As I was mindlessly plodding through a workout recently, I glanced up to see an elderly gentleman transfixed by the news on the overhead monitor. From his stopped-in-his-tracks spot in the middle of the weight room floor, I followed his gaze up to the silent TV – tuned to CNN – and bearing the headline, “U.K. Approves Making One Baby from Three People.” His expression did not change as he studied the screen. After a minute or so, he moved on.
I wished I had my phone for a quick picture of the scene. Growing up in the 70’s, I had been a regular fan of the sitcom Happy Days starring the now famous director Ron Howard and Henry Winkler as the Fonz. As Happy Days aged and the plotlines grew evermore outlandish, the writers finally cooked up an episode where Fonzie jumped over a shark on water skis – in his leather jacket. “Jumped the shark” thereby entered our lexcion as descriptor of the moment where a credible concept is pushed beyond credulity. Truth was, Fonzie was cool but hardly seemed the type to waterski in the first place let alone jump off a ramp in street clothes. Likewise, a baby created from three people with the approval of Parliament struck me as a parody of modern life. My elderly gym mate would likely agree – it was a moment where we collectively jumped the shark. More precisely, it was another moment where we jumped the shark. We are nothing if not shark jumpers these days.
We live in a time where talk about the pace of change reduces us to clichés. It is rapid and relentless, accelerating and disorienting, and cleverly summarized in sticky tropes like “preparing young people for jobs that do not currently exist to solve problems yet to be defined.” Change has become difficult to talk about because it is talked about so much. In a contest to be original, coining the most original buzzword du jour that becomes part of the noise has become an end in itself.
For example, I recently was in the audience of a distinguished diplomat interpreting the Middle East and describing the deterioration of governments in the region. He explained that a new term, “ungoverned spaces,” had gained currency as a way of describing forsaken swaths of land like those contested by ISIS, freedom fighting rebels and the regimes of Syria and Iraq. “Ungoverned spaces” would have described much of the planet not too long ago – not to mention many areas in the homes of modern American families. Nevertheless, I could tell he was hoping that his audience might adopt and use this phrase with attribution. I am willing to grant half that wish. Ungoverned space is the primary product of our times whether in actual real estate created through political crisis, or in the no less real netherworlds brought about by technological breakthroughs (one baby, three people…), media saturation or the erosion of common and commonly held values up and down the social rungs of our democracy.
So, back to “change.” Has there ever been a moment in human history where people did not feel the world was changing quickly? Where ungoverned spaces were not at least perceived as expanding physically, metaphorically or both? In hindsight we can see jolts of progress and dislocation clearly but I suspect even in eras where we see historical stasis, human experience on the ground was all about tumult and turmoil. Even the ancient term “stasis” – used today to refer to a state of equilibrium and balance with no change – was born of a time in Greek history of constant feuds and conflicts. The opposing factions simply fought to a draw and things stayed the same. I’d bet it felt like rapid and relentless change.
The wisdom of our prophets and sages has always pointed us toward a deeper understanding of change and a view to more distant horizons. Across both time and faith traditions, they have spoken most profoundly to the ungoverned spaces within each of us. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, an early 20th Century French paleontologist and Jesuit priest, was one such wise man. He offered the following prayer – and the last word of this essay – entitled, Patient Trust:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
To reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
To something unknown
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
By passing through some stages of instability
And that may take a very long time.
So I think it is with you.
Let your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
As though you could be today what time
– that is to say grace –
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
Gradually forming in you will be.
Give God the benefit of believing
That his hand is leading you.
And accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
In suspense and incomplete.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
Our loving vine-dresser.
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin