Surviving Unprecedented Change

The New Choluteca Bridge in Honduras was built to last. Completed in 1998, the designers of the bridge wanted to make sure it would survive the hurricanes that frequently battered the region. No sooner had they finished than Hurricane Mitch swept across Honduras, dumping up to 75 inches of rain and pummeling the nation’s infrastructure with 80mph winds. Most of the bridges along the Choluteca River were damaged or destroyed. But not this one. The designers succeeded where others failed. The bridge survived. Truly a reason to celebrate, except for one important detail: The river moved. 

The force of the hurricane and the deluge of rain left the bridge intact but wiped out the connecting roads and caused the river itself to carve a new channel. The result: a beautiful, well designed bridge to nowhere.

It’s worth noting that the designers and engineers did everything right. The bridge exceeded its design specs. There was no mismanagement, no mistakes, no miscalibration. The bridge should have become noteworthy for its survival. Instead, it became a cautionary tale after the ground beneath the bridge literally shifted.

What lessons can be learned from this tale?

  1. Change is scary.

Here are three reasons why change is scary.

First, change is inevitable. Gail Sheehy, in her book Passages, reminds us that life is a “series of critical passages from one stage to another, and then to another and another.” The “winds of change” have given away to the “earthquake of change.” Look around; one would have to proverbially out to lunch to not notice the unprecedented changes going on in our lives. Roles have changed, values have changed, the pace of life has changed, tools of industry have changed, lifestyles have changed, and institutions have changed.

My Daddy died thirty-eight years ago. My mother twenty-four years ago. If they could come back today, they would be astonished and flabbergasted to see cars without keys and some not needing gas; not having to go to the bank to make deposits and get cash, with many people never using cash; purchasing food and clothing and other essentials without ever leaving home; talking on a phone that is not attached to a wall, with using it as talking device only one of its uses.

Second, change is unpredictable. The Honduran government and the Japanese company that constructed the New Choluteca Bridge would have never guessed that a hurricane would dump 35 inches of rain in a short period of time would cause the river to overflow its banks to six times its width only to recede to carve out a new channel. And for that matter, who could have forecasted and predicted a virus that would spread around the globe at epic proportions, causing such disruption and death? But that’s what catastrophic and unexpected change will do.

Third, change is constant. In fact, it’s been said that the only constant in this world is change. “Everything flows and nothing abides. Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.” Heraclitus proclaimed, “You can’t step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing.” To be alive means perpetual change.

2. Change creates discomfort.

The people of Choluteca were distraught and dispirited after the flood and the loss of their main artery across the river. Change brings challenges and opportunities, but the first reaction is always discomfort. No one like change. Change by its very nature means that things will be different. And we don’t always like different. That’s why we eat at the same restaurants, vacation at the same places, and travel the same roads to work. We don’t like change and we don’t like the discomfort change brings. Let me illustrate: With pen and paper write your name. Now use your other hand to write your name. Cross your arms. Now reverse your arms putting the other one on top. What did you experience? What were your feelings?

And, since no one likes to change but a wet baby, we often resist. “Our dilemma,” wrote columnist Sidney Harris, “is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we want is for things to remain the same but get better.” We all resist change at some level and on some issues. The innovations, improvements, and intrusions in our world often alarm and concern us. We are afraid of the unknown. Change always involves something different replacing the familiar. The threat of change implies giving up certain rights or privileges or at least the arousing of our lives from comfortable ruts and routines. We resent the inconvenience and the frustrations brought on by the changes. Or we resent the traditions and heritages of our past sacrificed for the modernized.

I’ve been to Honduras on several occasions with mission teams to strengthen churches. Our groups would work with children, build houses or churches, distribute food, or, in my case, train pastors. Sometimes I would go with the construction teams who always worked with nationals. One day we were pouring concrete. The workers gathered around a pile of sand, where mortar and water were added as they stirred it together in what resembled a small mountain. They called it a volcano. Afterwards, I asked on the leaders why they didn’t use a concrete mixer. “Oh, we’ve bought them several, but they won’t use it. They like the way they have always done it.”

3. Failure to change brings demise.

The Honduran workers and the concrete mixer give credence to the old adage: “The seven last words of a dying organization are: ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’”

Sewell Avery, previous chairman of the now defunct Montgomery Ward & Co, created a business strategy where Ward’s failed to open a single new store from 1941 to 1957. Instead the big retailer piled up cash—and sat on it. Why? He purported that a depression had followed every major war since the time of Napoleon. “Who am I to argue with history?” Avery demanded. “Why build $14-a-foot buildings when we soon can do it for $3 a foot?”

Montgomery Ward’s demise sprang from its firm adherence to a bad idea decades ago. And a boss who would not change his mind. The problem isn’t that Ward’s made a mistake. Companies (and individuals) do that all the time. The real problem was that Ward’s stuck with its mistake. This, too, happens all the time, and the results can be disastrous.

