Conversations with Fear

Change: March 1, 2001

     "Let's talk about change," I said, "of which an anonymous person wrote, 'you can't change the past, but you can ruin a perfectly good present by worrying about the future.' Another way of looking at change is that a present without a past has no future."
     "Why do you want to talk about change?" asked Fear.
     "Because I find it a paradox that I've been trying to understand most of my life."
     "How so?"
     "Think of a apple," I began. "It marches along the continuum of change from unripe, to ripe, to overripe. If I pick it too soon, it will be crisp but sour. If I pick it just right, it will be crisp and sweet. If I pick it too late, it will be sweet but mushy. My task, therefore, is to pick and eat it at the precise moment of ripeness, which raises the question: if things are ever-changing, is anything constant? The answer, or course, is yes, because change itself is constant! A constant, in turn, is something that is invariable or unchanging. If everything were constant, change would not exist. That's the paradox.
     "Yet we're comfortable with that which appears constant because it lulls us into thinking that we know what to expect, that we're in control. We therefore exert our best efforts to avoid change in ways we're not even aware of—forgetting that what flows and is flexible is also able to change and grow, whereas what is blocked and rigid must either be broken open to grow or else it atrophies and dies.
     "Artists and scientists realize that no solution to any problem is ever final, that each new creative step only points the way to a next artistic or scientific problem begging inquiry. On the other hand, those who embrace ideas in the way organized religion embraces its dogma see their ideas as unshakable and permanent. Such thinking can neither be modified nor subjected to rational argument because the believer has invested so heavily in his or her belief system. Here the irony is that one person's 'faith' is another's 'delusion.'
     "Although at times it may seem that change can be avoided, in reality it's not possible because change is the continual flow of unknowable and unpredictable relationships, which fit precisely into one another in time and space and are constantly changing, which lead to choices, which lead to actions, which become events laden with consequences. Thus each change is a cause that creates an effect that becomes the cause of another effect  ad infinitum, which means that everything is in a constant process of becoming something else.
     "A flower or condition seems perfect, but then changes, suddenly, dramatically, and perfection seems lost, unless, of course, I see the process of change itself as perfect—not just its momentary condition. Change is a continuum, which may reach a momentary pinnacle of harmony within my senses. Then the process that created the harmony, which in itself is perfect, takes that sense of harmony away and replaces it with something else, always with something else.
     "To understand the relationship between knowledge, change, and uncertainty, one must first understand the relationship of past, present, and future. The past determines the present, and the past and the present together determine the future. Within this journey of time, change comes on many levels and in many dimensions, such as that which we can control and that which we can't, large and small, gradual and sudden. In that sense, Change is creation and Creation is change. Besides, change is inevitable, yet so many people seek to avoid it at almost any cost."
     "Geez, you're long winded! Of course change is inevitable," said Fear. "Other than your death, there are no quarentees in life—only risks, and every percieved risk is brought about by the uncertainty of change. But out of curiosity, when did you first become consciously aware of change?"
     "While watching the ditch tiger eat, which I wrote about in  The Secrets of My Ditch."
     "So, you're not afraid of death?" asked Fear with ever-so-slight a smirk.
     "No, I don't think so, but there are ways I would prefer to go—ways that are quiet and gentle, when change is not so swift and dramatic as the hunting behavior of the ditch tiger."
     "Despite the fact that I'm probably just be winding you up," said Fear with misgivings, "what kind of change do you have in mind?"
     "Well, when I was a boy in the 40s and 50s, life was much slower than it is today and seemed less stressful. In those days, it was not uncommon to hear that this person or that had died peacefully in his or her sleep, despite the fact that some of them had been healthy. I seldom hear that today."
     "That's not the answer I expected," said Fear.
     "No, I don't suppose it is. Nevertheless, I now realize that all things have within them the seeds of becoming something else. All dimensions of change are fluid and dynamic, flowing together as rivulets that flow together as streams that flow together as rivers that flow together into the sea, where all waters merge and become dimensionless only to form again in the great cycle of raindrops, ice crystals, and snowflakes. Change by its very nature is the creative process and a constant in the Universe. Change, therefore, is the Universe.
