What is change?

The change that both haunts and inspire us

In 2008, U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama famously campaigned on the hope of “change.” His message proved deeply resonant with people across the country and even around the world. Hundreds of millions rallied around him seeking to be part of this “change.”

Obama "Change" poster

In contrast, in the first season of the popular TV series True Detective, detective Rust Cohle famously says: “This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me ‘Time is a flat circle.’ Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over again.” For him, the world never changes. Not really. We as individuals never really change. Any power we think we have to influence our circumstances or the world around us is ultimately a naive illusion.

True Detective "Time is a flat circle" meme

For many of us, the possibility of change inspires and galvanizes. For others, the perceived absence of change elicits apathy, cynicism, and even despair.

But what exactly is change? What is this concept that both inspires and haunts us?


The Buddha said, “Every single moment we are undergoing birth and death. This is the way things are.” Similarly, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, “There is change in all things. You yourself are subject to continual change and some decay, and this is common to the entire universe.”

For them, change is everywhere. And if you really look, their assertion is hard to dispute.

The world is a constant, endless rush of little births and deaths and comings and goings. The cells in our body die and replace themselves. Trees blossom in the spring and their leaves turn red and fall to the ground in autumn. The bagel shop down the street shuts down and a new business starts selling frozen yogurt. Our organizations turn over with new employees, policies, and campaigns. We welcome babies to the world as we watch ourselves grow old in the mirror.

More cosmically, we are not only constantly spinning around the axis of the Earth, but the Earth itself is revolving around the Sun, which itself is revolving around the black hole at the center of the galaxy, which itself is moving at hundreds of miles per second through the universe, which itself is constantly expanding and will perhaps one day collapse in on itself.


We, the world, and the universe are in constant flux. We are never exactly where or who we were just a moment before.

This constant ebb and flow that appears inherent to our existence is what we might call impermanence.


The change of impermanence is everywhere at all times. But this is likely not the change Obama was promising, nor what tormented Rust Cohle, nor what change agents strive to enact in the world. The change that both inspires and haunts us is something different entirely. It is what we might call emergence.

Imagine life on Earth unfolding and evolving over the course of biological time.

We might think of impermanence as the inevitable shifting of climates and forms. Over time, a piece of land might transition from a desert to a jungle to the bottom of a lake and back. Life would adapt accordingly. Species would shift to better fit changing environments. Some would go extinct, while others would migrate in from other areas. Glaciers would inch their way across the land. And the tectonic plates of land would inch their way around the globe.

We might think of emergence as the more profound transformation of life itself over the span of hundreds of thousands of millennia. In among the greatest mysteries known to humankind, single-cell life would emerge seemingly out of nothing at all. Eventually, these single-celled organisms would transform into multi-celled organisms. Multi-celled organisms would evolve into plants, fungi, and animals. Early animals would grow larger, more complex nervous systems.

Ape evolving into human

These were no mere adaptive shifts or ebbs and flows. They represent giant leaps forward in capacity and complexity. In addition to the normal ebb and flow of impermanence has been a continuous trend of life emerging, deepening, diversifying, and complexifying. While the vast majority of life on Earth continues to be relatively “simple,” new possibilities for what life is capable of continue to unfold.

Humanity itself has engaged in this same process. Seemingly out of nowhere, we’ve developed myth, culture, art, and science. We’ve transformed from a world largely ruled by tyrants and warlords to widespread aspirations for democracy and commitments to human rights. We’ve transformed from “eye for an eye” to working toward restorative justice. We’ve gone from collaborating among just a few close companions to collaborating by the hundreds of millions, if not billions, through the United Nations and other international forums and coalitions.

Yes, as Rust Cohle would likely contend, we grapple with many of the same challenges over and over and over and over: greed, laziness, selfishness, hubris, hypocrisy, etc. But we are also profoundly different from our early ancestors. Over the course of millennia, we have transformed ourselves into something new. We have emerged, deepened, diversified, and complexified.

We have certainly lost wisdom and capacity through this process, especially when it comes to our connection to the Earth. There’s room to debate whether this emergence truly has been the positive “Progress” many hold it to be.

But whether we deem humanity’s transformation to be ultimately positive or not is beside the point. Perhaps the most meaningful conclusion we can draw from it is that humans not only can change but have been constantly changing in profound ways consistently throughout our time here on Earth. This change is not only possible but seemingly inevitable.

Ultimately, emergence is the change we seek. We aspire to bring about profound transformation within ourselves, others, human systems, and humanity itself. We yearn to bring about entirely new ways of doing, thinking, and being while holding on to the past ways that still serve us.

Reflection: Remembering change

Piece of paper transforming into Origami bird

Think back to the story of your own life. What’s one way in which you’ve changed profoundly, in which you’ve emerged and transformed into a fundamentally different, more authentic version of yourself?

Similarly, can you think of any ways in which, in your lifetime, society itself has fundamentally transformed into new values and beliefs that you believe are more ethical, just, healthy, or life-affirming?

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