I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.’ Francoise Sagan

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Value of Change - For Evangelos

I have named my blog Forever Phoenix because ever since I was quite young, I have been fascinated by the concept of this mythical bird.  The Phoenix is a creature that goes through a repeated cycle of existence and non-existence: it is born, it dies and it is reborn again. But the fire that destroys the Phoenix is not merely a destructive force, rather it is the crucial element needed for purification and regeneration to occur – in fact without the fire the Phoenix could not be reborn. The symbolic significance of this is that in order for anything new to occur, what went before has to die: to quote a Buddhist concept “in order to truly live in the present you must be dead to the past”.  For those of us committed to our own self-development, we know that we are on a path of continual self-examination that often requires us to give up old ways of thinking and behaving that no longer serve us to make space for new ideas and ways of being.

From personal experience and my observation of the lives of others, it seems to me that, somewhat paradoxically, it is often at the bleakest of times – when things have not gone according to plan - that it is easiest to create the necessary space for personal development to occur. It is not necessary to lose your job or leave a bad relationship to create a space for a new and better way of living but when ruptures of this sort occur they often act as a catalyst for change. This is precisely because it is often when we have suffered some sort of major blow in our personal life that we are most willing to accept that we need to find a different and better way of doing things. We may feel emotionally broken, open and exposed but this is actually an opportunity: we are no longer comfortably chugging along on automatic pilot, doing what we have always done, thinking the same thoughts, repeating the same patterns day in day out; a kind of seismic shift has occurred in our personal landscape causing us to stop in our tracks and take stock. We know that what we have been doing up until now has not been taking us in the direction of happiness but if we can acknowledge that and take responsibility, we will have created a new space in our consciousness where new thoughts, new ways of being and doing things may take root.

There is a useful analogy that came to me recently that serves to illustrate some of my thoughts around the subject of change and personal development.  I recently watched “The Break-Up”, co-starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. The film is set in Chicago where Gary (Vince Vaughn) is a tour guide. On one of his trips escorting Japanese tourists to see the sights, he mentions the fact that Chicago is still often known in the USA as the second city.  For those of you who don’t know, Chicago gained this title due to the fact that a devastating fire engulfed and destroyed most of the original city in 1871, hence modern day Chicago is a new, second version of its former self.  And here is where it gets interesting and history provides us with a valuable insight… for those Chicagoans lucky enough to escape with life and limb, a positive and previously unimagined benefit emerged from this devastating occurrence. The fire which had been a cataclysmic event, destroying homes and livelihoods overnight, also provided its residents with a unique and unprecedented opportunity to give their city a complete “make over”. Those in charge of the reconstruction of the city were virtually given carte blanche to fashion a modern urban centre from the debris of incinerated buildings, to build new homes designed to better withstand the ravages of fire and to create a city of which the local residents could be proud. None of this would have been possible had the fire not occurred. So Chicago, much like the Phoenix, was literally raised from the ashes of its former self and made anew.  

In many ways “The Break-Up” illustrates the idea that sometimes, for real change to occur, things have to get really bad! The film maybe goes a bit far in making the point – the protagonists have an exaggeratedly dysfunctional relationship (The War of the Roses seems like marital bliss by comparison!) – but each of them eventually walks away from it transformed. Not only do they acquire greater self-awareness, they gain the following little golden nugget of wisdom: no relationship can survive without patience, forgiveness and – above all else – good communication.

In my life I have undergone many transformations but the most significant have always followed on the heels of periods of intense crisis brought about by some kind of abrupt change in my personal circumstances. I have experienced many of these: the breakdown of a marriage, the death of a loved one, the end of a friendship – but from each of these experiences, I have gained something of incalculable value. The greatest lesson these experiences taught me is that nothing is ever taken from our lives without something else being given. The important thing is to see the opportunity, the “gift” in every new situation that we encounter, no matter how painful or uncomfortable.

Change and loss are not one in the same but change always contains an element of loss insofar as what was has ceased to exist. However, if we are able to shift our focus from what we have lost to what we have gained each time we experience any kind of transformation in our lives, we will be able to use this experience as a powerful catalyst for self-development. All of us experience many changes in our lifetime, some of which we perceive to be positive, others negative. But, even when we are struggling to adapt to a new situation and feeling regret for what has been left behind, it helps to remember that loss is just a form of change and change is vital because it is what drives our personal growth.  Change can feel very threatening because it poses a challenge to the existing order of things and requires us to take a step into the unknown. But, the fact is that we cannot develop ourselves if we are afraid to venture beyond our comfort zone. Gradually as I have learned to stop being fearful of change and open myself up to the opportunities it offers - new ways of thinking, being and interacting with others – I have learnt to embrace it, no matter what form it takes or how uncomfortable it may feel.  Throughout my life I have experienced many changes or little deaths but, like the Phoenix, I have risen from the ashes again and again - stronger, wiser and happier.

Nothing is permanent but change
Heraclitus of Ephesus