Listen to this article
As a society, we’re upbeat about change. A whole coaching industry is devoted to it. This positive view of change is about having novel experiences, making the most of the opportunities that come our way or becoming the kind of person we really want to be. Keeping on the move is good. The metaphor of change through movement – we’re really going places, we’re moving up the career ladder – is pervasive.
Staying the same is not admired quite so much. We tend to underrate the virtues of continuity, reliability, stability. A stable existence is often described in negative terms: we’re stuck in a rut. When catching up with an old friend you may even feel awkward confessing you’re in the same job, living in the same place, married to the same person. How unimaginative is that? It’s almost like admitting to a character flaw.
Of course, it’s not news that change is not always for the best. The unwelcome side of change is when it brings what we neither want nor can avoid. Things wear out and come to an end. We lose jobs, get divorced, get older, become ill, lose people close to us. Perhaps because of an assumption that the ideal life really is attainable, when we’re hit by this kind of change we can be baffled and upset by a vague sense that somehow it shouldn’t be happening.
But it should be happening: we’re human beings. It’s not realistic to imagine that the good situations that have come our way will continue indefinitely.
When facing a change we have not sought, we often try to adhere to the narrative that change is ultimately for the best by telling ourselves we’ll be a better, stronger person for it. And that can be true. But it would be an overstatement to say that unwelcome change needs to be embraced. All we have to do is to accept it and get on with our lives as best we can, adapting to inevitable new circumstances instead of clinging to the way things were. Liking them is optional.
Ancient Greek philosophers are not short of modern-day champions, arguing that their ideas matter now more than ever. But although the likes of Plato, Aristotle or Epicurus may well speak to our age, arguably it is Heraclitus who speaks for it most eloquently.
Heraclitus is famous for one simple and powerful aphorism: you cannot step into the same river twice. Everything is in flux, nothing remains the same. And what was originally an observation about nature has now become an imperative. We must innovate. The technological revolution is without end. If it’s not new and improved, it’s old and obsolete.
However, every saying has an equal and opposite. So while there is truth in “Nothing is permanent except change”, there is also wisdom in “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”. If we attend too much to the ubiquity of impermanence, we risk failing to notice the counterbalancing stubbornness of continuity.
Think, for instance, about the idea that we should embrace change. Implicit in this is an assumption that there is a “we” which is sufficiently the same over time to see other changes come and go. So while we should not be wedded to overly fixed ideas of identity, we should also not forget that there is a sense in which we remain recognisably the same.
The right perspective, then, is to see both continuity and change. Over time, nothing remains exactly the same but there is nothing completely new under the sun either.
That’s a balancing act we modern-day Heraclitans are perhaps not best equipped to pull off. After all, who would want to step into the same river twice, even if you could? Been there, done that, boring. But even as we constantly upgrade, seek out new experiences and fear monotony, we all know that the restless pursuit of novelty is exhausting and unfulfilling. To counter our unhealthy fetish for change, we need to remind ourselves that changes are often less important than what remains unaltered, whether it’s a person or a smartphone. For all that the river has changed, what matters most is that it’s still a river.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email email@example.com
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published