Wednesday 27 October 2021

The Song Remains the Same: Thoughts on Change and Unchange

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
— Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

In this article I’m going to explore some thoughts concerning change and unchange that I’ve wanted to write about for some time.

The Words Remain the Same

Although I’ve kept a diary since I was fourteen years old, I rarely look back over what I’ve written. I might flick through my current journal to remind myself how I felt a week or so ago, but once a volume’s filled and put away, it tends to stay closed. The exception was when Fran and I were writing High Tide, Low Tide. I read every diary entry I’d written from our first meeting in May 2011, sourcing material to use in our book.

A few weeks ago, though, I decided to read one of my old journals, and chose the A4 day-to-a-page diary for 1984. It was a year of significant change: my first full year in London after graduating from university, a role as best man at the wedding of my two closest friends, a new place of work at the Parkinson’s Disease Society Research Centre, new colleagues, and new friends. Flicking through the entries, there were events, people, and moments I’d not thought about in years. There were others I couldn’t remember at all, such that I’d deny they happened if not for the evidence of my own handwriting. Did I really go to that party, have that conversation, entertain those thoughts?

Most striking of all, though, was how little I seem to have changed. Time and again I read passages from 1984 I could easily have written last year, or last week. The same doubts, fears, and insecurities. The same search for meaning and engagement. The same sense of looking for something just out of reach.

Stuckness and Drama

I recently met up with a friend I’d not seen since December 2019. Over a drink in one of my favourite coffee shops we caught up on what those two years have meant for us. Covid, of course, but there were other significant events and changes in each of our lives; some welcome, some not so much. Sharing with her gave me a fresh perspective on things. You don’t always notice slow or incremental change when you’re talking with the same people all the time. Back in March, I shared my profound sense of foreboding and loss at what the pandemic has wrought. More recently, I described how my underlying mood seems to have fallen from positive to low. Other aspects of my life have remained more or less unaltered. These include my key friendships and relationships, but also my sense of stuckness at work, and lack of clarity about career and personal goals.

Mention of stuckness reminds me of English artist Tracey Emin, whose memoir Strangeland I read years ago. Emin once told her then boyfriend Billy Childish he was “stuck! stuck! stuck!” with his art, poetry, and music. The insult was adopted by Childish and fellow artist Charles Thomson, who coined the term “Stuckism” for their art, claiming it “a quest for authenticity.” I’m probably not using it the way the artists intended, but what stuck (pun intended) in my mind was how the word could be simultaneously viewed as an insult and a label of pride and acclaim.

Much of my adult life was lived in a state of stuckness akin to being asleep. Not the restful sleep that refreshes and renews; more like being in a coma. I woke, or was woken, maybe fifteen years ago, since when my life has been anything but static. It’s been intense, dramatic, and changeable, and much of the intensity has involved other people. Not for nothing are CONNECTION and CHALLENGE my key values. It occurred to me that I may value intensity so much that I seek it out or create it if it’s not already present in my life. As I asked in my journal a few weeks ago, “Do I crave emotional drama to distract and disturb me from baseline depression and numbness?”

The Constancy of Change

The epigram with which I opened this article — Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — was coined by French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849. It translates into English as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I take this as suggesting there’s a deeper order beneath the ups-and-downs we perceive as drama or change. It’s something I’ve glimpsed on occasion, most recently in relation to one of my best friends.

Ours has been amongst the most changeable and intense friendships I’ve ever known. There were times we weren’t friends at all. What I realised the other day, however, is that I feel incredibly safe and secure in our friendship. The insight is this: if I focus on the ups and downs, the things that have happened in the past and may happen again, our friendship feels dramatic and uncertain. But once I accept that change is an integral part of the connection we share, I can appreciate the underlying constancy of our commitment as friends.

This insight doesn’t mean there’ll be no further drama, in this friendship or my life in general. I’m sure there will be. I hope there is. But I see now that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Stability and challenge can coexist.

A Need for Problems?

Karr’s words led me to an article titled The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same. It’s well worth reading, but it was an excerpt from one reader’s comments that caught my attention: “Why is it that people need to have problems? I think we get bored, life is all about making things better we almost want to break something [in order] to fix it.” This is similar to what I said about my decades asleep at the wheel and my craving for emotional drama. Author Maya Mendoza claimed that “[n]o amount of security is worth the suffering of a mediocre life chained to a routine that has killed your dreams.”

