Anti-fragile Living IV: Be in Control of the Change in your Life

Imagine a dog, Puddles. Puddles is a pathetically eager-to-please dog. He has basic needs. Food, water, shelter, companionship. He has an owner who takes care of these needs.

Now imagine Puddles’ owner changes the rules every day. For no reason, randomly, the owner changes the rules. Some days the owner allows Puddles inside, some days not. Some days Puddles is permitted to eat leftovers, some days he gets screamed at for begging. Some days he gets patted, some days he is ignored as if it isn’t there. What happens to Puddles?

Humans forget that we are mammals. We share a common ancestor with dogs. We know that it would be cruel to treat Puddles like he is being treated. We forget that we also have core needs. To treat ourselves erratically, to expose ourselves to ceaseless change, is cruel.

It is said that the only constant is change. The ability to handle life change is called flexibility. Exposing ourselves to change can help us to remain flexible. Remaining flexible is important for coping with new problems. And new problems will certainly arise because we live in an era of ceaseless change:

The twenty-hour-society. Twenty-four-hour social media connection. Veganism. Populism. Climate change. Outsourcing. Automation. The rise of the avocado. The fall of housing affordability. The rise and fall of the CD.

A client of mine recently told me about his mother with dementia who was confused about whether a door was a really a door. He thought it was the dementia, then he realised that the doorknob looked nothing like a conventional doorknob, and she didn’t recognise it as one. Change: Even a doorknob is not allowed to stay the same

The list of recent changes is endless. To imagine all this change will cease tomorrow is fanciful.

Puddles was at first desperate to keep up with the changing rules. He looked guilty when yelled at, as if it was his fault. Puddles then became angry, snarled and growled at his owner. And finally, Puddles became depressed and gave up. He sat listlessly on the floor.

People who are overloaded by change become like Puddles, and many people today are like puddles. The father of “positive” psychology, Martin Seligman, did a series of exceptionally cruel experiments on dogs like Puddles. He coined the term “Learned Helplessness”. Mental health issues affect people who have “learned helplessness”. Drug use and other addictions are common for these people.

So, what can we do?

We can’t not change – that would mean falling behind and out of step from our time. The world isn’t going to stop for us. We would get dragged along by change like a dog behind a cart.

We can’t keep ceaselessly changing. Our mammalian organism will become stressed and overloaded. Depressed like Puddles. What can we do?

We must ask ourselves, for whom does change benefit? And the answer always is: The people who are in control of the change. And, whenever possible, we must be in control of the change that happens in our lives. Be on control of what we focus our attention upon.

Nelson Madela survived imprisonment on Robben Island Prison by taking satisfaction in simple daily life. He recounted in his autobiography, the long walk to freedom, that “a garden was one of the few things in prison that one could control. To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction”. Even a prisoner can feel on top of things when they focus their attention on the few small areas in which they have control.

Let in only as much change as possible. Slow down fashion. Give up FOMO. Recognise when we are trying to keep up with the Jones’ and stop. Become comfortable with being boring, conventional. Become comfortable with being not being the earliest adopter. Connect with family and try to maintain friendships with people who have known you for years. Form connections in the local community (but avoid doing this online).

Your mental health depends on you accepting that the world is rapidly changing. It depends on keeping up with what is necessary. But it also depends on having some consistency in your life, not being a slave to ceaseless change.

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