August 3, 2013

The More Things Change

I read a short but fascinating article in the New York Times earlier this year called "You Won't Stay The Same."  The article discussed a study of the the so-called "end of history illusion" in which people tend to systematically under-estimate how much they will change in the future: "People seemed to be much better at recalling their former selves than at imagining how much they would change in the future."

The reasons for this phenomena are unknown.  But the article offered a few plausible possibilities:

(1) Because we over-estimate our own awesomeness.  We want to believe that we are fully evolved to be the person we are right now, a finished product, so to speak;

(2) Predicting the future - how we will change - is...well...really hard.  In other words, its a failure of imagination.  Its just easier and more comfortable/normal/natural to imagine ourselves as staying the same.

At any rate, the article really resonated with me.  We are constantly changing.  We, in fact, change so much that we - who know ourselves best of all, or at least longest of all - underestimate the extent of our very own transformation.

You know, the whole "No man steps in the same river twice, for its not the same river and he's not the same man" "there is nothing permanent but change" thing.  Change is the only constant.  The more things stay the same, the more things change.  Etcetera.  Etcetera.  Etcetera.

The constancy of change is a theme that I've been reading a lot about lately.

In Buddhism, this is referred to as the principle of "impermanence":

"What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.  We need to learn to appreciate the value of impermanence . . . Impermanence teaches us to respect and value every moment and all precious things around us and inside us."

                        - The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh

I particularly like the way that Sakyong Mipham put it in his book, Turning the Mind Into An Ally:

"The fact is that what appears to us as a solid reality is actually in a state of continuous flux.  The world is a continuous state of flux.  The house that we grew up in is not the same house anymore.  The mother and father that we knew when we were children are physically different now.  Where is our first bicycle?  At one time it seemed to real.  Everything is always coming together and falling apart . . . .  Coming together and falling apart is the movement of time, the movement of life.  This is as obvious as our own face, and yet we imagine our self as solid and unchanging . . . . We feel that everything is just as it appears.  Yet if we look beneath the surface, we find that our universe is not quite as stable as it seems."

Everything is impermanent, both ourselves as well as the world around us.

This drives home the counter-intuitive point that every day, when you wake up in the morning, you are a different person.  How much do I believe this, or should I believe this?  I'm not sure.  I still believe that there are core things about me and you - constants - that make me intrinsically "me" and you intrinsically "you."  And a lot of times I wake up in the morning, and I don't feel all that different.

But surely, we do have great capacity to change.  Not only do we change and impact our world by interacting with it, but our world, by interacting with us, changes us.  In ways that are sometimes difficult to detect and measure.

On the change wrought by adversity ("the storm"), for example, one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami writes:

"[O]nce the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive.  You won't even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over.  But one thing is certain.  When you come out of the storm, you won't be the same person who walked in."

Through adversity, through experiences, through new things we see or read or do or think or say, through the people we meet and the things we share, we certainly are changing.  More than we know.  And that's a wonderfully dynamic thought.

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