There’s a question I have been wrestling with for at least fifty years: what makes change, particularly deep and transforming change, possible. I don’t mean learning to be more polite, for example, but learning to express heartfelt gratitude to another. I mean learning that shifts the underpinnings, the foundations, not the surface.
You can only prepare yourself for this kind of change. You can’t force it. Let me tell you a story about the early Puritans that illustrates my meaning. The Puritans came to this country in the seventeenth century in pursuit of religious freedom. They believed that the fate of their souls was predestined—in God’s hands alone. Nothing they could do would influence the decision. This created tremendous tension in these industrious people, who badly wanted to achieve God’s grace through good works. In fact, some rebelled and created what they called a Doctrine of Works, which claimed that enough charitable actions would lead you to heaven’s door. The Doctrine of Works provided solace for some but not for the strictest among them.
That little band believed they could, at best, prepare for grace by living simple, humble, and charitable lives. Then they could only hope and wait. And here’s the most interesting part of their approach to grace: It only came with heartbreak—the loss of a loved one or a home being burned to the ground, undoing years of backbreaking toil. It’s as though the shell they constructed to protect themselves from life’s harsh injuries had to be cracked in order for God to enter. If you substitute love or strength or understanding—more modern pursuits—for God, then you’ll see what I find so compelling in the Puritans’ pursuit. Crisis tends to precede change and make it possible.
The lifetime of preparation, the striving for simplicity and humility, might take years to perfect, and even then there would be no guarantee of grace, but, once it came, it was sudden and complete. You were transformed, and everywhere you looked, things were brighter, clearer, more connected. The timing and content of change were unpredictable but durable. The element of crisis was key to the journey.
Since I began publishing the essays in my blog, I have received a good deal of kidding and concern from friends about the dark side that I’ve revealed. I appreciate their concern but I want them also to pay attention to something I am striving for: a kind of clarity and light that only comes with the acknowledgement, even the re-experience, of heartbreak. Like the Puritans, I believe that it is necessary to move through times of confusion and instability to change the underpinnings of my mind.
The Puritans and I are not alone. Virtually all contemporary change theorists sing a similar tune. Here I think of Ilya Prigogine in physics, Steven Jay Gould in evolutionary biology, Eleanor Duckworth in education, and many more. Let me escort you on a little journey through their world.
Prigogine says that systems in disequilibrium are vulnerable to change, often precipitated by random events. When it comes, change can be sudden, massive, and complete. The heartbreak of the Puritan is a kind of disequilibrium. Most of us know these moments, when we are confused, off balance and uncertain, when the way we have solved problems and coped with pain in the past no longer work. We reach and grasp for the ways that once worked but they seem to have abandoned us. When we cannot recover our balance or our clarity, when we will ourselves to see the crisis out, eyes open, then deep learning is possible.
We find ways to see our world that had been invisible before, and new vision leads to new action. Where once it had been unthinkable to confront an abusive boss, you “know” that you can do it—and you do it. Where once you felt chained to a job or a relationship, you see the way out—or the way in, towards renewal. Where once you could not see beyond the death of your husband or wife, you might see the possibility of new friendships and professional pursuits. You see these alternatives not because you are straining to do so; they are simply present. These are transformational moments.
Steven Jay Gould developed a similar notion, which he called punctuated equilibrium. He argued that it is only when species wander far from their normal environment that they are likely to mutate, creating new species. This, he tells us, is the engine of evolution. So it is with our intellectual and social lives. When we are placed—or place ourselves—in unaccustomed, often uncomfortable environments, we adapt. We adapt in order to survive. In this process of adaptation, we act and understand the world differently.
Eleanor Duckworth, a pioneering educator, famously said, “To be confused is good. Glorify confusion!” She encouraged learners to experience cognitive conflicts, even painful ones, which, she believed, led to their minds becoming more deeply engaged with problems they were trying to solve. She was less interested in students finding the right answers than in trusting the process of exploration, then testing conclusions—new ways of seeing—in light of how well they held up in experience.
In 1995, in my attempt to help individuals, couples, and families change, I developed a theory of my own. It seemed to me that people change when they are ready to change. Trying to change people who are not ready was like trying to push a Suma wrestler off his spot when he knows you’re coming. But when people are ready, when they are confused, off balance, and frightened, they could be changed with a little push from behind. The push represented a kind of emotional judo, in which the therapist makes use of the patients’ own momentum. Instead of forcing the matter, I would often wait for a moment of readiness, then provide a very safe environment, and encourage people to come up with innovations of their own. It worked, and I often wished that I had someone to help me in that way.
This year, I turned seventy-four, I retired from my professional life and left a very nurturing work community. For a year or so, when people asked what I was going to do with retirement, I said that I didn’t know. The passage was cloudy, and I couldn’t see to the other side. I was willing to not know because I did know that uncertainty had often had such a powerful and positive impact on my life. The results have been extraordinary.
For the last six months, my mind has been more fertile than ever, my ability to write has been unblocked, my wish to tear down barriers between myself and others has surprised me. When I look at issues that interest me, I see them as though from the height of the highest tree. Ask me about any given political challenge and I remember things that people have tried sixty, fifty, thirty, and ten years ago. History feels present, a familiar landscape. The same is true for literature and music. I feel like I am living in an expanded world, whose full availability feels new to me.
I also feel free. I seem to have frequent access to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, being in the zone, being utterly absorbed in and energized by writing. I wonder sometimes whether—or when—this will wear off. I have no wish to flee, no wish to get back to “normal,” no wish to relax into golf, movies, vacations, and bon bons in bed.. And I’m going to milk this for as long as I can. Then, when the next crisis comes, as it will, I can only hope, that I’ll have the courage to work through another time of confusion and difficulty in order to celebrate what’s on the other side.