     "Change seems often to force us to balance between extremes of risk and no risk during the course of living. The turtle, for example, must accept risk every day just to live. It has but two choices, to withdraw its head from the outside world into the safety of its shell and starve to death or risk sticking its head out into the world to find food. One's own life and worldview, like the turtle's, also contracts or expands in proportion to one's courage to risk embracing change.
     "The fear of risk is born of self-doubt—the thief of dreams. People who are afraid of risk lead a planned life, which is a closed life that can be endured perhaps, but not really lived."
     "I resent your using my name in connection with the 'thief of dreams,'" snapped Fear.
     "Well, aren't you the 'thief of dreams?' You certainly tried to steal mine for enough years. It's only by the Grace of the Eternal that I was able to thwart you!"
     "Do you have any idea how I hate it when you say that?"
     "No, and I don't really care because we must each stick our necks out daily if we're to grow either in the worldly sense or in the spiritual sense. In other words, appropriate risks appropriately taken are a necessary ingredient if life is to be lived fully and richly. This is but saying that if we're to realize fully the worth of our spiritual anchors, we must feel fully the force of life's storms—including your perpetual blusterings. Otherwise, we are, in a spiritual sense, among the 'living-dead,' which feeds right into your sick kingdom."
     "Don't you think it's also possible to be among the living-dead intellectually?"
     "Yes, of course. Why do you ask?"
     "Because of people like you. I mean, what in the Hell am I doing talking to you anyway?"
     "Well," I said looking at Fear, "you're the one that's been trying to persuade me you're invincible, but I don't believe it because I've learned that any paradigm that has become comfortable has also become self-limiting. Especially yours! So those who cling to your paradigm  are among the living-dead intellectually—and spiritually—because new information, such as that proffered by Love, will not and cannot fit into the old way of thinking. Each paradigm is thus a carefully constructed impervious, rigid membrane of time-limited tradition.
     "Tradition, like the outer shell or exoskeleton of an insect, hardens with age and must periodically be broken if a new thought-form is to grow, a new vision is to move the individual or society forward. But an insect that has crawled out of the split in its old exoskeleton is soft and vulnerable to predation until its new exoskeleton hardens. Yet it's precisely during this time of softness and vulnerability that the insect can grow. Once its exoskeleton begins to harden, growth must cease because, locked inside the hardening shell, there's no room to expand.
     "Traditional thinking is much like an insect's rigid exoskeleton in that personal growth requires one not only to break out of the traditional way of thinking but also to be vulnerable to criticism while one lets go of old ideas to explore and ultimately accept new ones. Mahatma Gandhi challenged each one of us when he admonished that, we 'must  be the change…[we] wish to see in the world.' In fact, our only security lies in our ability to change, which is incredibly difficult for those whose total system of belief and personal identity is invested in an old paradigm—yours."
     "I heard you the first time!" interjected Fear. "I heard you the first time!"
     Continuing as though I hadn't heard it speak, I said, "But those who do subscribe to a new paradigm, whatever it may be, must understand and accept that the new paradigm can survive only because it is supported on the scaffolding of preceding paradigms, all of which were at one time new, young, and daring.
     "Those who would replace the old paradigm must be wise enough to carry forward into the new that of value from the old, for the day will come when the 'new' paradigm must also perish of old age. May we therefore be merciful to those who cling to outmoded views and remember that in their time they, too, were visionary and on the cutting-edge, but now are simply afraid of change—in other words, you've gotten to them, like you did to old Oliver the day the horse kicked him and broke his leg."
     "Now I know why you wanted to discuss change, so you could do all the talking!"
     "You may think that if you wish, but I need to lay the foundation as I understand it. After all, it's in the arena of change that I most often see your dark image infiltrate people's lives."
     "Oh! Well, please, proceed," said Fear with mock dignity.
     "I discovered some years ago," I continued, "why a few people succeed in their bid to transform their lives and grow beyond their present limitations while the majority do not. It has to do with our willingness to accept responsibility for the choices we make. The Buddha taught that an act, or a choice, is like an arrow: once it is shot, it cannot be stopped until it strikes the target. 'As a fletcher carefully makes straight his arrows,' said the Buddha, 'the wise man fashions his life.' And just in case you don't know, a 'fletcher' is the person who attaches the feathers to an arrow so that its flight might be straight and true."
