What To Do About Change

Change is a very tricky thing. When I first began practicing psychology in the 1970′s and was considerably more active on the ‘low end’ talk circuit (that would be the noon-hour library lecturer and professional development day talking head), it became immediately clear that I needed to develop some ‘canned content’. I settled on one of the more durable topics of the time: stress.  The collection of ‘overheads’ grew to the point where I could just pull them off the shelf; and talking about stress didn’t actually add to my own levels. Assembling one of the resilient packages, Stress: Symptoms, Sources, Solutions, led me to a few resources that continue to illuminate.
Hans Selye, the Hungarian endocrinologist who coined the term ‘stress’, theorized that it is the adjustment to change in our lives that sets us up for the physiological changes that we experience as ‘stress’. One of his major contributions, the General Adaptation Syndrome, documents the disturbing impact that change has on us and our various organs — particularly if it’s unrelenting or experienced in large doses. One of his most surprising findings was that change of any kind (that would be the good, sought after things as well as the less desirable variety!) has the same impact.  We get stressed. 
Which led me to another, now decades-old bit of intelligence: the Life Change Scale. There are lots of variations around (here’s a pretty typical version: http://www.montana.edu/wwwcc/docs/life-change.html); but the message is the same in all cases: each time we endure a shift in circumstances — desired or not, planned or not — we increase our ‘stress score’. The contention is, quite correctly, that if we accumulate too many ‘stress points’ in too short a time period, we get sick.  If you take a minute and follow the above link, you’ll see that getting divorced, being fired, or losing someone close to you, predictably, take a significant toll. But then so does getting married, being hired, and celebrating Christmas! Hmm? No wonder so many of us are ‘change phobic’.
Fast forward to the current millennium. Stress is no longer treat of the week (guess I’ll have to recycle all those overheads). Mindfulness is the new big thing (fortunately, I have a Power Point ready to go at the drop of a Shriner’s Club fez). We’re encouraged to walk, sit, drive, exercise, eat, speak, . .  all mindfully, with complete and present awareness.  And one of the essential underpinnings that this ‘way of being’ addresses is, guess what? Change. In fact, one of the three ‘characteristics of existence’ is — impermanence. Change, by any other name. So now what do we do? On the one hand we have the good Dr. Selye telling us that each time we endure a change in our circumstance, we add a couple of ticks to our stress score. And, on the other hand, Buddha is saying ‘suck it up buttercup — change happens, get used to it’!
The awareness that prompted this week’s offering came out of a conversation — well, actually a single exchange in that conversation — that my wife and I were having with our lawyer recently. Redoing our wills — funny how those institutions that seemed so deserving a decade ago, have lost their sheen — the query came: ‘and if she predeceases you, what’s your vision?’ Definitely the chronological ‘senior partner’ in this marriage, I hadn’t really considered this possibility very seriously before.  My response, without a lot of need to reflect: ‘well, I’d sell the house, buy a condo and bicycle till I drop’. The pebble tossed into the still, make that static pond! It instantly occurred to both my wife and me, that we needn’t wait until one of us dies to consider all sorts of possibilities. And as the ripples spread out from that epicenter, change or its potential had begun to happen. Or more properly, to be allowed to happen (as it inevitably will) and to be embraced. 
And with that awareness, the reconciliation of Selye and Buddha. What these two gentleman share (at the very least) is a dispassionate view of change: one the scientist, the other the metaphysician. Change is neither good, nor evil — it just is. What provides its ‘valence’, it’s weightiness and accordingly, it’s potential for ill, is our response, reaction, or resistance to it. Bhante Gunaratana, in Mindfulness in Plain English sums up the Buddhist position succinctly:
we human beings live in a very peculiar fashion. We view impermanent things as permanent, though everything is changing all around us. The process of change is constant and eternal. . . You set up a collection of mental constructions (‘me’, ‘a book’, ‘a building’) and you assume that they are solid, real entities. . . that they would endure forever. Tun[ing] into the constant change, . . you can learn to perceive your life an an ever-flowing movement. (p. 34-35)

The difficulty with change, then, is not that it exists or happens. The problem derives from our attachment to things, people, states that we would have endure, unchanging; and equally, to our avoidance of, our fight against things that we would have out of our lives, that we find distressing, unpleasant, irritating. My wife’s ‘implicit’ expectation was that, whomever of us survived the other, they would continue to occupy a home into which we had put significant energy and resources, having ‘gotten it just like we wanted it’.  And I, until the pivotal query, had shared that view — without awareness, evidently. The freeing thought it seems was a ‘thinking outside the static box’ moment. When we cultivate a readiness to ‘consider the alternative’, we begin to ‘de-stress’ change. When we fully accept the impermanence of things, we reduce our resistance, we become more flexible . . . and a whole lot less stressed.

And Your Mother Wears Army Boots. . .

