A new chapter in life seems like it should be a subtle change; after all, it’s the same book. However, “things are not always what they seem.” For example, a change might not be a new chapter at all; it might be sort of like a new paragraph, but more than a paragraph. Or, what you thought was change might really be the same thing, in disguise or with a twist.
I’ve come a long way baby (1968 Virginia Slims cigarette campaign) but am keenly aware that I have miles to go before I sleep (Robert Frost poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening). These contradictory quotes slightly explain the confusion many of us feel with the happenings of this Spring, 2020. It’s a surreal time with cultural and social change becoming the new normal (a twenty-first century adaptation to change).
Even subtle change can throw you off kilter a little bit. When I think of off kilter, I see the image of a pin-ball machine and hear the ding-ding-ding of the little, metal ball going awry and throwing everything out of whack; off balance. Or, when I’ve squeezed too many pairs of jeans into one load of laundry, and the machine takes on a life of its own, rocking the entire house – that’s off kilter and it applies to these “times they are a changing” (Bob Dylan).
It’s well known in social science that even good change, like marriage, birth of a child, a new job, or a positive move for a promotion or something similarly terrific, meets with a stress reaction in a person’s body and mind. We have no control over this reaction; I guess you could say it’s autonomic – it just happens, like it or not.
It seems that sudden or long and dragged out; being prepared or unprepared, have little to do with the shocking emotional impact that change has on one’s life. Change is jarring and inevitable. We want to welcome it, receive it genially, but never really do. I like to think I’m pulling off a Grace Kelly in changeable circumstances but what comes out of me is more like Lucille Ball.
A few years ago, our seventeen-year-old cat, Mikayla Jane (Mickey) passed. I had been taking care of her 24/7 for several weeks, as she had slipped from dementia into deafness, blindness, and relative incontinence. As every hospice or palliative caregiver knows, your life becomes fairly saturated with care. You care for and you care about that one’s every need. You’re alert to subtle signs and signals, and even to unexpressed, potential needs. You’re there for them, all the time, hyper-vigilant.
When we lost Mickey, I grieved far deeper than I had expected to grieve. Because we knew she was close to the end of her days, I expected to quietly mourn her loss, shed a few tears and move on in the peaceful knowledge that she would struggle no more. I was surprised, however, at the emptiness I felt and the potent sense of loss I experienced in her absence. In fact, I had a panic dream where I urgently had to get a blanket for her because she might be cold.
The change from presence to absence was palpable and disquieting. Quietness, that I usually treasure, felt somehow alien. Being by myself in the house, also a condition I generally cherish, felt lonely – a feeling I can say I’ve only rarely experienced. I’m not sure one can ever be ready or prepared for the change associated with loss.
In the Gospel of Thomas, which is considered to be extra-biblical wisdom literature, I noticed a fascinating and critical expansion of Jesus’ familiar words from Matthew 7:7:
“Ask and it will be given to you,
Seek and you will find,
Knock and the door will be opened to you.”
The Gospel of Thomas version is:
“If you are searching,
You must not stop until you find.
When you find, however,
You will become troubled.
Your confusion will give way to wonder.
In wonder you will reign over all things.”
The surprise in Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Thomas, is that when we find what we’ve been searching for, it’s not instant joy and ecstasy. Albeit temporary, it’s trouble and confusion. That surprising outcome of seeking and finding is the thing that throws us off guard.
When we played hide-and-seek as children, finding was the end of the game. So, as adults we feel disconcerted at the realization that when we find what we’ve been searching for, we’re not at our destination; we’re just at another intersection. “Oh my,” said Dorothy at an intersection on the yellow brick road, or was it at the sight of lions, tigers, and bears, along the journey?
A conversation with my daughter reminded me that without discomfort we won’t change. As long as we’re feeling good and nothing gets in the way of the status quo, we stay where we are, how we are.
Apparently, we need a prod to move us out of our comfort zone. I think of the prod as a similar mechanism to the thorn in the Apostle Paul’s side (2 Cor 12:7). His thorn was an ever-present reminder to him not to get too puffed-up at the abundance of revelations he received; to keep him balanced. Paul’s thorn hurt, and, not a masochist, he asked God, three times, to remove it. However, in that his thorn remained ensconced in his side, one can assume, Paul accepted it. He effectively said, “it is what it is and I might as well let it serve its purpose.”
Everything new is strange – change is strange. The late David Bowie asked many years ago, (Changes 1971-2), are we ready to face the strange? Shall we become chameleon’s, reinvent ourselves, and adapt to the rapid-fire changes confronting us as we circle this cultural carousel, jacked up on caffeine? Or, shall we sit quietly and observe the merry-go-round and wait for what goes around to come back around?
In whatever style we choose to receive change, some of which may result from a national election, perceived racism, COVID19 ramifications, and general malaise or unrest, we can be certain “ch-ch-change,” and lots of it will come. And, most assuredly there will be many births, maybe even baby-boom 2.0. So, we can also look forward to burps, coos, giggles, and sleepless nights with a purpose as part of the changes that come before 2020 bids adieu.