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Living With Style (Rule One): Lose Yourself

Remembering From Where We Came

clockbusinessman If you were a contemporary of Adam, Seth, Methuselah, or even Noah, the word change probably had little meaning to you.  Life was what it was, and little changed from year to year much less from century to century.  There were still sheep to graze, disputes to settle, crops to plant, and natural disasters to weather.  Adam lived 930 years, time enough to watch his son Seth live well or badly for 800 years, and time enough to regret his first sin time and again.  Methuselah lived longer than any recorded human being at 969 years.  How much change did he see in 969 years?  Not much, I suspect, and though Noah witnessed a life-changing event, a catastrophic flood, no doubt in the many years before the flood life went on, badly it seems, pretty much the same.  On Noah’s birth, his father Lamech said “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from the painful toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29).  Consider the unending weariness of day in day out toil for not decades but centuries.  Not much changed.

Yet today, change is an existential fact of existence, on the lips of not only politicians, technocrats, and self-help gurus, but a fact of life all around us.  The very pace is dizzying, and given the rate of change we suffer both a collective and individual amnesia about how much things have changed.  For example, I forget sometimes that I did not always either at work or at home sit and type in front of a computer screen, communicate by email, or glean a great deal of my information from the internet.  Oh, I remember that it hasn’t always been this way, but I have a difficult time remembering what I did instead of these activities or what it felt like without this technology.  At work, for example, I largely researched legal issues using books in a library, took notes on my research, outlined my argument, and dictated sometimes lengthy briefs.  Now I do my research largely on the computer at my desk, type a rough draft myself, organizing as I go, and email it to my secretary to be finalized.  In that change, which was a gradual one, it occurs to me that something has happened both in the way I think and in how I regard information.  Somehow, the information I find on the internet seems more malleable, less fixed, than what I saw in those casebooks on dusty library shelves, and less esteemed when viewed at the privacy of my desk than in the silence and solemnity of an imposing library.  Since I’ve stopped dictating, I’ve also lost the ability to organize my thoughts in my mind, putting together sentences as I speak.  I also have less face-to-face contact with my secretary and more by the less personal and nuanced vehicle of email.  (Don’t think of me dictating with a secretary perched on the corner of my desk, furiously writing shorthand on a steno pad.  I dictated alone, and sent her the tape!) 

I blinked, and things changed.  It’s not just there at work but all around us.  A new mall goes up.  I can’t remember what the landscape looked like before, as the very land has been reshaped.  No one seems to have any time.  Why?  I’m not sure why, only that it seemed that my parents had a lot more time for seeing other people during my childhood in the Sixties.  So, we sense that things have changed all around us, that we in fact have changed, and while we may speak of it wistfully and anecdotally, we have a difficult time expressing how this change has impacted us or even recognizing how much things have changed.

Some time ago iconoclastic fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined the term “shifting baselines” to address the phenomenon of change.  A baseline is a reference point. When we begin to lose track of our reference points from the past, allowing them to shift, we can begin to lose track of change.  In other words, we don’t know how we got to where we are, because we don’t exactly know from where we came.  Pauly is all gloom and doom over this, mostly over the world-wide loss of fisheries, and yet the term itself doesn’t require a tracking only of decline.  Rather, it can be a helpful encouragement to track positive change, to not forget, as a reference point, how bad things were at some point in the past and how much better things are now.  Or how bad we were in the past and how much we have grown since then.  In fact, to not bother tracking positive change in our own lives is to profess belief in sanctification and yet at the same time deny by our inattention and inaction what God is able to do and has within us.

We can ask God to redeem our work, and then believe that he will --- not completely but yet partially --- in this life.  We can believe that we can become more honest, more kind, more self-controlled, and so on.  We can believe and see marriages change, wetlands restored and reclaimed, and historic homes redeemed from decay.  And yet if we don’t have some sense of a baseline, we won’t easily be able to appreciate the change, leading to a nagging sense that nothing much has changed and, in fact, that much has gotten worse.  I don’t want to be in my 80s wistfully recalling some golden age, how things are “going to hell in a handbasket,” when my memory is faulty because I have little in the way of a baseline by which to measure change.  We are predisposed to sin and its consequential hopelessness.  Somehow, we need to work on remembering well, on tracking personal, cultural, and natural change --- for better and for worse.

There are at least three ways that I can think of to do this.  One is regular journaling.  Reading how you thought about something 25 year ago gives you a reference point for how your thinking has changed today.  A second way is one my wife is good at but one I fail at.  That’s marking a particular Bible verse with an event to which it spoke to.  The note triggers memory of the event, some trial or some joy, and along with the verse we are reminded of how we reacted to that event at the time and consider how we might react now.  Finally, we can ask other people who have known as well for a long period of time.  Often they are better at tracking our change over time than are we.  This can also be done collectively as, for example, if I sat around a table with some people I have worked with for over 20 years and we talked about how things have changed in the work environment in that time.  We might want to recover something that was lost, or appreciate something that has changed for the better.  Change need not be bad, but it does need to be noticed.  Baselines shift, unless we remember from where we came.

As those who believe in Providence, in a God who does in fact work all things for the good of those who love Him, we believe that while there are negative forces at work in the universe and in us, He who is in us is greater than the one who would tear us down, that life is not all order to disorder but that in fact there is a countervailing force that is building a new thing, a Kingdom that will never end.  I believe if I know how we got here from there, it will not lead to despair but to great hope --- the glorious hope that this Story has a happy ending after all.

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