I did not attend his funeral; but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.

Mark Twain

Some cause happiness wherever they go; some, whenever they go.

Oscar Wilde

He has all the virtues I dislike; and none of the vices I admire.

Winston Churchill

I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend … if you have one.

George Bernard Shaw, (to Winston Churchill)

Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second, if there is one.

(Churchill’s reply)

What is it that’s so gratifying about getting in a good zinger — at someone else’s expense?  A new book by William Irvine, a philosophy professor at a U.S. university contends that, under some circumstances, the barb, the insult can constructive — even a sign of approval and affection. One can well imagine that Shaw and Churchill were neither offended nor alienated by the above exchange. In A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt and Why They Shouldn’t, Irvine identifies a number of circumstances wherein the ‘unsult’ (as he terms endearing teasing amongst friends and family) is a sign of acceptance and a check-in on one’s status within that group. With certain conditions applied (and that’s the kicker), such ‘teasing’ reassures that one ‘matters’ in and to a group: no insult equals no relevance or interest in you by other group members.
He goes on to characterize the carefully crafted zinger as a form of ‘permitted disrespect’ between adult male friends. Think back to those inglorious high school days when, if a buddy didn’t punch you in the shoulder on meeting or departing, it was almost certainly a bad thing. Or even earlier, failing to be pushed into a snow bank or tripped in the hallway meant your peer status had slipped a notch or two. The verbal gibe, in Irvine’s view, is the grownup version of same.
Or in spousal relationship, reportedly the (carefully crafted) effect is relief of tension, without direct confrontation; pointing up of a concern, without eliciting defensiveness or shutting down the conversation. Hmm? Similarly, amongst friends or co-workers the point can be a ‘non-threatening’ vehicle for bringing irritating issues to one’s attention — without straining the relationship. Again, hmm?
What a very fine line one walks, however, in this world of witty repartee. It would seem to require a careful assessment of one’s pre-existing status with the intended target. Too little familiarity and one risks open offense. (In high school currency, punch the stranger in the shoulder and . . . look out!) Too intimate a relationship and the impact of one’s ‘obtuse wit’ is that of hurt or resentment. In the beginnings of relationship, the casual bit of sarcasm is accepted as an endearing part of the ‘come on’ (hopefully); later on it’s more likely to be seen as a betrayal by ‘the only one I can count on to be open and honest’ (regrettably).
Or if the intended recipient is a bit literal, or worse, utterly humorless; the gibe risks becoming a gauntlet, tossed down. In the age of email the accepted wisdom is that use of subtlety and irony are shoal-laden waters — misunderstood intent and ‘emotional tone’ being all too common. No opportunity to see the wink, the inclusion of punctuated pictograms ;-) aside.
I have long been a devotee of satire and allegory. Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver’s Travels fame, thoroughly won me over with his Modest Proposal (http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html) wherein he suggests that a solution to the ‘Irish Problem’ might simply be to have them eat their healthier children. Much, perhaps too much, of my earlier ranting took the form of thinly concealed irony intended to pillory those institutions (and on occasion, individuals) with whom I had issue. I have rarely shirked from employing the veiled insult. I cannot recall, however, the last time, that such was employed as a ‘term of endearment’, a testing of my rank in a particular hierarchy, or a problem-solving, conflict-resolution strategy. (Truth be told, it was likely in late high school: sweet on a particular girl and too socially awkward to simply ask her for a date, I chose instead to ‘insult’. Years later — the acquaintance survived for some time in spite of me — she shared that she was convinced I disliked her. And why would she consent to spend time with someone who evidently hated her? Didn’t work then and won’t work now!)
With the evolution of the ‘insult’ from what Irvine calls the Golden Age [populated by the Twain's, the Wilde's, the (Mae) West's, and the Churchill's] to the era of Don Rickles, Dennis Miller, Chris Brown — where curse has replaced class, rant displaced rhetoric, invective outranks intellect — perhaps it’s time to revisit the simple Buddhist parameters of ‘Right Speech’: speak the truth, in a timely and helpful fashion. Nothing wrong with a good insult — but it will ever be mean-spirited, intended to hurt, one-up, or put down, and be rooted in anger, veiled or overt . . . and little more. Let’s not dignify it as a ‘therapeutic intervention’.

