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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Change

We humans are slippery creatures, so determined to offer up answers based on dogma, emotions, impatience, or ignorance rather than reason or the application of some process designed to help us counter the overwhelming challenges we have created for ourselves. It is hard to understand why we do this, why it is so much easier to wrap our problems in a cloak of mystery or throw our hands up in surrender at the daunting issues we face.


Our lack of progress toward resolving the issues of our day has less to do with the difficulty of finding solutions and everything to do with our unwillingness to do so. Questions such as: how we ensure equal access to quality healthcare regardless of income; or how we ensure a living wage to all who are able to work or provide for those who are unable to care for themselves—much less larger questions about human morality, the sustainability of our planet or achieving peace appear beyond our capacities. We may express a heartfelt desire to achieve difficult objectives, but we are quick to abandon them if we are inconvenienced in the process. Yet, history provides us with lessons demonstrating that we can commit ourselves to achieving at least some of our desired outcomes if failure to do so threatens our immediate existence.


Are humans simply perverse or is something else at work? Size and complexity are clearly impediments to finding solutions to our biggest and most durable challenges. Humans simply do not adapt well to either, we have little patience, and prefer simple and immediate answers to problems that have confounded humankind for centuries.


Disagreements as to approach are the certainly the most common obstacles to affect a solution to an intransigent issue. Opposing sides rarely question their respective assumptions nor propose ways to objectively evaluate their respective views. Our binary nature inevitably casts problems and proposed solutions into an oppositional wrestling match that will never achieve any meaningful progress. The need to be right almost always supplants any desire to find a viable outcome.


Finally, our desire to find the perfect or complete solution to our problems outweighs our willingness to try a graduated approach. Small victories are regarded as such, with the emphasis on small not victory. Rather than viewing incremental gains as productive and hopeful signs, our tendency is to dismiss them as indications of ultimate failure, unworkable because they have not produced an instantaneous and complete success.


Those who are experienced with change management will recognize the obstacles I’ve outlined. They are the most frequently cited reasons why change is so very difficult to achieve. Imparting a sense of urgency, identifying those who have a sense of ownership of the problem, creating a shared investment in the outcome; these are a few of the techniques experienced change managers use to help groups overcome the fear of loss which underlies resistance to change.


Certainly, humanity faces many challenges to its sustainability, not least our irresponsible use of limited resources, lack of regard for our environment, continued and disproportionate investment in instruments of force rather than in the education and welfare of our citizens. But as we have seen during the current pandemic even an existential threat is insufficient to unite us in a common effort. Have humans reached a tipping point where it is no longer possible to change?


I admit that at times I am inclined toward a pessimistic view—a sense of hopelessness that even on limited questions the possibility of détente and accord are achievable. I share with many others a sense of retreat rather than progress. But I am reminded of many personal experiences where it seemed that our nation and indeed the world seemed a very dark place indeed. In every case I recall the future seemed the bleakest just before a change for the better. It is at this peak point of resistance when the forces arrayed against change and the fear and uncertainty that prompts it are at their greatest. That should be a sign—a telltale that allows us to read the portents as sailors read the signs of an impending storm. Sailors know they cannot outrun or maneuver away, they must ride out the storm’s fury. So it is with change—even if we embrace it fully, as so few of us are naturally inclined.


The portents of change are all around us—a simmering unwillingness to accept economic, racial, gender and social disparities, desperate and intransigent efforts to hold on to a past that never existed as we have been taught and a widespread distrust of every institution and structure that holds our frail society together. Will it get worse? Quite possibly, but it is always this way, darkness followed by light, storm followed by calm, resistance transformed into acceptance. Life is messy and unpredictable. It follows that what we have created to shelter us from the vagaries of unbridled change are insubstantial vessels in the face of tidal force. Our choices are simple—ride it out or be caught up in its fury. Change is a crevasse we must navigate, if we have any hope of doing so, it is best we do it in one leap.

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