A meditation on time and change

About a year ago, I read this in a book on psychotherapy1:

There cannot be change without loss.

It struck me as a profound statement, because it carries many implications with it. I want to expand on what change means, looking behind and ahead in time, especially in our times.

In retrospective, change is loss

We often talk of “big life changes”: graduation, marriage, childbirth, and so on. But it’s wiser to think of them in terms of loss: what did I lose with this change?2 For example, when one graduates from university into employment, one loses a life of being a carefree individual, of having a community of friends who share similar life circumstances and exactly zero income, of being in an environment where learning is encouraged over usefulness, of having a lot of time off, especially the summers.

I recently read that Sigmund Freud called our subconscious mind ’timeless’3. He noted that it cannot fathom time; i.e., time is not a concept in our subconscious. But what is time? Time is an abstract notion, proxied by change.4 Therefore, if our subconscious is timeless, then it is also opaque to change. This may be why we act out fears and anxieties we developed a long time ago, or continue to plan and live our life as if nothing has changed, often with disastrous consequences.

This also means we need to consciously process change as it happens, whether slowly or suddenly, big or small. We need to set time to think about what we lost with the change. Becoming aware of loss, and coming to terms with this loss is very important: if we don’t do it, then we will continue to act as if whatever we lost is still present in our lives.

In prospective, change is anxiety

Looking forward in time, change can affect our plans. At its extreme, it makes us incapable of planning and leads to chronic anxiety. We are uncertain about how our life might look a year on out, or whether we are doing something wrong right now that we wouldn’t do if we knew what was coming. Think about someone who receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer, or someone who loses their home in a disaster.

I read about a meme of someone wanting to go to Italy; somehow their plane landed in Holland and there’s no way to get out of it, even if they had all those elaborate plans on what to do in Italy, and even if there are other people in Holland who go to Italy and talk about it.5 That is an apt metaphor for our lives. Don’t we all have stories of what we wanted to be or do, only to find ourselves, many years on, in a place we never thought we would be in?

This is the second part of processing we need to do, as a conscious and ritualized effort, this dealing with change of plans and coming to accept it.

Change in the 21st century

There’s change and then there’s how change itself is changing: is our pace of life slowing down, or is it speeding up? 6

I think change has accelerated over the last century, due mainly to faster and global communication networks, viz. the Internet, and enabling technologies with no physical limitations, viz. computer software.

We should think about what we have lost with this change: leisure time spent completely disconnected from work, a job and a company that could be expected to last your working career, a tight-knit and stable community of people you knew thoroughly, a feeling of accomplishment and closure with respect to learning upon leaving university. I’m not sure if as a society we have processed this loss, because I think it shows itself in many devious forms: witness the xenophobia, Brexit, Trump, status anxiety, religious and political radicalism. It seems these are our defense mechanisms to excessive change.

The Zen monk asks us to live in the “here and now”. This is another way of making us aware of the timelessness of our subconscious mind. It’s another admonition for us to think about what has changed, so that we can grieve and let go of what we lost, and perhaps create new plans in lieu of what we had originally. That is how we can live in the here and now.

Recognizing and managing change at a psychological level is perhaps the most critical skill we need to learn for this century.

1 There are many accounts of how patients seek change but cannot actually do what it takes to bring about change in the very readable book by psychotherapist Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life.

2 Change also involves gain, but our minds weight loss more heavily and irrationally: it therefore merits more attention. See loss aversion.

3 The German term being ‘zeitlos’. I discovered this indirectly, in the book by psychoananalyst Josh Cohen, How to Live. What to Do: In Search of Ourselves. It’s a beautiful collection of essays that use literary characters to analyze their (our!) stages in life.

4 At the speed of light, time stops, because it’s theoretically the maximum speed possible.

5 I read about this meme in Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.

6 Velocity and acceleration, if you like physics. First and second derivatives, if you prefer calculus.

See also