Traveling The Road Not Taken

Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch
Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.
Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

Philip Larkin, The Importance of Elsewhere

Fifteen years ago, I had the good fortune to attend the Courtauld Impressionist exhibit at the AGO in Toronto. Wandering past the jaw-dropping wonders of the Monet’s, Manet’s, van Gogh’s, and Degas’, I came into a room devoted largely to Cezanne. Never my ‘favorite’ (whatever that might mean when we’re talking art of this magnificence!) and already overwhelmed by what I’d seen, I was prepared to move relatively quickly through this space. But I couldn’t. I found myself rooted to the spot and staring at the several views of Mont St. Victoire, a favored subject of this artist, with the growing awareness that I’d missed something very profound — not that day, but some three decades earlier.
That road had led me to Aix en Provence in 1969 where I was somewhat serendipitously ‘stuck’ for three months while I waited for parts for my motorcycle. I wiled away the time in this beautiful Romanesque city in the south of France, sitting in cafes, making shallow acquaintance of the rich variety of peer-aged students associated with the various institutes and universities, picnicking in the foothills below that very Victoire — and all the while, all but oblivious to this being the home of Paul Cezanne. That day at the AGO, I’d been granted a second entry — and this time I noticed.
Our conversation began, as it so often does, with a question from my wife: did I think it was foolish for one her age to be investing so much time and energy into studying music at what amounted to a beginner’s level? She’d just finished a weekly, online theory class with an extraordinary teacher, the ‘classroom’ populated by two other students, both bare adolescents (if that), one of whom has successfully completed her grade 10 music performance requirements, the penultimate in piano. The musical equivalent of entering university at age 12! Cowed by this young gal’s musical prodigy and feeling somewhat overmatched, my wife was nonetheless a little confused by the degree to which this young and future performer struggled with the ‘architecture’ that musical theory comprises; at once, hugely proficient in the playing, but lacking in the (ultimately) essential foundations that allow for a full appreciation of the ‘language’.
Our discussion broadened to the more validating view that, by revisiting her musical training — begun in her adolescence and progressing to grade 6 at the time — my wife too was taking a ‘second go’ at that road not taken the first time, at least in any real sense of the phrase, and throughly steeping herself in its richness. The purpose this time round was not ‘getting there as fast as I can’ — but truly enjoying and experiencing the trip. And perhaps as importantly, noticing that the second opportunity had presented at all. 
This week’s CBC Tapestry segment (http://www.cbc.ca/tapestry/episode/2013/02/22/lamenting-the-road-not-taken/) underscores the choices we have when confronted with the awareness that we’ve ‘made a wrong turn’ and perhaps opted for a path that, at present feels unfulfilling; or an opportunity missed. Mary Hynes’ conversation with Adam Phillips is an examination of the ways in which we often pine for the ‘the other fork’, the one that would almost certainly have made us happy (or at least happier than we now feel). We mourn, we compare the ‘what is’ with the ‘what could have been’, we become obsessed with the ‘gap’, the shortfall — and we embrace a recipe for continuing sadness, frustration, discontent.
Phillips’ thesis, in part, addresses what we could be doing with that other road. He contends that our ‘laments’ are in fact useful material that might reflect aspirations, dreams, goals that can and perhaps should be explored in one’s current life position — not merely employed as ‘war stories’ or badges of ‘victimhood’, nostalgic reminiscences.   He also explores the (almost cliched by now) concept of ‘being present’ and how the ‘other road’ represents a ‘stuck in the past’ comparator that seductively insulates us from our present lives and inevitably is destined to be our own Glass Menagerie — a lifelong longing for what might have been.
The Larkin poem that heads this piece, captures the essence of this concept. An Englishman in Ireland, he embraces ‘the difference’ and as a result feels welcomed, ‘in touch’ with his immediate, though ‘foreign’ setting. Returning home to the routine dissatisfactions of his own country, he shifts, conscious that dreaming of a better place, away from what is serves no purpose and that his task now is to fashion a co-existence with, an acceptance of this immediate reality. A very succinct statement of Kabat-Zinn’s ‘Wherever you go, there you are’ concept!

A regular mindfulness practice affirms all of the foregoing aspects of that other road. It teaches us to notice, allow, and engage the present reality. It apprises us of the folly of being stuck in the past; or, alternately, fearing for or expectantly (and possibly, unrealistically) awaiting the future for what it might contain — but probably won’t — be it angst or redemption.
A personal thought: the next time the other the other fork presents, take it, ‘again, for the first time’. The analyst, Robert Johnson, in his brief but very compelling little volume, He, supports this suggestion in the most poetic of ways. Within the context of the Parsifal story in the Legend of King Arthur, Johnson describes this callow and foolish youth’s stumbling into the Grail Castle, with the opportunity to fully engage all his hopes and dreams — merely by asking the right question. In Johnson’s words:
Every youth blunders his way into the Grail castle and has a vision that shapes much of the rest of his life. Like Parsifal, he is unprepared for this and does not have the possession to ask the question that would make the experience conscious and stable within him. . . (and) the next morning find(s) himself back in the ordinary world. . . No youth can cope with this opening of the Heavens and most set it aside, but do not forget it. . . A few, like Parsifal spend the rest of their lives searching for the Castle again. . . (while) one has to only “go down the road, turn left, and cross the drawbridge” (to quote the Fisher King).