     "I know that!" interrupted Fear.
     "Sorry; no insult intended.
     "We're all products of our choices, of our decisions; we're not victims of life. We make hundreds of decisions every day and each decision represents a choice, although most of us are not aware of all that our decisions have meant in shaping our lives.
     "Each decision is a fork in our road of life; each fork is an alternative and a choice. The direction of our lives is a result of many little decisions; a few we remember; most we don't because they're made unconsciously. According to the Samurai Tsunetomo, 'the right and wrong of one's way of doing things are found in trivial matters,' which is but saying that we tend to remember the momentous decisions, the ones we consciously make, but we seldom realize that a single big decision is merely a collection of little, apparently trivial, decisions made along the way. We give a little here, and again a little there, and eventually we have positioned ourselves in an entirely new direction.
     "I used to think I had easy decisions and difficult ones—like booting your scrawny butt out of my life. Now…"
     "Scrawny butt! Who has a scrawny butt?"
     "As I was saying, now I know all decisions are easy, like the snap of fingers. The difficult part is getting psychologically and emotionally ready to make the decision, which is a process of making many little, often unconscious, decisions—assessments of risk and benefit, of perceived right and wrong, of conviction or indecision. We simply cannot get away from decisions. In this, we in fact have no choice, because to avoid a decision, in whatever ingenious manner we devise, is still to make a decision—but seldom the wisest one. And this, like change itself, is another paradox.
     "Our willingness to risk change is a measure of our inner conviction, which dictates the boldness of our decisions and the excitement and aliveness of our lives. This said, I'll be the first to admit that life at times seems risky because it's a continual process of getting used to the unexpected, like the first time I stepped across the fence into a cow pasture in western Idaho, where the whole surface of the ground undulated as though the grasses and the flowers were growing on a waterbed. My immediate thought was that I would disappear into the underworld without a trace.
     "Then I noticed that the cows broke through the sod up to their teats, which dragged on the grasses, but they didn't disappear as I expected them to. They were standing on firm ground below a layer of water that buoyed the floating sod on which grew the grasses and flowers of the pasture. So, the only risk I faced by walking into the pasture was getting wet up to my waist down.
     "We would be wise, therefore, when faced with uncertainty, to wait a few seconds, or even a minute or two, so a clear understanding of the situation can emerge, rather than bolt in retreat before we've gotten enough data to make a sound decision. Yet, how many times in life do we retreat in the face of discomfort? How…"
     "Not often enough! I can tell you that!" butted in Fear.
     "…many times do we eschew the opportunity put before us to actually sit in our discomfort, pain, grief, or terror long enough to move through it to the other side, where growth and self-mastery await?
     "Understanding change is a matter of consciousness of the effect caused by a thought and subsequent action; the more conscious we are, the more flexible is our thinking. Unconsciousness, in contrast, is the lack of understanding the relationship between a cause and its effect and the lack of discipline to achieve that understanding. The less conscious we are, the more rigid and immutable is our thinking. In the Hindu Upanishads, we are told that 'one comes to be of just such stuff as that on which the mind is set.'
     "We cannot stop change. We can only respond to it, and by our response, we may be able to alter to some extent its trajectory, speed, and outcome, or at least accommodate it. Remember, however, that choice comes from change and that change comes from the ability to choose. The great irony is that most people want choice without change, responsibility, or accountability."
     "But that's exactly what I offer them," chanted Fear with glee. "Why can't you see that? Why can't you accept that? Why must you go on and on and on about this inane notion of change as though it was something good and noble?"
     "Because you asked why I'm concerned with change? So I'm telling you. I'm interested in understanding change because we can only interact with the past, present, and future now, in the present moment, knowing full well that our every thought, word, and action of this moment either creates or destroys our future health, happiness, and peace.
     "All we have is the present, the here and now, with which we must interact. How we interact with the myriad stresses of continual change and why we behave as we do depends on whether we understand change as a fluid process to be embraced or perceive it as a terrifying condition to be avoided.
