Every client I work with comes to me because they want change: something they want to experience is missing, or something they don’t want to experience keeps happening. Everybody wants change. Even those of us who want things to stay just as they are, are looking for it: we want change itself to change.
The cliché that change is the only constant thing in life aligns with something science tells us: Life isn’t a thing; it’s a process in which only the pattern endures while none of the energy or matter that constitutes it does. Not one atom in my body now will be present in a year’s time, even though I hope to be. The pattern I call me may remain, but none of the stuff in me will.
Life is organized to conserve just one thing: the pattern of being alive. You could think of this as Life’s superpower. The survival of trilobites or dinosaurs or even humans is not required. By insisting upon conserving living, but not the form of the being that lives, enormously complex ecosystems now fill our planet. Said another way, if you keep one thing from changing, a space of possibilities opens in which everything else can—and will—change. This is evolution: not a history of all that’s changed through time but instead the story of what’s been conserved.
If every thing is free to change—provided it’s not being conserved—a fascinating and useful question presents itself: What are my clients conserving, consciously or not, that results in the experiences they complain about?
If these clients were fish, or squirrels or even lions on the savannah, we wouldn’t be asking this question. If they were squirrels or fish, they wouldn’t be complaining that there’s too much or not enough change. They’d just go about doing what Life has them do.
But this isn’t so with my clients, nor is it with most of us. Although the choice to conserve just one thing generally operates at a level beneath awareness, with the self-conscious-ness of humans, we can deploy it to avoid experiences. Like pain. And when we do that, it serves in a way that ‘protects us’ from change. Any change. And then we suffer.
Consider, for example, that most of us are either committed to an intimate relationship, or we’re looking for one. And the criteria many of us have for this kind of thing is that we should feel, well, good when we’re in one. Maybe that means having enough sex. But not too much. Or feeling like we’re being deeply seen and appreciated. But not those parts of us we don’t want to look at. Or perhaps it has to do with finding someone we can actually depend upon. But not to the point of feeling helpless and afraid should they leave us or die. We want to be safe, but not to the point of suffocation, and we want to belong, although we don’t want to give up our freedom.
I think you catch the drift here: maybe trying to feel good isn’t as good as it seems. Maybe feeling good is too small a thing to conserve or has consequences that put something even more important at risk. Maybe that truly important thing requires us to tolerate being afraid or vulnerable.
Many years ago, my wife and I were in therapy, trying to lessen a deep unhappiness in our marriage. As was often the case, it was Dianne who alternately pushed and dragged me toward what was necessary for our marriage, and she was despairing of the effort. I didn’t understand, really, what surrendering to this process meant but I was afraid it meant exposing some part of me I wasn’t sure I could endure revealing. I knew I was about to either lose my marriage or confront some humiliation I couldn’t name but that I feared like death. For weeks, this dilemma snapped me awake at 2:00 AM, roiling with anxiety.
I remained locked in the grip of these two nightmare outcomes until one sweat-drenched night I understood that the only way I was going to avoid the poles of my dilemma was to take my own life. In the shock of that realization, as clearly as if I’d said the words aloud, I knew I would not kill myself. And since I would not serve my own dying, the way opened for me to enter, with as much dignity as I could muster, what I had to enter to conserve my marriage.
This is what we all know about intimate relationships: they have a way of concentrating our attention on the ways in which we aren’t yet mature. It can serve neither Life nor our own lives to conserve these immaturities. Yet when we seek to avoid fear, shame, anger or sorrow we do exactly that.
Among other things, maturity requires us to endure experiences we do not want for the sake of aligning what we do with how we feel and what we believe. The evidence of maturity is the willingness to be with whatever experience our living asks of us.
The real challenges in our relationships don’t point toward exchanging the partner we have for another, although that may be necessary. Instead, these challenges point at capacities that are latent in us. Ones we haven’t developed, either because we haven’t yet needed them or because the injuries or traumas we’ve suffered haven’t healed.
The coaching topic doesn’t have to be an intimate relationship in order to develop our maturity, despite how efficient they are at pointing out our limitations. The topic might involve a lack of success, or an excess of success that is exhausting us. It might be that our notion of success, or how we are in relationship, no longer conserves what we know is true and meaningful.
But whatever the topic, when someone looks for help from this kind of coaching, a question ripe to be wondered about is this: What one thing matters so much that I’d allow everything else to be open to change?
As a developmental process, there are two distinct steps involved. First is discovering what hasn’t been visible before, what wants to be conserved. Then, often for the first time, we can choose what’s to be done. It often takes some time to live into this question, and still more to bow down to its answer.