The other day I was standing at an intersection, waiting to cross the street. A local panhandler asked the man in a business suit standing next to me “can you spare some change?” to which the guy in the suit smirkily replied “change comes from within, my friend”. This tired exchange – which has probably happened thousands of times in cities all over America – got me thinking. About a lot of things: change, fear, compassion, security… a whole world of things. But but at the core of my thoughts was fear, because it’s such a fundamental force in our lives. And it often is attached to change in one way or another. And although there are lots of strategies for dealing with change and fear, I was reminded recently that there’s only one cure for fear, which I’ll touch on after we explore some more basic strategies for dealing with change.
These two fellows I encountered were a great metaphor for how we deal with change. I would bet that if you asked the two of them how they got where they are today, the panhandler would have a story about how a series of things “happened to him”, and how these misfortunes led to him having to ask strangers for money in order to survive. The guy in the suit would probably have some story about his education, his career, and how he “made things happen” and worked hard to get where he is. There may be some truth to both stories, but you could fairly bet that these two fellows had one thing in common: a lot of their actions are probably driven by fear, and what they fear is change. In the case of the panhandler, his fear is probably a more basic anxiety about getting however much cash he thinks he needs that day. And in the case of the business man, his fear probably takes a much stranger form. He probably fears two things: 1.) Not having the prestige that comes with his accomplishments and possessions, and even stranger, 2.) The possibility that he won’t have financial security in his old age, or enough money if something happens to his health.
Worrying About Security Doesn’t Create It
The funny thing about security is that it doesn’t exist, especially for those who seek it the most. Nothing makes one feel more insecure than spending one’s whole life worrying about one’s security. Interestingly, the morally decrepit business practices of the last decade or two have begun to dismantle the illusion of being able to create security, but not many have put the pieces together in a useful way, and they go right back to the grind, looking for more security. how many people do you know who had relatively secure jobs and were either handed what seemed like a hefty buyout, sent into early retirement, or in the worst cases, simply informed that if they still wanted their jobs, they’d have to accept completely different conditions of employment? Or how many people do you know who’ve actually had to make a significant claim against the insurance policy they’ve put thousands of dollars into, only to find the insurance company seeking as many methods as they can to avoid a payout? Or maybe you’re in that age group that has spent their entire life paying into Social Security, and only recently figured out that you won’t see a penny of that money.
The Destination vs The Journey
If you think it sounds corny to say that life is more about a journey than a destination, you obviously haven’t gone through the rather common experience of getting the perfect job, buying the perfect house, and marrying the perfect spouse, only to find that everything is perfect except you and how you feel. A lot of divorces and other manifestations of dissatisfaction really are caused by the realities of people and the world in general not matching the huge projection we place on them. As Yogi Berra said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.” The fact is that many of us are so immersed in the modern myth of happiness that we forget what happiness is altogether.
Enjoying the Journey
So how do we get back to this place where we can enjoy the journey and stop worrying about that illusory destination? The painter Edgar Degas said “Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.” The funny thing is that in order to enjoy a life that is full of constant change, the only real solution is acknowledge that you have no idea what’s really going on in the big picture. No, it would be foolish to stop making as much money as you can and handling it sensibly; I’m not suggesting that you stop planning for the future altogether. Although if you WERE able to do so, it would make you one of the happier people on Earth, because you would have achieved the ultimate expression of the one simple thing that will make you happier in the present. That thing, as absurdly simple as it sounds, is LIVING IN THE PRESENT. If you can get into that place on your own through learning how to slow down, be grateful, breathe, and appreciate where you are, more power to you.
