Week 4

The Promise of Change
by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship

I can’t claim that I’m a big fan of change. I like comfort. I like knowing what to expect. When faced with big changes in my life, particularly ones I didn’t choose, my tendency is to try to find a way to make things go back to the way they were. And when that doesn’t work, it’s possible that I might have the tiniest tendency to pout.

Which, of course, does no good whatsoever. Change, after all, is an inevitable part of life. Often it’s even an excellent part of life. When you’re an adult who is well into middle age, and the changes in your body are rarely in a positive direction, it’s easy to forget how exciting it is as a child for your body to grow and change and gain skills, sometimes almost overnight.

When you are faced with change in the shape of loss—through death or disease or divorce or the many other ways things can fall apart—it can be hard to remember how exciting change can be in the form of a new job, a new friend, a new love, a new hobby.

One of the things that help me to keep my perspective on change when things are shifting around me is to remember that it is a central part of life. And by life I don’t just mean the things that happen to us as we go through our days. I mean the nature of living things. Biology. In particular, evolution.

The central insight that helps us to understand living beings, and the ecosystems that they belong to, is that species don’t necessarily stay the same over time. It isn’t that God created tigers, and then there were beautiful stripy giant cats forever more. Tigers evolved from earlier ancestors, their stripes an adaptation that provided camouflage in the mixed light and shadow of their environment. There are tigers—or peacocks or pythons or people—only because species change over time to adapt to their environment. And environments also change over time, ensuring that species have to change if they are going to survive.

Which is the rocky part. All of the beautiful diversity of life on this planet is because species change over time to adapt to their environment. And all of that beautiful diversity comes because some individuals don’t live long enough to pass along their genes. The whole process is messy, and works because beings die as much as because beings live and reproduce.

Change—evolution—is what keeps things from being boring and all the same. It enables new forms of life to arise, new possibilities to unfold. Change—evolution—is also a big, ugly mess. It happens because of random mutations, most of which are the exact opposite of helpful. It happens because beings die.

All of the marvels of evolution, from the sarcastic fringehead to the slow loris (look them up), only come about because generations of beings lose out to the process of change. Change is just like that. It isn’t pretty. Lots of times it hurts. It always means giving something up. But without it there would be no stories.

Think about it. Change, particularly unwelcome change, is the basis of plot. Nobody wants to read a book or watch a movie in which nothing changes, nothing happens, and everyone ends up just the same at the end that they were in the beginning. People become great when they encounter great difficulty and find a way to overcome it. Stories have meaning because characters change through the events of the plot.

Poet Muriel Rukeyser notes that “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Which is to say that the universe is made of change and diversity and growth. I happen to believe this. I’m not convinced that the universe wants me to be happy, or that things happen for a reason, or that love is an insurmountable force. I’d like to think so, but I’m far from convinced. There’s just too much pain and suffering in the world for me to assume that the whole system is designed for things to come out in some celestial version of “right.”

But what I do see, across what we know of the billions of years of our universe, is that change is the fundamental principle. There was whatever there was before the Big Bang for however long it was there—an indescribable Nothing in Particular that we call the singularity. And then All of Everything exploded outwards into an ongoing process of change. Nothing in Particular turned into an amazing array of galaxies and stars and planets and living beings, each perpetually undergoing change.

It isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s brutal and violent as a supernova. Sometimes it’s gentle and kind as a bird sheltering growing chicks. There are no guarantees that we will get what we want. But the very nature of the universe guarantees us that we will be able to live out our stories, to learn and create and reinvent ourselves as we go. If you think about it, that’s a pretty amazing promise.