By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
Biker's Diary

These past weeks I’ve experienced several occasions when the response to a suggestion was either “We’ve never done it that way,” or “We’ve always done it this way.” It reminded me of a column I’d written a few years back about change and resistance to it, and thought it was worth reprinting. Here it is, from September of 2012.

One of the news stories this week has been about a school that was failing, apparently on all counts. Unhappy parents banded together and organized to attempt to do something about it. The school dug in its heels, vigorously defending the status quo. People chose up sides, and the town is of course a battleground.

What the parents asked for is change, and that reminded me of a bookmark I had received once tucked into a package of music I had ordered. On the bookmark, really an advertisement was a photo of a very crabby-looking woman, with her face puckered up in an expression of intense disapproval. The caption read, “Ask your church to change and watch the sparks fly!”

With very little editing, that caption could be applied to the school in question in the news story. Or, turn the situation around: have the school ask the townspeople for change, and the same thing would happen.

We humans are really uncomfortable with change. I have a bunch of cartoons reflecting that fact. One is an older woman sitting on a park bench; an older man is lying on the ground with his head under the bench and he is looking up at the bottom of it. The woman — assume wife — is saying to her husband, “You miss your job at the garage, don’t you, Bennett?” Even when it is something to which we all look forward, such as retirement, the big change still makes us uncomfortable.

That’s the first response on a continuum of how people respond to change, crisis, and even death: not knowing what is coming next raises the level of anxiety and fear. It’s just like another cartoon I have saved. This one is a man up to his neck in water; the caption reads simply “New Neighborhood,” and the only other occupants are a bunch of fierce-looking unrecognizable creatures.

I found an article I had saved from January of 1983, from the big city newspaper, titled “A sense of dread for things unknown.” It describes a child saying, “I hate shepherd’s pie. Yuk.” The parental response: “Have you ever eaten any?” “No.” Do you know what it looks like?” “No.” “Then how do you know you hate it?” “I just do. Yuk.”

The author, Robert Treuer, went on to say “The reaction is not unusual for a four- or five-year-old. It is the fear or distrust of something strange, foreign, new or unknown; and if not of something, then of someone….it lingers on in the child within us.” Because of this fear and/or distrust, it colors our view of and response to “the shepherd’s pie, the oysters we have never tasted, or a stranger in our midst.”

The increasing pace of change in our world was just becoming readily apparent back then. About the same time, the late Dr. John Brantner, a futurist and professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of Minnesota wrote: “Change: A Way of Life” (in September 1982 Minnesota magazine). He pointed out that even though “we have experienced more change than any people in history,” we still know little about the dynamics and influence of change. He thought that our inability to deal well with change is a significant factor in our illnesses, because change “introduces a feeling of loss of control…and introduces an anxiety that may erode our well being.”

Brantner gave some words of advice when faced with change: “If you sit quietly at your desk with your hands folded, you’ll die.” It is in those situations when we are embarrassed or anxious, or discouraged or depressed, or taken by surprise, that we will find “unparalleled opportunity for growth.” He predicted that we would need to accept and incorporate change as a way of life. And now we know that the only thing that is constant in our lives is change.

The reason I have a file filled with cartoons about change and our resistance to it is because quite often in my career I was “called in” to help facilitate a change in a company’s culture. That was never easy, and I always found that humor helps people to accept realities that they didn’t necessarily like. And humor helped them deal with it in a much more positive way. Another of my favorites was from Calvin and Hobbes (Dec. 26, 1993) which is still appropriate. Hobbes asked Calvin if he was going to make any resolutions for the new year. Calvin replied, “Nope! I want everything to stay the same as it was this year.” “Everything?” “Right. This year was lousy, but at least it was familiar. I hate change. It’s too disruptive! When things are different, you have to think about the change and deal with it! I like things to stay the same, so I can take everything for granted!

“Besides, things keep changing for the worse! The longer I live, the more complicated everything gets! I say let’s stop here before life gets any harder! From now on, no more change!” There follows two more cartoon frames in which the two of them just stand there. Finally, Calvin says, “I’m bored. Let’s do something different.” And Hobbes observes knowingly, “Some things don’t change.”

The parents and the school in the news this week because they were in conflict need to start with a few cartoons about change. That might get them back to reality and maybe even a joint venture in problem solving.