Most people I know don’t like change very much. Many agree with Mark Twain’s assertion that the “only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.” Change is easier for some than others but, by and large, we are creatures of habit. Even when someone is in a bad situation and knows that change is needed, the tug of the familiar can be hard to overcome. But like it or not, change is inevitable. It may be, ironically, that change is the only constant in life. University of Colorado astrogeophysicist Kim Malville addressed this in his book, The Fermenting Universe. He notes that Greek philosopher Heraclitus was on the right track when he said, “You can’t step into the same river twice,” but change is more pervasive than that. Stepping into the river changes it, which means, as Malville observes, that you can’t step into the same river once!
The question is not whether we change. It is how we deal with the changes we face. Organizational consultant William Bridges addresses this in his monograph, “Getting Them Through the Wilderness: A Leader’s Guide to Transition.” Bridges makes the distinction between changes that organizations make and transitions that people undergo. Although change involves effort, it is relatively straightforward and can happen quickly. Transitions are a different matter. According to Bridges, successful transitions require a three-fold psychological reorientation process in order for people to come to terms with change. The first step is to let go of the old reality. This includes both honoring the past and acknowledging the altered landscape. The next phase involves experimentation as options are considered and new possibilities are explored. This can be a challenging time. Some ideas will take hold and others won’t. Some innovations will be welcomed and others resisted. The final phase is the new beginning when a fresh sense of shared direction emerges. A simple example of this process is moving to a new place. Often, the change of the move itself happens quickly. You clear out of the old place, pack the truck and haul your stuff to your new abode. But transitioning to living in a new place is a lengthier undertaking. Even if you chose the move, you might miss the familiarity of your previous location. Then you have a steep learning curve as you unpack and find a place for your belongings. You might rearrange the furniture, drawers, and closets several times before you decide what goes where. Finally, your new place starts to feel like home, you settle in and your transition is accomplished.
The image Bridges uses to illustrate his approach is the Exodus event. In the Exodus story, change occurs rapidly — the Israelites escape slavery and flee from Pharaoh. But it takes a while for the people to transition to the Promised Land. They wander, they grumble, they try on new ways of relating to each other, and they began discovering what it means to live as God’s people amid their changed circumstances. It took a short time to get the people out of Egypt, but it took forty years to get Egypt out of the people!
Understanding the process of transition is not an excuse for inaction. Some people live in dangerous circumstances and should not be counseled to postpone their escape while others get used to the idea of change. Those suffering oppression or languishing in poverty should not have to wait for the rest of society to transition to a more enlightened understanding before their needs are met. But it is also true that in order for change to last, the process of transition must be understood. We have to work the process so that resistance does not thwart our intentions.
Change is not only a process, of course. It is a direction. Change for the better leads out of enslavement and toward freedom. Change that is worth the effort fosters growth and renewal.
What needs changing in your life? What transitions do you need to navigate in order to make the changes that are needed? In this season of Easter for those who celebrate it, and of springtime for all of us, I hope we can move through the transitions that are necessary in order to support the changes that will enhance life for all.
• Phil Campbell is pastor at the Northern Light United Church.