Shattered Certainties and the Challenge to Change

By Mark A. Taylor

Good changes lead to happy results, right?


The alcoholic decides to quit drinking. The dieter sheds unhealthy weight. A family, once separated by a parent’s overseas assignment, is reunited.

But then:

The addict doesn’t replace the payoff he has been receiving from his fix, and so he returns to his habit.

The dieter doesn’t realize he must make a lifelong attitude adjustment about food and exercise, and so he regains the weight.

Sept6_MT_JNThe no-longer-single parent must give up some of her own autonomy now, and the result is conflict.

Anyone experiencing or hoping to lead change does well to remember scenarios like those.

The fact is, we’re regularly undone by resistance to change. We’re baffled to see a person full of potential wasting it because he will not change. He’s stuck in a deep trench. There’s light and fresh air above him. But the effort to climb out is not small, and he knows his way around his rut. It’s predictable and comfortable, and too often he just chooses to spend a lifetime there.

Nobelist Svetlana Alexievich describes a version of this syndrome in her book Secondhand Gulag, in which she publishes interviews with citizens of the USSR reacting to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Donald Devine shared some of her findings in his review of the book August 5 at the online library of the Liberty Fund.

The situation with these Russians is clearly more complicated than those at a weight-loss clinic or 12-step group, but listen to the reaction of these people to change, and decide if you don’t hear something familiar:

Wages, once relatively equal and automatic, now have to be earned. Salaries were much lower then, so less could be purchased in the old days, but on the other hand that left time for family around the kitchen table. . . .The hospitals were dirty but all Soviet citizens had a right to get on the waiting list, even if it took months to get to the top of it, and even if one never did. Nothing worked well but that was just how things were. Everyone was equal even if life was hard. Everyone complained but only at home.

After the fall, all these certainties were shattered.

. . . By the end of the transition period there was more food and basics but the cost of getting them was enormous, leaving little public support for the greater freedom of post-communist society.

Shattered certainties always lead to negative reactions. It is easy and typical to criticize such negativity as evidence of immaturity or selfishness or, especially in church circles, a lack of spiritual concern. That can be true. We’ve all told or heard stories about church fights over new carpet color or moving the Communion table, and we’ve all clucked our tongues at the self-absorption revealed by these battles.

But sometimes we’d do well to be a little more gentle with those resisting change. Maybe they’re not selfish any more than they are afraid. Maybe they’re “shattered” by their feeling of losing control; maybe those who have the control should pause at least a moment to empathize with that.

And then maybe when any of us resists change, we’d do well to wonder whether our current certainty is good or really a gulag. How productive for us—and others—is our comfortable routine? If we’ll climb out of our rut, what light will we be able to experience, what life will we be able to share?

Change is always, always difficult—a fact that can motivate us to work or convince us to settle just for how things are. And in every situation—from the geopolitical to the most personal—progress will be measured by which choice we’ll make.

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