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I have recently become hyperaware of my left thumb. The reason for this is that in my enthusiasm for preparing dinner last night, I sliced quite deeply into the tip of it and it is now snugly taped up with steri-strips and a bandaid. It’s not just that I’m left-handed, which of course makes this accident all the more inconvenient; or that I now have to pay close attention to how I handle and manoeuvre objects in order not to cause myself additional pain; it’s that I have seldom noticed before how much of a role that thumb plays in my general level of manual dexterity. I feel hobbled.

This is really just a particular instance of not appreciating what I have until I don’t have it. Fortunately, in this case, the situation is temporary – the injury is already showing good signs of healing, so it’s likely I will have recovered full use of my thumb well before the minor adaptations I’m currently exercising have become habitual. It does make me wonder, though, how I would respond to a much more profound and long-lasting – even permanent – change in my ability to function; and opens the broader issue of dealing with change generally, especially if it’s not a change for the better.

Coping with change is a field that has already spawned self-help books and websites by the bucketload, so I don’t want to add to the vast body of peppy, preachy literature that already exists. This post isn’t going to contain any advice. Like the good little aspiring philosopher I am, though, I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about change and how to deal with it, accept it, even embrace it as part of a more general Epicurean approach to pursuing a life of tranquillity.

“Life is change,” sang Jefferson Airplane in ‘Crown of Creation’. “How it differs from the rocks.” Of course, everything in nature, including rocks, is continually changing – it’s just that living things appear to do it more rapidly; and moreover, many of us are capable of consciously experiencing change, which, so we presume, rocks cannot do. It’s so simple it sounds like a truism but actually taking on board the idea that life is change can have profound effects on the way we think about the world and our time in it. At least that’s how it’s been for me.

I suspect it may in part have been the result of a religious upbringing that I started out approaching my life with a sense of certainty. Religions deal in certainties about the way the world is and the way it ought to be – trouble is, they’re often wrong, not just about the fact claims they make but also in their resistance to change. Had not this sense of certainty in me been challenged by my experience of the world, or had I been more reluctant to admit the challenges as they came, I would be a very different person to who I am today. Looking back, I wonder at this – how many seemingly insignificant circumstances added up to a significant change over time; an evolution, of sorts. It’s tempting to think that there have been a few pivotal moments, momentous decisions I have made along the way that have “shaped” my life in significant ways; but I suspect it’s closer to the truth to say that an accumulation of smaller changes brought me to those pivotal moments where decisions were required.

I have found it intellectually and emotionally liberating to consider my life in terms of its fluidity rather than as a series of more-or-less fixed states. Evidence from neuroscience is mounting that our brains are more capable of change and adaptation than was previously understood. I have my own set of evidence for neuroplasticity in the ways I have found to deal with recurrent episodes of depression. The first time, I didn’t understand what was going on and I wondered if I would feel that way forever. I’ve since learned that depression, like any other mental state, is transitory and open to influence from both internal and external sources.

Of course not all change is going to be positive – unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I don’t subscribe to the solipsistic “nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so” maxim. Some things are just not good, no matter how you dress them up. Cancer, dementia, even just getting old and frail are the kinds of changes most people would prefer to avoid if they can. Yet it’s curiously comforting to consider that without bad changes, there would almost certainly be no good changes either. Admitting the changes we don't necessarily want is the price for not subsisting in a state of flat, dull sameness. It’s easier to accept the bad things that happen in life when I consider them as part of the vast, endlessly mutable tapestry of existence.

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dormant_dragon

October 2013

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