     "Because we tend to choose the latter, our insatiable need for 'factual' information is a desperate attempt to predict and control circumstances and to avoid the inevitable changes and often uncomfortable surprises they bring. Ironically, one great obstacle to change is the illusion of knowledge, which economists draw with bold strokes and imagined certainty, instantly serving hopes and terrors. Scientific theory, on the other hand, advances by slow, uncertain increments and contradiction, which paralyzes the timid with trepidation, making them cling tenaciously to the old view, the old data as a condition to be protected from potential change at any cost.
     "Afraid of the unknowable future—even if it will be better than a terrible present, people twist the best and most current information to justify avoiding change, which serves the purpose of not having to acknowledge the perceived truth of a situation, of rendering it invisible, or at least of describing it as purely subjective in a society that demands the  lie of objectivity. This all amounts to 'informed denial.' In this way, threatening voices that prophesy the necessity of change are silenced, and the whole truth of available knowledge remains hidden, which bears out the assertion of English biographer Lytton Strachey: 'Uninterpreted truth is as useless as buried gold.'
     "Must we face a personal and/or collective crisis or disaster, such as personal or ecological bankruptcy, before we are willing to seriously consider changing our thinking and our behavior? Must we, as a society, experience an environmental disaster of such unimaginable magnitude that we are in the maw of social—or even biological—extinction before we are willing to concede that we must change  now? It seem so, because as long as a person thinks he or she can maintain the status quo by winning agreement with his or her point of view, fundamental personal and social change is not even considered an option.
     "Strangely, however, it's our perception of the future that often becomes our truth about the present, a truth that is rooted in lessons from childhood, whether we are conscious of it or not, because that is how we have learned to cope with the change that determines the tenor of the rest of our lives. If I'm willing to risk being conscious of those formative lessons of my childhood secreted in the deepest recesses of my psyche, I can, with firm resolve, change myself, but I can't change circumstances.
     "And yet, despite what I think I understand about change, I still see your persistent influence in our social psyche because I believe what astrologer Alan Oken says: 'Man is much more afraid of the Light than he is of the Dark and will always shield his eyes against a truth that is brought to him prematurely. He will throw stones at it or even crucify it in order to remain in the comfortable shadow of his ignorance. But that is human nature and Man must not be condemned for his unconsciousness.'"
     "You see!" gloated Fear. "That's what I've been telling you! I make people comfortable, far more comfortable then you would have them be. Isn't that what I've been telling you? So why do you insist on agitating about change. Let it be. Can't you accept defeat gracefully?"
     "Defeat? What are you talking about? Change is inevitable, and we can learn something about it from Buddhism, the whole philosophy of which is based on the acceptance of change. The root of Buddhism is that flow and change are the basic features of Nature, and suffering arises whenever we resist the flow of life, whenever we try to control circumstances and cling to forms fixed in perception, such as things, events, people, or ideas.
     "It's futile to grasp life from a wrong point of view. We divide the world we perceive into individual and separate things out of ignorance and thus attempt to confine fluid forms of reality in unchanging, mental boxes. As long as we do this, we are bound to experience one frustration after another.
     "Trying to create anything fixed or permanent in life and then trying to cling to its perceived permanence is a vicious circle, which is driven by the eternal chain of cause and effect. As stated by the Buddha: 'It is the everlasting and unchanging rule of this world that everything is created by a series of causes and conditions and everything disappears by the same rule; everything changes, nothing remains constant.'
     "This idea, that everything is constantly changing, that nothing is permanent, can be viewed another way: acceptance of what is. What is, is. It can't be otherwise. I cannot, for example, control a circumstance, but I can control how I respond to it. If I simply accept the circumstance, I'm in control of myself; if I fight the circumstance and try to control it, it controls me. Thus, every great teacher throughout all time has taught that one must accept everything. Accept the way as it is shown to you. Let life come naturally like the unfolding of a flower.
     "There's a beautiful Sanskrit world  santosa, meaning 'contentment,' which is a true and gracious acceptance of where we are in life right now because it is exactly where we need to be for our spiritual development. Yet people in Western society spend an inordinate amount of time wanting circumstances to be different and being frustrated when they are not. Frustration results from refusing to accept what is, as it is, now. I cannot, for instance, control how the weather affects my garden in any given year, but I can accept the weather as it is, regardless of what it does to my garden, and thereby control how I react to it.
