Change works like a game of tag, “Coming, ready or not.” First job, love at first sight, new baby, empty nest, retirement, climate change, globalization? Coming. Ready or not. Change offers little warning, usually only noticed after the fact. As Margaret Wheatley said,
Life doesn’t know what it will be until it notices what it has become.
Change’s signals come in the form of grey hair, morning sickness, another birthday, erratic weather patterns etc. So the challenge of change is to move with it, rather than fighting against it. Trying to force the world to change according to our personal timetable and wishes is a futile battle with reality. So what, other than waiting and watching, is our role when it comes to change?
Georg Hegel, an 18th century German philosopher, may have some clues. He said that, from the broadest, 30,000 feet perspective, change follows predictable patterns. You may only see the patterns after the fact, and when I say after I mean decades or centuries after the fact. But the high level patterns give you perspective and a map to discern future changes.
At the level of real time detail, change is chaotic and a constant give and take. It happens through a process of conflict and struggle. Hegel described change as a “bacchanalian whirl” which describes the chaos of change at a detail level. If you can stay awake while chaos whirls around you, and stay focused on the larger historical perspective that EVERYTHING is always in flux, then you neither become dogmatic in your own opinions nor disillusioned that systems can never change.
This is my dumbed down version of Hegel, the KISS version. Keep it simple. You might have heard of Hegel’s philosophy of kissing. The Hegelian kiss is a dialiptical technique in which the kiss incorporates its own antithikiss, eventually forming a synthekiss.
An idea that has become status quo is called the thesis. The thesis eventually runs out of steam or is questioned strongly enough and its antithesis (opposite) emerges. It’s out of the conflict between thesis and antithesis that a new synthesis is born. This is how change works. You question something when it isn’t working any longer and wrestle with a new solution.
One of the reasons that this is a powerful and positive perspective on change is that none of it is personal. We are always in the middle of change. Its natural and while it feels intensely personal, change has no personal agenda for your life. It just is, and you decide how you will make it meaningful.
In practical terms, this means that change always comes bearing gifts. It is the gift of new opportunity, fresh starts and the ability to respond in new ways. This fun story describes the ability to respond to change in powerful ways.
A man goes to a tailor to try on a new custom-made suit. The first thing he notices is that the sleeves are too long.
“No problem,” says the tailor. “Just bend them at the elbow and hold them out in front of you. See, now it’s fine.”
“But the collar is up around my ears!”
“It’s nothing. Just hunch your back up a little… No, a little more… That’s it.”
“But I’m stepping on the bottom of the pants. They’re too long!” the man cries in desperation.
“No, bend your knees a little to take up the slack. There you go. Look in the mirror–the suit fits perfectly.”
So, twisted like a pretzel, the man lurches out onto the street. Two women see him go by.
“Oh, look,” says one, “that poor man!”
“Yes,” says the other, “but what a beautiful suit and what an amazing tailor to make a suit that fits him.”
When looking at the state of your life or the state of the world, you can either curse the Emperor for having no clothes, or you can accept that truth often arrives in an ill fitting suit before growing into a reality that fits like hand and glove, at least for a while before you grow out of that too.
Let me end with one last analogy. What is truth? Is it a fixed point, or is it a moveable feast of constant becoming? Greek philosophers like Aristotle said that truth is truth because of what it is in its true nature. Take a table for example. Aristotle would say that the truth about the table is that it’s a table. Hegel pushed a step further. He said that at one point the table was a tree and one day it will become ashes. The table is one expression of a higher truth that is always becoming. This is the way that change works.
As you discern the best way to navigate change in your life and in the world, remember that truth is always becoming. You are always becoming. The most optimistic point I can make is that, like the table, you are ALWAYS who and where you need to be in each moment, becoming exactly what the future demands of you. You don’t have to know the future and you don’t have to be the person who can manage the future. Just manage now. You have all that you need for now. See your life and change from that perspective, and nothing can disrupt your steady optimism.
Nothing ever truly begins or ends. Everything is always becoming. Hegel said that this process of becoming is a constant give and take, preserving what is healthy from the past and negating what is no longer helpful. This is a powerful way to look at personal change and social activism. What will you preserve and what will you release? This will decide who you will become.
I end with a snugly fitting quote from leadership guru, Robert Cooper-
Aristotle said, ‘Time does not exist except for change.’ The origin of the word change is the Old English cambium, which means “to become.” In other words, time does not exist except for becoming something new. What, exactly, are you choosing to become?