The Pain of Change Vs. The Pain of Staying The Same

It has been said that in most circumstances people don’t change unless they feel that the pain of staying the same has become greater than the pain of change.

I thought about this again after seeing 127 Hours, which just came out on Blu-ray and DVD yesterday.   The movie is based on a true story about Aron Ralston, played by James Franco, who finds himself in dire circumstances in the middle of nowhere on one of his many hiking, exploring and mountain climbing expeditions. 

SPOILER ALERT (but it won’t take away from your enjoyment of the movie): Simply put, Aron gets his arm caught and he cannot get it out. (The book Aron wrote is called, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place".)  It doesn’t take him long to realize that one option to get out of his situation is to cut his own arm off (an option that doesn’t seem realistic because he only has a dull jackknife).

I found myself trying to imagine what it would be like to have to consider such an option.  In order to save my life I might have to do something desperate that will be incredibly painful and leave me forever changed.  The option is dismissed immediately, until hours stretch into days, water is in short supply, food supply exhausted and death is imminent, suddenly, the impossible must be considered again… can I do this?  If I stay in my current situation, I’m dead, but can I go through the pain and agony a loss of that change (that maybe won’t even work) to save my life??

After I saw this movie I found myself wondering where this situation serves as a great metaphor.  Where are the areas that I, others and we as a society are absolutely heading for destruction if we don’t change, but the idea of change is almost as scary?  Are there areas in our life where we might need to cut an arm off in order to save our lives?

I’ve known great people in my life for whom the pain of change seemed too difficult.  They wanted to change their current situation, but change felt like a death in itself.  Many times I’ve talked to people who are the ‘life of the party’… they are sick of it… but will “people like me if I don’t party??  Will I keep the friendships I have if they are not centered around drinking or getting high together??”  A very common situation I’ve seen. We can begin to feel like the thing holding us back, the very thing that is ‘killing’ us is a part of us.  To change can feel like we are changing who we are, cutting off a part of ourselves… a brutal choice to have to make.

This goes beyond each individual though.  We are absolutely destroying our world.  We live in wealth and excess in the North and Western for which the direct consequence is the poverty, oppression and slavery of millions in the rest of the world.  Are we willing to buy far less and pay more for it? (A start on the needed journey of change).   Too painful for a people who love to brag about how little we paid for so much.  We too often let our stuff define us, like ‘Jack’ at the beginning of Fight Club, “"What kind of dining set defines me as a person?" This consumerism cannot last, but we seem content to wait until the death is closer to home… we don’t care about thousands daily elsewhere.  The 1987 Dead Kennedy’s album boldly declared as a societal critique, “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death”, unfortunately, we don’t get to choose, death is the cost of our convenience.

While many countries fight against political tyranny and oppression, America speaks out hypocritically while a radical economic tyranny and oppression is revealed right here in North America.  In the face of change, the rich of our society are terrified and have tightened their grip on wealth and resources.  As the wealthy increase their hording, governments devise ways to increase their cash flow by attacking the working class (unions in Madison, Wisconsin and teachers in Providence). Cities can’t pay their teachers while billions of dollars bailed out companies so that CEOs could still receive their bonuses and shareholders could still see profitable dividends. They kill our communities because they can’t deal with the pain of change THAT IS NECESSARY for a better future.

(Check out the very different response of the CEO of Japan Airlines)

(Also check out the underrated film The Company Men, a human look at the real price of maximizing company profits)

We can’t just blame the rich though; we have the same fear of change. There are things in our lives that are killing us (not just metaphorically either – smokers I’m talking to you), but we’re terrified of the pain of change.

I’ve often wondered if it’s possible to raise the rock-bottom.  If it takes Aron Ralston until he is on the brink of death to risk the pain of change, is it possible for us to avoid the same?  The movie has a brilliant hidden sub-plot, where Aron’s predicament leads him to consider what else needs change in his life. He begins to realize as well, that some of those other things in his life, areas where we needs to face the pain of change, have led him to this moment… alone and desperate. It took a heck of an experience to lead him to change.  (Aron had, in many ways, chosen isolation in his life… isolation is an absolute epidemic in our culture… we are losing out on life because of it and we are terrified of what change means.  The risk of vulnerability… trusts… hope.)

For some people taking the risk of change takes less than for others.  Some overdose on drugs and nearly die before they’ll face the pain of detox and a path to recovery, others need to see a friend die while others never face the pain of change. For some it is a marriage falling apart, a lost job, the look of disappointment in their kid’s eyes.  For some of you a failing mark in a class might have been enough to adjust your priorities, for others it takes a lot more.

I remember staring into a mirror in my first year of University, looking into the eyes that were looking back into mine and thinking that I saw no life there.  I felt dead inside.  I didn’t know why, I had everything that I thought was going to make me happy… and I felt empty and alone.  I don’t regret my journey, that’s pointless, I’ve very glad for where I am today. At this moment though, I’m wondering what might have been if that had been a moment for change… the pain that might have been avoided, the death… we don’t get a crystal ball… as it is, I still had further to fall.

Carol, who works with me at The Dam, edits many of my blogs for me and responded to this one by saying, “In reflecting on my past, my gut always knew it was the wrong path. Yet I always chose to ignore it in the desire for immediate gratification. So the challlenge in my current life is to develop the ability to listen to "my gut"; to ask the tough question on whether the daily choices I make are bringing me temporary comfort at the expense of long term joy and fulfillment. My hope is that each year I will have the strength and courage to listen to my gut more often.”  There is a word for being able to see past immediate gratification for what might bring long term joy… WISDOM.

Looking back at many circumstances, it is an easy answer to say that our mistakes and much of the pain we’ve experienced as a result, are necessary to teach us what we need to know to become the person we are today.  Everyone is on their own journey, there is no perfect formula for how to grow into a wise and compassionate person.  There is no point in asking, “What could have been?” when all we have are the choices we’ve made and the present reality that results from them. However, does wisdom not demand that we use the lessons we’ve learned to avoid similar mistakes in the future?  Would compassion not demand that we use the lessons we’ve learned to lend our wisdom to others (whether or not they decide to use it)?  If we can be part of the journey of others and aid them in avoiding harmful choices, perhaps there is reason for us having experienced that pain in the first place.  Perhaps others can manage to avoid ending  up in a place where they have to cut their arm off (metaphor).  You don’t have to go through the pain of detox and recovery if you never develop an addiction in the first place.

How do you raise the rock bottom?  How do you see the pain and death waiting down a certain path without needing to walk that path yourself?  It can be hard to see the dead-eyed numbness down the road, when happy, smiling faces are at the entrance way inviting you to join something ‘great’.

We can’t avoid making mistakes, however, can we learn from them earlier?  Can we choose the pain of change before we are absolutely desperate? Can a generation learn from the mistakes of their parents and not repeat them?  YES!  However, it will take risk, and risk takes courage… one might say, it takes a rebel.

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