As 2016 ends and a new year begins, I cannot help but think of one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes from his novel “Prince Caspian”: “Isn’t it funny how day by day, nothing changes, but then you look back and everything is different.” Despite his renown as a theologian, even Lewis’ works of fantasy are infused with astute insights on the human condition. His profound understanding of the soul of man has touched countless hearts and minds because he clearly expresses our thoughts and feelings in an array of finely crafted words that we can rarely find ourselves. The above line succinctly captures the bittersweet experience of a contraction that somehow rings absolutely, positively true.
Although not expressed with the same words, I’m certain that many were overwhelmed with the sentiment as we gathered with family and friends, reminiscing about the good ol’ days and reliving “that Christmas Eve when…” or “that Christmas morning we…” It’s a season of joyous memories unwrapped with as much glee as children tearing open their gifts from Santa.
I had the good fortune of spending time with childhood friends, recollecting our incalculable hours in front of the Atari 2600, turning double plays on the softball field, movie marathon slumber parties, and riding our Schwinns long past when the street lights came on. They were staples of a routine where each day did not seem so different from the next. This was life. Familiar, predictable, and joyful.
But then, in the midst of the laughing and “remember whens” I caught a glimpse of my friend’s children, who now spend incalculable hours on their smartphones playing “Pokemon Go,” on the ball field, and planning their own slumber parties. I was immediately beamed up from the bygone era of my childhood in the1980s and dropped back to the present where I was struck with the reality that everything is different.
All Of a Sudden, We’re a Lot Older Now
Obviously, childhood to adulthood delivers colossal changes. There is no recess at work. Dad no longer pays for our food, clothes, and toilet paper. Instead of sitting down to a dinner mom prepared, we bring home and cook the bacon for ourselves and our families. Looking back on the journey from age five to age 20 is generally a stroll through a meadow of happy memories of growing up.
Of course, when we reach adulthood we’re different. We’re taller, smarter, hopefully wiser, and more responsible. It’s a no-brainer. However, when you’re an adult reflecting on your life as an adult, when you’re supposed to have it all figured out, Lewis’ insight can slap you across the face.
When you enter your twenties, life takes on a series of new routines where “nothing changes.” Alarm goes off, coffee, work, an hour at the gym, a date with a potential mate, a cocktail with friends, church, a date with another potential mate, lather, rinse, repeat. Day after day, week after week of the same schedule, without notice, new events weave into the routine, and cumulatively change the course of our lives.
A decade or two passes, and life has not turned out as expected. You’re divorced, or have never married but thought you would be by now. You’ve changed jobs, numerous times. Or you’re unemployed, desperately searching for a job. You have a new house. Or you’re in danger of losing it because you’re unemployed, desperately searching for a job. You have a child, a dog, a parent in the hospital, and it’s been five years since you’ve spoken to the best friend you used to always get cocktails with. Everything is different.
Sometimes Turning Around Is What Makes Progress
Change is rough for a lot of people. We like predictability. It’s comfortable. We don’t want anything upsetting the apple cart. However, “change” seems to be more socially welcomed. It’s promoted, applauded, heralded. “New and improved,” “innovation,” “forward thinking” and “progress,” are all the rage.
In some cases, change is good, necessary, and enables valuable progress. But some seem to believe it’s a value in and of itself without considering if the “change” is actually beneficial. Often, those opposing change are labeled “antiquated,” “old fashioned,” and “stuck in the past.”
To this I reply, using Lewis’s words, “We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
To get nearer to the place where you want to be sometimes requires that bittersweet slap in the face forcing you to look back. That striking epiphany can be the moment change provides actual progress. That can be the moment we take stock of the past and pinpoint the road we could have, maybe should have chosen.
We can consider the bad choice that led to the worse choice en route to the worst choice, the moment the daily fights and withdrawal led to the divorce, that the daily unseized opportunities and withdrawal led to singleness, that the untaken risks led to a stagnant career. It’s painful to examine and difficult to overcome. We fear continuing on that same treadmill to nowhere, but do little to get off of it because the alternative is unknown, and could end up being worse.
However, something about the arrival of a new year can put a crack in that wall of fear. As trite as it may sound, it really can provide a fresh start to begin anew. The bittersweet experiences of reflection and regret can lead to an optimistic overhaul. The unpacking and unraveling of the contradictory cacophony of feelings can supply us with courage.
Then one day we will be able to look back at the repetition of depression, joblessness, or estrangement from a wayward child and see: The Prozac worked and joy is no longer an unattainable sensation. The bank account receives weekly deposits thanks to that full-time job begun a year ago. The prodigal child has returned home. We will count the blessings in our lives, and breathe a sigh of relief and contentment because everything is different.