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The Nature of Change

Finding the predictable in the unpredictable.

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist themthat only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. –Lao Tzu

Life happens, and what happens is something called change. Some changes are the result of biology and the passage of time, within the natural cycle or order of things. Others are self-generated, under our own control and willful effort, or dependent upon encounters with significant others—family, friends, colleagues, and intimates. Still, other changes occur as a result of circumstance or fate, a proverbial "date with destiny."

Our experiences are externally or internally focused; they either follow a linear pattern, regulated by chronological time, space, and the social structure, or transcend ordinary time and emerge from the depths of our psyches and our own internal strivings. They may be subtle and gradual, easy and welcomed, or difficult and demanding. We may meet change with acceptance and grace, or with protest and resistance.

The personal significance of each change occurs when we decide to make change. This means we move from the passive state of just watching how things unfold to taking some action that enables us to utilize the change to create an outcome of our own choice. Shifting our focus from what happens (the events themselves) to what we do with what happens is another way to describe transition. Ultimately, the way we make change is our personal choice and responsibility.

The danger of going through change without allowing ourselves to truly experience it is that transition through change may not actually occur. If we are too uncomfortable to stay the course through transition, too anxious to fix the problem, we may lose the message and its accompanying transformative effect. Change without transition may only serve to recreate old scenarios and reinforce old patterns of behavior. For change to have a salutary effect on us, we need to learn to effectively work with it and not to run the other way when it presents itself.

Everything changes all the time, so the ancient philosophers and mystics tell us. The I Ching, the Book of Changes, is a classic Chinese text that has served as a tool for decision-making and for predicting the future for well over five thousand years. Although everything is transient, continuously changing, the concept of change and its evolving process adhere to basic natural laws, which by their cyclic and repetitive properties make change essentially unchanging.

The I Ching is comprised of a system of symbols whose purpose is to help us find order within the random occurrences of life. Basically, every situation in life cycles through six mutable, yet predictable stages that are mirrored within each symbol of the I Ching: coming into being, beginning, expanding, moving toward the highest potential, achieving peak potential, and descending toward the opposite. The ancients recognized that all life follows the rhythm of the universe. It's the wise person who internalizes this rhythm, harmonizes with the "surrounding all," and conforms what he does to the flow of life, the Tao.

While change may interrupt the usual flow of our daily lives and disrupt our normal functioning, it also affords us the opportunity, and the challenge, to examine our lives and to alter its course, if we so choose. Or to stay the course, making better choices and decisions in the life we're already living.

Turning too quickly away from what change has to offer may deprive us of gaining valuable insights, or being gifted by a powerful lesson. The key here is to understand that change is the rule, not the exception. When we have accepted and mastered that concept, it's far easier to adjust our lives accordingly to it with the knowledge and trust that we are being carried in its flow.

Putting change aside for a moment, let's turn to the other essential piece of the equation—the complexity of individual personality development. Healthy personality development is determined by the complementary interplay of three organizational systems: the body (soma), the psychic (psyche), and the communal or social (ethos).

Theories of personality development abound, but it's the pivotal theory of psychoanalyst Erik Erickson that may help us better understand change within the context of the entire life cycle. His theory helps illuminate and clarify how an individual meets and processes intrinsic change and, by inference, may contribute to an understanding about whether or not an individual is able to rise to the task of making change for him-/her self in the world.

This is a summary of the eight psychosocial stages, and the crises and ego qualities that accompany each stage of the life cycle. Each of these crises represents a period of heightened potential and a turning point in life. Ideally, mastery of each stage and its associated crisis produces ego strength, or ego quality.

  • Infancy: The crisis/task centers around trust vs. mistrust and the associated ego strength is hope.
  • Early childhood: Autonomy vs. shame and doubt is the core issue and the development of will is the desired goal.
  • Play age: In this period the crisis surrounds initiative vs. guilt and purpose is the associated ego strength.
  • School age: The crisis/task centers on industry vs. inferiority and the development of competence is the associated ego strength.
  • Adolescence: Etched in most of our minds, the issue here concerns identity vs. identity confusion and fidelity is the goal.
  • Young adulthood: The task/crisis concerns intimacy vs. isolation and the ability to love is the associated ego strength.
  • Maturity: The core issue, extending over many decades, is about generativity vs. self-absorption and the goal is care.
  • Old age: The task during this final period concerns integrity vs. despair and disgust and the associated ego quality is the cultivation of wisdom.

For Erickson, conflict and crisis are positive and necessary; they are "sources of growth, strength, and commitment." But even if an individual fails to complete a given task, carrying it unfinished into future stages, each subsequent stage provides added resources and opportunities to resolve old conflicts and crises.

Beyond theory, however, there are many practical factors that influence if and how we engage change.

  • Temperament, our disposition from birth---whether we are easygoing and adaptable, or serious, shy and fearful, or difficult and inflexible---may color how we see and engage the world and influence us moving forward.
  • Early socialization plays an enormous role. The thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors, of our parents and significant others may greatly influence what we think and feel, as well as how we behave. For example, one can easily see how love, acceptance, and optimism encourage trust and hope versus criticism, judgment, ridicule, pessimism, and even abuse.
  • The belief system of the family and community is invariably "inherited" by the individual; the beliefs of the "tribe" are often programmed from the beginning of life. Fear around making change and taking risks are often acquired limiting beliefs. Limiting beliefs about change, how we deal with change and what we are actually capable of doing, may need to be addressed, shifted, or even discarded along the way.
  • Our cumulative life experiences, what we've learned through successive transitions, gives us needed tools, skills and acquired wisdom.

Since even the idea of change for many of us is often overwhelming and anxiety-provoking—and for some of us, something to be avoided at all cost—hopefully, this overview has set your mind at ease about the prospect of change and the actual process of moving through it.