“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. [Popularly paraphrased as “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”] (Mahatma Gandhi)
“We have been taught, often with ulterior motives, to understand change as something that happens to us, as something beyond our control… But what if change is something that happens from us, something we choose, initiate, and develop?” (From the introduction of the soon-to-be released book, Transforming Economy: From Corrupted Capitalism to Connected Communities, by Zeus Yiamouyiannis, Ph.D.)
It is one thing to think abstractly about “being” the change. It is quite another to go about becoming the person that can “be the change”. Changing is not something you merely decide to do or not. It is something you learn to do. Constructive change is something you engage consciously and proactively.
Imagine you are a child in a family where one parent decides to pack everyone up and move households without explanation. No goodbyes, no time to process emotions, no conversation about the future and what it holds, no planning for transition. This is change done to you. As a child with limited capacity to understand the larger forces and decisions around you, you would likely associate such change with powerlessness.
Many of us remain like that child into adulthood. We see ourselves being swept up in change beyond our control, and we seek to buffer its effects. We remain in a reactive mode, viewing change like a wild horse that must be tamed or avoided.
However, even in situations of change beyond our control, our response can be an empowered choice. We forget this, precisely because we have been trained to simply accept or reject change (the passive consumer mentality) rather than engage, investigate, and interact with change (the active citizen mentality).
Becoming an effective change-maker means learning how to meet and treat change (in yourself and your world) as a subject to engage rather than as an object to fight.
So how do you do this?
Engaging change: Confronting assumptions
First, it is essential you confront the assumptions you have been taught about change. These assumptions are either conscious or unconscious and they have a powerful effect on your emotions and your choices around change.
- Change creates instability (true). Therefore change is bad (false). Most people like their routines and rhythms and do not simply want life to be careening from one unpredictable situation to another. However, without the instability created by change, there is no such thing as creativity, insight, and even love. Biological life itself would be impossible without the constant change involved in the chemical reactions that keep your body running. Change is necessary for life. Instability can be positive.
- Change is something that presents itself to you (true). Therefore, your only real choice is to accept or reject it (false). Change is not a product; it is a process. Change is not an object for your approval; it is an unavoidable part of reality calling for your participation. Change is essentially an opportunity to engage life more fully and responsibly. Change that feels initially painful (losing a job) can liberate you to pursue your dream vocation. Change that feels initially pleasurable (getting drunk) can end up in a hangover. First impressions are not good indicators for change. One must engage change over time and go beyond simplistic accepting and rejecting.
- Change will come anyway, even if you try to avoid it (true). Therefore, have someone else deal with it (false). Avoiding the thought of aging does not prevent death from coming. You can outsource your anxiety to a priest who will reassure you about ever-lasting life, but this does not alter the physical reality. Conversely, you can choose to live present life more profoundly by expressing yourself through that change process called growth. Not to do so means giving up your power, depth, and choice.
What are the effects of false assumptions about change—that change is bad/painful, a pre-formed product, and better handled by others? The primary effect is fear of change, and therefore a failure to learn how to engage change well.
Modern research shows that threat shuts down the parts of the brain associated with learning, and that encouragement opens up and empowers these learning parts of the brain. In short, if you see change as a threat, you will not be able to learn from it. If you see change as an intriguing opportunity you will prosper in learning change.
Thinking of change as “a done deal,” created by others and voted on by you, is not much better than fearing change, because this assumption reinforces passiveness in the face of change, and intensifies the desire to offload choices regarding change to others—politicians, experts, etc.
These effects combined together give one the impression that change is a consumer commodity. The multi-billion dollar advertising industry knows this and thrives on placing appliance ads (and your opportunity to buy “pleasant change”) next to newspaper stories of unpleasant change— wars, famines, tornadoes, and robberies.
The suburban American Dream, with its McMansions and big barbecue grills, is really just an updated (but just as primitive) version of the cave with a fire, a sanctuary of material comfort amidst the dangerous, swirling world of change outside.
