Resisting change makes us miss a lot, while going with the flow can take us to interesting places.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is reported to have said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Over the years, this river metaphor has often been used as an illustration of life and change — constantly moving and shifting, sometimes rapid, sometimes peaceful, and usually unpredictable.
The lesson here is clear. This river is constant and continuous; it surrounds us, envelops us, and involves us no matter how much we might try to resist. Yet despite its obvious relentlessness, many people still believe they can somehow stop or redirect the movement of this river. And each month a number of these people find their way into my office.
I remember a man in his late forties, who had developed arthritis and was no longer physically able to perform many of the tasks required in his job or to participate in the sports he had enjoyed for much of his life. His doctor had diagnosed him as depressed and prescribed a common antidepressant, which the man loudly asserted, “did me no good.”
When I asked the man if he thought he was depressed, he simply glared at me from across the room and defiantly declared, “I don’t like change!” I told him that he was well within his rights not to like it, and I recalled the response of the Sergeant in the Army when a recruit complained about not liking the food in the mess hall: “You’re not required to like it. Liking it is optional. Eating it isn’t!” Hearing this, the man simply nodded grimly. At the heart of his depression was a sense of powerlessness and an underlying fear. His waning control of his body forced him to acknowledge how little control he really had over his life.
I also remember a woman, who was being treated for an anxiety disorder and was referred to me when she started having panic attacks. She was a widow in her early fifties, and she appeared quite capable.
She had four children, and at that time she was watching the youngest one finish high school and prepare to leave home to go off to college.
I asked her what she thought was making her so anxious now that much of the hard work in raising her children was behind her. She burst into tears and sobbed, “I don’t want my children to leave me. I don’t know how to live if I can’t be a mother!” Then she gritted her teeth and hissed at me, “I hate change. I shouldn’t have to go through this!”
Naturally, I reminded her that she didn’t stop being a mother just because her children were moving out. I suggested that she could learn new ways of being a mother that would fit with her children getting older.
Not surprisingly, she found little comfort in this idea. Hers was more than just an adjustment to an empty nest.
Her identity as a person and her sense of self-worth had become almost completely contained in her role of caretaker for four dependent children. Her inability to perform in that role as she had in the past essentially erased a major part of the picture she had of herself, leaving that picture mostly vacant and forlorn.
Obviously, dealing with the inevitability of change is always a challenge. We live in a world in which each of us is encouraged to seek “success” and to establish and maintain ourselves in life — to have a successful career, to have a successful relationship with a mate or life partner, and to achieve and maintain the highest possible standard of living.
Our institutions, our media, and our history all hold out the prospect of a seemingly bountiful and carefree life. And, of course, the freedom to pursue these things allows many of us to aspire and to accomplish.
Yet none of this is without hazard. We can easily become wedded to the idea that our accomplishments are simply what we are due and that we are entitled to maintain our “successful” status indefinitely.
Then, when we find life diminishing our capabilities or taking away our familiar opportunities, we feel resentful and often declare that “It’s not fair!” And we are correct, it isn’t fair. Nor is it supposed to be.
An alternative to feeling entitled is that we can just as easily come to see ourselves as indispensable. Especially when we view ourselves as providing a service for others, we can easily be seduced into thinking that our continuation in that role is so important that change is simply out of the question.
Nine years ago, when I learned that I needed what would later prove to be the first of two open-heart surgeries, my first reaction was almost dismissive. After all, I had well over two dozen therapy appointments scheduled for that week. What would all these people do without me? There was no way I could take time out for surgery. There simply had to be a mistake! Naturally, there was no mistake, and I did have the surgery. I learned later, to my chagrin, that all the people I was scheduled to see had somehow found a way to get help without me. Life had just kept going.
In a larger sense, we can all see our frame of reference changing. At a constantly accelerating rate, we witness changes in attitudes, demographics, politics, technology, fashion, entertainment, and many other areas.
And each generation laments the passing of its traditions and customs. For as these things pass, we each lose a portion of the sense of predictability we have about life and our place in it. In some form, each of us gets almost daily reminders that life as we have known and understood it is slipping away.
In the 1960s renowned psychologist Carl Rogers noted that the more we resist our situation and what it represents to us, the more we become rooted in it. Conversely, he observed that as soon as we accept who and where we are, we begin to move and to grow and to become more than what we were.
I think there is a useful parallel here. We invite a great deal of self-imposed misery when we try to resist or prevent change, in essence trying to control the uncontrollable. Instead of fighting against the flow of life’s river, if we can find ways to flow with it and generally let it carry us along, we can put our energies to more productive use.
We will be better positioned to see new opportunities that had not previously entered our thinking. We will have fewer predispositions to hamper our perceptions and restrict our potential actions. And, most of all, we will be much better able to continue learning — about life and about ourselves.
For myself, I’m frequently guided by the old expression, “It’s easier to ride the horse in the direction that he’s going.” So I try to remain mindful of the nature of change and look for opportunities in it.
Nevertheless, I still haven’t quite come to terms with hand-held technology, with “reality” entertainment, or with electronic “social networking.” And I’m afraid it’s true, I may never be able to accept the Designated Hitter.