     "Because nothing seems fixed or constant in life (except change), no matter how much we insist on thinking it is, nothing is as it appears to be. The Eastern mystics have known that for centuries. They're well aware of the limitations imposed by language and 'linear' thinking, hence their paradoxical statements. Even modern physicists understand that verbal models and theories are only approximate and necessarily inaccurate. Everything we do is only approximate and necessarily inaccurate, which means life as we understand it is a working hypothesis.
     "It's certain, however, that I can't change history, and I can't change you or anyone else. I can only change myself. As I change myself, my perception of everything else changes.
     "Choice is the tool with which we overcome ourselves. It's here, amidst the myriad choices daily confronting us, we must recognize that as we think, so we create, either on the material plane or on the spiritual plane. And in creating, we are in creation. And we are either freed by our creations—those born of Love—or imprisoned by them—those born of fear.
     "The choice is ours, because we have free will, which means that each day, with pen in hand and an inkwell called choice, we write and rewrite, edit and re-edit our autobiographies. And change is the putty with which we mold and remold our character, the image we will one day see in the mirror of our soul.
     "As we edit the manuscripts of our lives, we make notations for purposes of clarification as our ever-evolving perceptions open new vistas to explore. Each notation is called a gloss, and each gloss is the seed of thought.
     "A gloss is a brief, explanatory note or translation of a difficult or technical expression usually inserted in the margin or between the lines of a text or manuscript. A glossary, therefore, is an expanded version of such notes. This is an important concept, because I find that I can't define anything in any language, which means I can't approach anything directly through language. Words, at best, are only metaphors for that which I can't grasp or explain, because they go beyond language to the center of the Universe, which encompasses all metaphors—all words.
     "Change is the creative process that keeps the world ever novel, interesting, and evolving. It's also a messenger of uncertainty and a tester of faith, which caused Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat to remark: 'My contemplation of life and human nature in that secluded place [prison cell 54] had taught me that he who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality, and will never, therefore, make any progress. The fact that change is a prerequisite of progress may be axiomatic; but the fact that change should take place first at a deeper level was one I had established as a basis of action ever since I discovered my real self in Cell 54.' Sadat's concept is carried a step further by French philosopher Henri Bergson, who said that 'to exist is to change; to change is to mature; to mature is to create oneself endlessly.'
     "As a babe, for example, I was tender, my skin smooth and soft, filled with the elasticity and possibilities of life. In adolescence, my skin was taut and supple as my strong muscles worked beneath it. Then came mid life and my skin began to change. It lost some of its softness, pliability, and smoothness as years of working in the hot sun and freezing cold, in the humid forests and dry deserts began taking their toll. And now, as I approach my mid sixties, the skin on the back of my neck has become leathery from decades of exposure to the weather, that of my arms is no longer drawn so taut, and an amazing variety of little beings—from warts, to brown spots, to moles—are taking up residence over my body as my skin ages. I feel like a walking zoo! Nevertheless, how gracefully I age will depend on how gracefully I accept the process of aging, the metaphorical season of change.
     "In addition, I have learned that while I cannot change what history has written, I can change myself and thereby influence what may be written in history as the future becomes the present and the present becomes the past."
     "Are you done? Are you quite finished?" sputtered Fear. "I've never heard so much useless drivel in all my life!"
     "Why is it 'drivel?' I've spent my whole life learning what change is and how to accept it."
     "It's drivel because, in truth, change isn't all it's cracked up to be. Change stinks! Besides which, it isn't necessary. That's why I counsel people to resist it at any cost.
     "And why isn't it necessary?" I demanded.
     "Because it's disruptive. It's fraught with uncertainty and discomfort, that's why."
     "And you, Fear, say my reasoning is drivel! That you're talking about 'truth!'" I said in disbelief. "I knew you were deluded, but I didn't think it was this bad."
     "Truth," retorted Fear, "is anything that brings subjects to my kingdom. If everyone were to change the way you do, there'd be nothing left for me, and I won't stand for that! You hear me? I won't stand for that! I'm sorry I ever got into these silly conversions with you. Enough already!"
     "You'll feel better next time."
     "I doubt it."
     "You'll see.
     "Well, I hope so!"

© chris maser 2001. All rights reserved.

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