But in a world that is seeking to move past mere survival toward thriving, a consumer ethic around change is no longer adequate. Witness the story of an internet forum contributor who spends all his time consuming books and writing journals on change without getting anywhere:
“Why do (I) fear change? Even if it can bring good things? I’ve tried to change so many, many times but, so far, have always failed. Am I actually afraid of changing? And, if so, why? How can I overcome this fear?…
(S)elf-help books: I must have every title. I read them, get excited about the info they give, change a little but just go back to the way I was again. I journaled for five years. When I started to look back on what I’d written one year before it was exactly how I was today, two years before, just the same, etc. The same problems, nothing had changed, only I had gotten older. I could write a book on self-help. I can advise others, but I can’t seem to change. 101 exercise regimes started, but I quit them all. I’m in a job/career that I’ve always wanted to leave but never have. I’d have opportunities to go into other careers, but I’ve not. I was on the brink of changing my life but I just got so scared and scurried back to the life that is making me lifeless. Afraid I’d miss my friends, the way of life that is familiar to me. This safety net I have I guess? I must be afraid of change. Why? I wish I knew, and if I did, maybe I could resolve this terrible problem that is just frustrating me so so much.” (DustyMan) (http://www.uncommonforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=76058)
Notice how thoroughly the previously identified false assumptions are embedded in DustyMan’s predicament. 1) He experiences intense doses of fear around change, shutting down his ability to learn effectively about change and persist in improvement, 2) He is consuming products that he hopes will give him the magic bullet, 3) He is looking for some higher authority to give him the keys to success. Change remains external to him.
Change must have an internal component, a committed attitude of encouragement and curiosity around change (“What am I capable of? Let’s see.”). DustyMan cannot “be” change without “becoming” friends with change. He cannot become friends with change if he does not invite the creative, connective prospect of change into his character.
Responding effectively to unexpected change
“It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear… It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.” (Marilyn Ferguson)
Even change done “to you” can be transformed into change done “from you” by your proactive response. What if you are fired from a job? What if your loved one suddenly dies of a heart attack? What if you get in an accident and lose the use of your legs?
Proactive response to change is the difference between a paraplegic who trains for the Paralympics and one who falls into a depression and shuts himself in his home. We see and know this difference. But somehow it does not register in our general attitudes toward change.
Traumatic changes are almost always considered a curse, and pleasant changes a blessing. Then we simply go about trying to minimize the traumatic and maximize the pleasant, tally them up, and calculate whether we’ve had a good life.
We rarely ask the question, as I was forced to when moving to the Philippines, “Can traumatic changes accelerate self-awareness and focus?” “Can pleasant changes make life just interesting enough to avoid boredom but secure enough to live in shallow complacency?”
Initiating and developing change
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” (Marianne Williamson)
What examples of positive, thoughtful, caring change we can learn from? Actually, there are many if we just look around. These three short videos below are good demonstrations.
What do these videos have in common? They all embrace positive change as a “what if” experiment, a dazzling alternative, an invitation to a meaningful life. Therein lies the genius of change. It is both the pathway to and the fountain from which conviction and purpose spring. These people get energy and meaning out of change, and so can you.
Change of frame: In this video (“A Twelve Year Old Tells Us How the Banks Are Robbing Us”), Victoria Grant, calls out the corruption of the Canadian private banking system. She is articulate and gutsy. She provides policy alternatives. If Victoria represents even a sliver of the future generations, then there is hope for positive change.
Change of heart: This inspirational video (“The Greatest Man on Earth!”) shows an Indian chef and a Brahmin who used to work at a top restaurant before opening his heart and providing delicious food, grooming, and clothing to the hungry, suffering, and poor on India’s streets.
Change of life: What I like about this more pragmatic video (“The High Price of Materialism”) is its concise demonstration of how we can actually improve our standard of living by owning less and sharing more. Sustainable change can actually be a step up, rather than a step down.
As these videos show, we can embrace our highest human possibilities by engaging change constructively. These videos also demonstrate that if we fail to courageously and consciously work for mindful, positive change we will leave thoughtless, destructive change in our wake.
The present situation is clear. We have created far greater threats by trying to avoid change, then by accepting the challenge of change. Our refusals to change our wasteful ways, our addictions to personal comfort, and our tendencies to exploit others, have created greater environmental, political, and economic instability, not less.
Even now, when the consequences are in our face, we still resist the need for deep changes. For all the rhetoric of “reform” and “change you can believe in” in education, economics, politics, and the environment, precious little substantive change has been initiated and sustained. Perhaps, we are avoiding future blame or running from past guilt.
When we embrace change, we replace these small and static conceits with the desire for initiative and movement.
Let’s take up change as a joy, rather than a grim necessity. Let’s make change an invited, pleasurable part of how we learn. We will be straining against every habit of our industrial training, our deeply engrained emotional, institutional, and cultural habits.
However, if we pull this off, a powerful liberation will emerge. No longer will we be hiding away in our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual caves, because now we can live with each other and appreciate the gift of change that we have created together.
In this viral, interconnected world, small change influences can assert large effects. Conscious change that you embrace now can have a multiplied result. Therefore, seize the opportunity and challenge of change in what deeply calls you, and work with others to become more dynamic participants in the shaping of our world.
Now is time to make good. Now is the time to make change good.
Please offer your own change story in the comments. How have you engaged change proactively?