Change, it has been said, is the only constant. Certainly, it’s been around since before one-celled organisms began the long process whose current results we see all around us. I use “current” because we humanoids — let alone giraffes, salmon and poison ivy — are hardly the culmination of the evolutionary process. No one considering, for example, the existential threats of the rapidly warming planet, can be sure what will become of either us or our fellow denizens of planet Earth. Professor Yuval Harari’s “Home Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” makes some fascinating and comforting predictions. But it’s clear that we are merely a way station — and a contentious one, at that — on a journey with no discernible end.
The Greek sage Heraclitus, who lived in Turkey 500 years before the Common Era, is most famous for his observation that no man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s never the same river, and he’s not the same man. Change, he posited, was the only constant. If those statements weren’t true, historians would be out of jobs. At the moment, they (and we) are busy as bees, trying to explain how we’ve managed once again (the Civil War springs to mind) to transform our “perfect union” into such a mess — much less what we can do about it. What’s happened, and happening, to us?
What’s happening is the increasing rate of profound social, cultural and technological change. I’ve flogged this horse before, but I think it’ll still pull the plow. Many of us seem not only challenged, but threatened by change. Some of it is small stuff: Vermont Public Radio ends its commentary series, which I liked a lot; but I can handle that. My demographic is less important to them nowadays than the ones they’re courting. Also, after only a couple of years of getting used to a new computer program, I learn (the hard way) that it’s become defunct. OK, I can change. Do I have a choice? On the other hand, I no longer have to carry my car battery indoors on super-cold nights (of which there are fewer now, anyway); I no longer have to deliver my copy physically to the newspaper office; and dentistry, on the few occasions it still occurs, no longer involves, as it once did, a treadle-operated drill that grinds and burns its way through enamel and into pulp, smoking like a Native American fire-starter.
Many people, however, feeling what they perceive as shifting sand beneath their feet, respond less quietly. They perceive the recent global wave of migrations as existential threats that will eradicate their way of life, and they react violently. Some politicians, in attempts to consolidate their bases of support, refer to the migrants as “invaders.” The August issue of National Geographic, however, disagrees. Its cover story is titled “A World on the Move — Seas rise, crops wither, wars erupt. Humankind seeks shelter in another place.” It’s probably too much to expect those who wish immigrants didn’t exist to soften their response; unfortunately, it also seems to be too much to expect them to see the reason: Large parts of the globe are rapidly becoming uninhabitable and dangerous. It’s stunning to realize there are still those who deny humankind is responsible. Too many decision-makers live in air-conditioned pods.
As usual when things get tough, our human tendency is to ignore the facts or science and blame others. I often wonder whether the folks complaining about immigrants “stealing jobs” were contemplating careers as chicken and pork processors, or traveling crop pickers. A 21-year-old white man in Texas, inflamed by web pages touting “The Great Replacement” — the conspiracy theory that “the white race” is under siege by “others” — armed himself with a weapon designed to support his fantasies, drove 600 miles to a Walmart in El Paso where thousands of Hispanics shop daily, walked in and started shooting. The most poignant of the deaths that day were those of two parents who shielded their newborn with their bodies. (The baby survived to become a prop in an obscene photo opportunity.) What sparked the shooter’s anger? The fear of change beyond his control and powers of adaptation. Reminds me of the story of King Canute, who had his throne set on the beach at low tide and warned the sea not to wet his feet. Unlike the shooter, he knew better; he was simply demonstrating the impotence of even kings against the inevitable.
Probably the most obvious attempt to resist change is the proliferation of those silly little red ball caps emblazoned, “Make America Great Again.” I don’t mean to trivialize the wearers’ fears; they clearly yearn for the days when change occurred at a slower pace, when members of minority groups knew their place (my wife’s Virginia landlady remarked in 1958 that they were hardly stepping off the sidewalk for her anymore), and members of those same groups weren’t being elected to Congress.
It’s got to be difficult — and, apparently, impossible for some — to live with the realization the tide will wet their feet like King Canute’s. There are only three choices open to them (and us): Fight hopelessly against change; adapt to it, whether cheerfully or grumpily; or take the inevitable by the horns, put away the guns and signs and little ball caps, and work with the others for the world they and we desire.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.