When Is Change Good? Discerning between Progress and Regress

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I have an amazing job.  I get to teach 150+ students, most of whom are high school seniors on the verge of adulthood, about all-important questions such as how to know what knowledge is, where it comes from, how to get it, how to recognize its false substitutes, etc., in my Theory of Knowledge course.   Even the most amazing jobs, though, can become a mundane grind: in my case, grading papers constantly (many of which are disappointingly mediocre), writing tests, talking to confused parents about how their ‘brilliant’ child could possibly be doing so poorly.  In the mundane, it is hard to remember why what we do matters, and why we sought out to do this work in the first place.  Thus, it is important, for motivation over the long haul, to have our calendars punctuated by reminders (sometimes planned, sometimes unplanned) of the significance of our work, defined simply as the larger good our work contributes to.

I’m fortunate to know ahead of time that such a moment is coming annually at our Senior dinner for the students completing the intellectually demanding magnet program in which I teach.  This year approximately 100 students are graduating from the program.  The dinner might be what you would expect:  a time of reminiscing on the past 4 years (with plenty of laughs about the goofballs they all were as freshman), of celebrating their accomplishments, and of looking forward hopefully into the future.  Traditionally, the gathering also includes a time for teachers to give a message of encouragement, exhortation, and advice for living.

I love having this last time with them as a captive audience, all together in one place.  Striving for two years to impart to them wisdom and understanding, this is my last shot at driving home ideas that I hope will make a difference in the way they see the world and decisions they make.  I do not have a standard message that I recycle each year, but try to tailor it uniquely to my experience with that group.  The themes, though, are similar.  Given that their minds were already full of memories of the past and their hearts in awe and perhaps appreciation of how far they have come, I gave them a message about the nature of change.  I would like to share the gist of my message with you, as it is universally applicable.

Not all change is growth; knowing when change is true progress is essential to having a successful life.  A culture that elevates the here and the now, the gratification of the moment, tends to embrace change uncritically, naively equating the new with the good.  As musical artists The Avett Brothers decry, “It’s in with the new and out with the old; Out goes the warmth, and in comes the cold; It’s the most predictable story told; In with the young, out with old” (“Down with the Shine,” The Carpenter, 2012).  But how does one know that change is progress?  It might be regress; it might just be different.  How can one tell?

Intuitively, we know that judging whether change is good or not requires some kind of standard; something that is at least more permanent than that which is changing.  It is analogous to how we judge motion relative to a fixed point of reference.  When we travel, we judge progress with reference to our final destination; the concept of progress would be meaningless without a destination.  If our destination lies to the East of our current location, we can only know we are moving East by comparing our changing position to something that is not moving.

But what is the final destination toward which our lives are moving?  While there are multiple answers that are possible, our culture is increasingly skeptical and agnostic about these answers.  To some, the answer is determined by each individual (which is problematic because it results in loneliness and isolation, with no assurances that anyone is journeying with you); to others, the answer is a negation:  there is no destination because life is ultimately random and therefore purposeless (which is problematic because it renders the need for purpose and hope meaningless).  Both approaches make judgments about change unintelligible:  change is just different, neither really better or really worse.

The biblical worldview teaches plainly that in the end all people are headed to one of two destinations.  C.S. Lewis contrasts these ends vividly and explains their significance for how we relate to others:

The dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.

At any given moment, we, as creatures inhabiting time and space, are simultaneously being and becoming.  In other words, who we are has been realized to a degree in the present, but there is also a not yet aspect to our existence.  But the changes we undergo are not neutral: we are either become more and more glorious and complete (conforming to the likeness we were made to be) or more and more wretched and wispy (distorting further the likeness we were made to be).

As I exhorted my students, I likewise exhort my readers.  Be self-aware and observant of the ways in which you are changing.  And reflect often on whether these changes constitute true growth of your soul.  Who has God made you to be?  Who are you becoming?

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