I spent one day in Paris over the winter holiday. The build up of anticipation left me pondering: “How does one cram all the charms of a city into the nooks and crannies of a single day?”
I’ve spent years day dreaming about the eccentricities of this particular city.
It was almost nothing like I imagined.
Not once did I hear La Vie en Rose echoing through a corner cafe. There was not one fiercely beautiful French woman pausing at the street corner to adjust her Hermes scarf. And I even saw tourists snapping pictures of La Tour Eiffel sparkling with nighttime lights, in front of police officers, with no repercussions. (Article.)
What I also saw were a thousand selfie sticks in front of Notre Dame alone. The famed lights of Paris at Christmas time. And a well-worn path across the grounds of the Louvre.
The city was even more enchanting because it didn’t meet my expectations. And the ways it differed were intriguing, poetic even: the crooked streets, the expansive architecture, the pathway of the Seine running up and down the curves of the city, the smallest shops next to the biggest cathedrals. I was mesmerized.
But the city was quiet with complacency. My visit was just a week before the Charlie Hebdo attack. A scene that transformed the city from the one I experienced on a lazy, December day to something entirely different. I’m sure Paris will never be exactly the same for its dramatic and devastating experience. And I’m sure I’ll view it through a different lens should I ever have the opportunity to go back.
I often speak of shifts in my line of work. Shifts are the dramatic changes undergone by individuals and societies alike that can happen in tiny increments or in a single moment.
Paris groaned under the weight of a shift the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. A shift that cut into the normal rhythms of the city and left that city dissected for quite some time. This is the type of shift that most of us are afraid of experiencing, and for good reason. Sudden change is scary.
Seeing Paris transformed overnight left me contemplating the quivering anxiety of sudden change. I understand all too well how difficult tragic change is, but I often speak with people who fear positive change as well. Examples include going off to college, moving, getting married, and switching jobs.
It would appear that our humanity produces a type of existential angst around change that is tied to our identities. It goes something like this: If I take the plunge, will I cease to exist as I am? Will this shift rob me of my identity? (If I take the plunge will it prove how unlovable, inadequate, helpless, [insert your own word] I really am?). In essence, will this dramatic change prove my worst fears about myself?
We don’t articulate it that way, of course. It gets voiced as: “I’m afraid I won’t perform well in this new role.” Or, “What if no one likes me in college?” Or, “How can I possibly handle this new responsibility as a husband?” So we avoid change to anesthetize ourselves from the pain that we fear will come with the dramatic shift.
I experienced a dramatic shift this past month. I became a mother. The landscape of my life is forever altered. And yet, I am still me. This change has challenged me in so many ways, but it hasn’t consumed me. I have to learn to be a more efficient yet sleepy version of myself, but I am still me.
It’s foreign yet familiar. It’s foreign in all the swaddled newness a baby brings. Yet familiar in that I can see my typical emotional patterns and pathways being retraced, just in heightened form. My typical stress responses get activated, and I have to work endlessly to use my internal and external resources well. What has also emerged, however, is unbridled joy–a fuller experience of love.
The irony surrounding our change-angst is that our identity development is usually more stunted by avoiding change than embracing it. Think of Howard Hughes, the famed Renaissance man and billionaire who couldn’t enjoy his wealth and success because he had a crippling fear of germs that left him confined to a lonely existence in his home. He had intellect, fame, and fortune, and yet his daily life became more horrific than any phobia he could concoct.
While our experiences are rarely that extreme, there’s a lesson, here, for all of us. Is there a life change you’ve been avoiding? What are you afraid will happen to you if you do embrace it? You’ll be a failure? You’ll miss your life of comfort? You’ll end up alone? Now, reverse that question for a moment. What might happen if you don’t embrace it? You’ll be a failure? You’ll end up alone? Consider how your paralysis might be limiting you right now. Could your avoidance of change end up being the real tragedy?
Avoiding change due to existential angst means not that we’ll escape a crisis of identity; rather, we’ll miss out on a fuller realization of who we are and what we’re capable of.
In the simple yet profound words of one master of change: “Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Oh, how immensely tragic it is when we don’t grow. We are, in essence, allowing ourselves to be handicapped, crippled in our identities. And yet, when we take the risk to grow, there may just be an unbridled joy. Could we possibly discover a fuller experience of love?
PS. This recent change in my world ushers in a formatting change for my blog. Expect shorter sound bites in variable intervals. There will still be stories, just in condensed form. Who knows what discoveries we’ll make in The Raconteer, redefined!