Personal change in the flow of time4 min read

Standing on the brink of change

When thinking about personal change, there’s more going on than the decision we face at this point in time.  We’re also caught between elements that are rooted in the past, on the one hand, and unknown and unforeseeable consequences in the future, on the other – all of which can thwart our agency and leave us undecided and stuck where we started

All the things that we might lose

If I decide I need to change something in my life, it inevitably means giving something up – even if the thing I’m giving up is unhelpful or even harmful for me.  It might involve leaving a situation, saying goodbye to particular people, or even setting aside an aspect of my identity that is a fundamentally important part of my sense of self. 

For instance, say I’m passionate about my work but I pay a large emotional price because I become too involved. I might decide to change the way I work so I’ll be less emotionally affected by what I do, but what does that mean about my sense of who I am?  Chances are, I’ll need to rewrite or redefine the element of my narrative self that relates to ‘caring for others’, to accommodate a different level of caring that means I can continue to care without getting burned out by it all.

In some situations, making changes can attract criticism from people around us.  Leaving an unsatisfying or abusive marriage could be the wisest course of action, but those who sanctify marriage will likely view it as a personal failing.  This is just one of countless cultural narratives that can impinge upon our decision-making, where we choose not to act to avoid social opprobrium. Any personal change inevitably involves some kind of loss, and that in itself can be painful and something we might choose to avoid by not enacting the change after all.

The unknown shape of things to come

In addition to these factors rooted in the past, we’re also faced with the uncertainty of an indeterminate future, where we simply don’t know for sure how things will work out.  We make predictions all the time, and sometimes they’ll be fairly accurate – especially if we’re predicting something in the future that’s already happened (or not happened!) on a regular basis over a period of time.  I can be fairly sure that a plane won’t crash into my home at any point in the future, because I don’t live below a flight path.  But I can’t be sure a hurricane won’t arrive next month and tear my house to the ground. 

So too the significant changes we seek to make. I might hope that if I take this step forwards, then everything will work out as I’d expected – and maybe things will.  But we can never be sure if the personal change we make will improve on how things are now, whether we’ll be better off, or whether we’ll be on a life path leading in an unexpected and unhappy direction.  Making changes requires a certain leap of faith, because we simply don’t know how things will play out.

Of course, choosing not to act for fear of what might happen is a kind of paralysis that can hold us back and prevent us from leading more contented lives, but there are legitimate reasons why we might choose not to act.  It’s also true that the way things are, however unsatisfying, is at least familiar, and familiarity can be comforting, in contrast to the anxiety that can sometimes accompany uncertainty.

Standing at the crossroads

As we stand at the fork in the road between carrying on as normal or taking an alternative direction, we’re caught between the past and the future, suspended in a space between the loss of what has been and the fear of what might come.  A leap in the dark feels rash.  Perhaps the best thing we can do before taking that leap of faith is to address the things we face losing and explore the fears that occupy the space up ahead. At least then, we can take as informed a decision as possible in a situation where we’ll never have all the answers.

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