But not everyone is looking for this kind of challenge. One friend told me she’s had enough trauma and drama, and craves nothing more than the stability of “a normal life.” In her situation I’d feel the same. The decades I look back on as insufficiently challenging were largely the product of privilege and good fortune. I could afford to be bored because I was lucky enough not to have experienced trauma, serious illness, abuse, or any of the other “dramas” so many have known. There are many who would exchange the circumstances of my life for theirs in a heart-beat.

The Nature of Change

I’ve been talking as though we can choose a life of stability or one of change. We can certainly invite change into our lives. I once made a conscious decision to dissolve the inner circle of friends model I’d lived with for years. It wasn’t easy but it profoundly improved the quantity and quality of my relationships. One friend told me she hates feeling powerless when change is imposed on her; the covid pandemic being the most recent major example. On the other hand, she holds herself open to opportunities. “Chosen challenge and change,” she said. “Are things I embrace willingly.”

But the opposite isn’t true. We can’t decide to have no change in our lives at all, no matter how much we might wish it. Change happens, irregularly, and often not how we’d want it to, but it happens. No aspect of our lives is immune. The people we care about and rely on, our role in those relationships, the places we inhabit, the society in which we live, and the world at large. Everything is subject to change. Some changes creep up on us so gradually we’re scarcely aware what’s happening. Others arrive suddenly and unannounced. The latter are often the most significant and impactful, whether we deem the impact good or bad. (And our perception may shift over time as we review past changes in the light of what came afterwards.)

Every new friendship brings change into our lives. Fran and I met by chance one day in May 2011 on the social media page of a mutual friend. Within minutes, we were friends, and have never looked back. It was different with another of my best friends. Aimee and I met through the mental health charity Time to Change but our connection deepened gently over time and it’s hard to pinpoint the moment we became friends. However it begins, no relationship remains the same for long. Fran and I discuss the principal drivers of change in our friendship in our book High Tide, Low Tide.

It would be wrong to give the impression we are in a stable, fixed pattern in which we always know what to do and nothing ever goes wrong. There is little stable or fixed about living with mental illness or caring for someone who does. Our friendship grows as we face the challenges of our long-distance, mutually supportive relationship. Fran’s health is inherently variable. Depression, mania, fatigue, and pain fluctuate — sometimes together, sometimes independently — and affect us in different ways. Her love of travel is a further challenge. It limits our ability to keep in touch, and can threaten Fran’s health directly as she moves beyond her established routines and supports.

Stability and Change in Dynamic Tension

Earlier, I said how little I seem to have changed since the 1980s. I was genuinely dismayed to realise I’m still dealing with issues, frustrations, and hang-ups I wrote about in my diary thirty-seven years ago. How much of our nature and behaviour falls within our power to change? Have I not been trying hard enough?

It’s a topic that comes up a lot in conversations with Fran and other friends. It won’t surprise you to learn I have no clear answers, although I believe meaningful change and growth are possible. I see it time and again in others, and in myself too. At some fundamental level I may be the person I’ve always been, and some of the doubts and insecurities I struggled with years ago undoubtedly remain part of my make-up. But in other respects I have grown.

I believe there’s a dynamic tension between the urge to improve (which is to say change) our situation and challenge ourselves in ways that are meaningful to us, and the comforting reassurance of whatever is whole, known, and stable in our lives. Whether stability means family, friends, home, work, or some inner resilience, it provides the grounding from which we can move forward. One friend of mine is working on making healthy changes in her life, despite feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of the task. She sometimes feels she’s making no progress, but as I wrote to her, “You keep moving. It might be baby steps sometimes but you never stay stuck for long. You are always looking for ways to move forward.”

This urge to grow, to push out and on from where we are, is echoed in the following lines from the Led Zeppelin classic, “The Song Remains the Same.”

You don’t know what you’re missing, now
Any little song that you know
Everything that’s small has to grow
And it’s gonna grow, push push, yeah.

Over to You

I’ve shared some of my thoughts concerning change and stability or stasis. These affect us all in different ways and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you welcome change or find it difficult to navigate? Do you yearn for stability or does it terrify you? In what ways do you feel you’ve changed over the years? In what ways are you the same?

Over to you. Comment below or get in touch. Our contact details remain the same!


Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.


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