Personally, I rediscovered this ability to enjoy life and be less fearful by quitting drinking, taking part in a 12-step program, and doing a lot of refresher reading. Wherever you are in life, there are a few great books to help you remind yourself how to live for right now and enjoy it, and learn that real security will stem from doing that, not from elaborate planning and a high-income job. If you don’t have issues with the words “God” and “faith” (I personally do sometimes, so tuned them out a little when necessary) Marianne Williamson’s The Gift of Change: Spiritual Guidance for Living Your Best Life is a great resource. One hook for me early in the book was her remark that “We’re in the habit of thinking fearfully, and it takes spiritual discipline to turn that around in a world where love is more suspect than fear.” We’ve become so cynical that most of us don’t realize how true that is until it’s pointed out to us. Another great refresher in getting centered in the present (which, as I’ve said elsewhere, also may require some tuning out when he gets a little to “woo woo”) is Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. There’s nothing new in this book, but the guy does a great job of putting the concepts into a very actionable form while re-framing a plethora of sources of wisdom on the topic.
And lastly, if you enjoy the “grumpy guru” approach, Krishnamurti’s Think on These Things is more a critique of our confidence in modern beliefs than anything, but amongst the weighty topics it tackles in its weighty fashion is change, in rather heavy handed passages like the one where he compares the security we seek to a stagnant pool cut off from the river of life, and says:
“A mind which is seeking permanency soon stagnates; like that pool along the river, it is soon full of corruption, decay. Only the mind which has no walls, no foothold, no barrier, no resting place, which is moving completely with life, timelessly pushing on, exploring, exploding – only such a mind can be happy, eternally new, because it is creative in itself.”
Or more simply observational passages like:
“We don’t want to leave the known; so it is our clinging to the known that creates fear in us, not the unknown. The unknown cannot be perceived by the known. But the mind, being made up of the known, says, ‘I am going to end’, and therefore it is frightened.”
But reading books should just be a trigger to action. And it turns out the actions here are simple. Try being grateful. Pick one thing in your current surroundings or situation that you’re happy with, and focus on THAT. Find as many things like that as you can in your life, and you find the effect snowballs, and your life becomes your friend instead of an adversary. And then you attract more positive things. And the peculiar side effect of “making things right” NOW is that they will automatically be this way in the FUTURE. Because the future is just now, only it’s happening later.
Making Change Happen
Ironically, all this seeking of security has the dreadful side effect referenced above in that Krishnamurti passage. We spend all our time carving out some sense of stability, only to realize that it’s a prison of sorts, sometimes just psychologically, but sometimes financially. Changing our behavior is much easier than we think, once we let go of this delusion that we’ve created some kind of lasting security. One easy thing you can do is simply identify the voices that control you. Self-talk can be both a positive and a negative tool, but it’s important to at least realize we do it! We all make decisions based on a certain amount of internal dialogue. Some of these internal voices are our own, and some – especially the ones based on comparing ourselves, the ones that drive us to buy things we don’t need or seek jobs that we won’t enjoy – are ENTIRELY adopted from what other people say and internalized as our own.
A book I often recommend that helped me a lot in this area was Taming Your Gremlin. It presents some easy-to-implement tools with a moderate dose of wit and humor. Another thing you can do is simply DO THINGS YOU DON’T DO. Nick and I are finishing a little book along these lines. Look for teasers soon. And perhaps one of the most expedient things you could do is seek a life coach. I got more tools for positive change in four one-hour sessions with a life coach than I have from a dozen books or the hundreds of hours I’ve spent living in fear.
So at the outset, I mentioned fear, and the only cure for it. We can treat a lot of the symptoms of our fear by taking action, trusting life, being brave and bucking up, but something that I rediscovered recently was this: the only “cure” for fear is LOVE. If you strip fear down to what it really is, you realize that it is simply a discomfort with the unknown. And if you think of the first times we experience fear, i.e. as an infant or toddler that has little or no “rational” reason for fear, you quickly realize that the thing that makes that fear go away is when someone who cares about us gives us some love. Try it in the real world, and you’ll be astounded by the results. The next time you’re anxious or frustrated with someone or some thing, try expressing love or sympathy instead of anger. The transformative power of this – especially on another human – is astounding.