You can’t control if change is going to happen, but you can control, to some degree, how it will happen. The reality of change is that it is daunting, but the good news is that you have some agency; like being at the wheel of a moving vehicle, it is scary, but it is also beautiful because you have responsibility for how you can intentionally affect the trajectory of the journey.
There is a Buddhist quote I love:
“Every moment you are being born again. And you get to decide what kind of world will be birthed.”
You can’t stop your story from continuing, but you can shape where it goes. You are going to evolve and grow and move and shift and reroute and wander and develop and mess up; sometimes you’re going to nail it; sometimes you are going to want to hold on to how it is, but you can’t; sometimes the world will feel impossible and overwhelming and you will wish you could try again even though you feel stuck and — good news — you can.
Change is unavoidable and challenging — but it is also necessary and, quite frankly, an opportunity.
At least for me, when I venture into the eerie abyss of this conversation, it brings me to the real question that we need to take into whatever moment we find ourselves in the world:
Wherever you are, how will you change?
When it comes to change, that is the invitation that is unchangingly before us.