Let’s consider something more personal. A recent medical study reveals just how difficult change is for people. Roughly 600,000 people have heart bypass surgery a year in America. These people are told after their bypasses that they must change their lifestyle. The heart bypass is a temporary fix. They must change their diet. They must quit smoking and drinking. The must exercise and reduce stress.

In essence, the doctors say, “Change or die.”

You would think that a near-death experience would forever grab the attention of the patients. You would think the argument for change is so compelling that the patients would make the appropriate lifestyle alterations. Sadly, that is not the case.

Ninety percent of the heart patients do not change. They remain the same, living the status quo. Study after study indicates that two years after heart surgery, the patients have not altered their behavior. Instead of making changes for life, they choose death.

4. Adaptation leads to growth.

Two years after In Search of Excellence reported on forty-three of the “best run” companies in America, fourteen of the forty-three firms were in financial trouble. The reason, according to a Business Week study: “failure to react and respond to change.” What is true for businesses is true for individuals. When we do not change with change, adapt and respond to innovation, we do not grow and survive.

With the world transforming drastically every day, we need to open our minds even more and adapt to change constantly. We cannot keep holding on to old habits, behaviors, and patterns else we might risk becoming obsolete, just like the Choluteca Bridge itself. Adaptability is the key to survival and resilience.

We know this is true biologically. When the doctor’s hand pulled us from the comfort of our mother’s womb into a new and scary environment. Every succeeding day after that has been one change after another. If we did not change, and subsequently grow, we would have died. As we grow into each phase and season of life, we learn to adapt to survive and thrive.

Consider the lobster. A lobster can grow only by shedding its shell. While it could react in anger and resentment to this impending change, the lobster chooses to respond courageously and do what is needed to grow and mature. The old shell cracks, and the lobster seeks a place to shed that old shell. A pink membrane then becomes the new shell. When a lobster is involved in this process, it leaves itself vulnerable to destruction by other sea creatures or by being dashed against hard objects. A lobster will never grow without taking that risk. 

Being alive in the changing world today is often like being a lobster. Frequent “shedding of the shell” and becoming vulnerable is necessary for growth. Change is not all bad. In fact, it often provides the stimulus for our further growth and development.

5. Nail down what is important.

One of the best techniques for adjusting to violent upheaval in one area of our lives is to maintain, during that period, stability in as many other areas as possible. Changes often bring a sense of unsettledness and unreality As the playwright put it, “Sometimes it seems like everything nailed down is coming loose!” With that in mind, here’s what I do and encourage you to do the same.

–The twenty-year spike. I write down the things in my life that I’m confident will not change in the next twenty years and are of highest importance:  My relationship with God, my relationship with my wife, and my relationship with my daughter. I take these unchangeable realities and mentally drive a nine-inch spike to hold each in place.

–The five-year nail. Then, I list other things that probably won’t change in the next five years—like, I’ll be focusing on my chaplaincy service, living in the same house, driving the same car. I take a three-inch nail and fasten these down.

–The one-year tack. Next, I list the things that will stay the same for the next twelve months. I’ll continue to play tennis, have the same set of friends, and fulfilling my writing assignment. I use mental tacks to hold these in place.

So now, while everything else is flying loose in unprecedented change, I’ve nailed down probably 80 percent of my life. These are my islands of stability. These are relatively stable. By being aware of that stability it can help keep my balance and equilibrium. I can also develop an appreciation for the things in my life that change very slowly.

Change is here to stay. We can’t always control the circumstances, sometimes the river changes course, but we can control our perspective and our attitudes. The world is constantly changing. Despite how much we believe that we are still in control, the truth is, we don’t know how the situation might change tomorrow. The Choluteca Bridge is an excellent metaphor for the uncertainty in our own lives—our relationships, careers, goals and even health. So, nail down those things that matter most and adapt to the rest.

About Rick Ezell

I am a husband, father, pastor, and writer. This blog is about shaping character, transforming church, and impacting culture. I believe that if one defines their moments then their moments will determine their character and their character will influence their world. I write on personal development, church leadership, and our changing culture. I also write about the resources I am developing and the books I am writing. My goal is to create challenging, relevant, and inspiring content that will help you be a better person, the church be a better parish, and the world a better place. If you are interested in those things, this blog is for you. I have served the church my entire career as a student minister and senior pastor. I studied at Samford University, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary (eventually I will get it). I have written eight books. My most recent ones are Chapter 13: The Excellence of Love and Soul Therapy: The Healing Words of Psalm 23. Both are available as eBooks. I have written over 1000 articles for various local, regional, and national publications. I have been married to Cindy for thirty-three years. We have one wonderful daughter. We live in Greenville, SC. In my free time, I enjoy writing, reading, running, tennis, and golf. You can contact me via email or follow me on Twitter or Facebook. This is my personal blog. The opinions I express here do not necessarily represent those of my employer. The information I provide is on an as-is basis. I make no representations as to accuracy, completeness, correctness, suitability, or validity of any information on this blog and will not be liable for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries, or damages arising from its use.
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