Coping with change
They say a change is as good as a rest but more often than not it’s much more difficult. I’ve been thinking about the reasons why after going to a talk by the clinical psychologist James Brennan on “The Psychology of Adjustment to Change”. (I should declare that James is our allotment neighbour, even though that is such an embarrassingly clichéd North Bristol thing to say.)
James’s model of adjustment to change is built around the idea that we all carry around with us a mental model of our “assumptive world”: the way we take the world to be. This model is based on both explicit and implicit beliefs. This leads us to make a variety of assumptions which shape our expectations. If our lived experience conforms to them, our mental model is reinforced. If it goes against them, then we have to adjust the model.
To take a banal example, many people believe that M&S sell very good socks, and for years experience confirmed that. But for some time they ain’t been making them like they used to. Many have simply failed to update their mental models and keep buying them on the basis of a false assumption. Others have had to adjust and – god forbid! – start buying their socks from elsewhere.
More dramatic challenges to our models generate stronger responses. James has worked a lot with cancer patients and a diagnosis can shatter their assumptive worlds. People assume they and those closest to them will continue to live healthy to a long age, and when they suddenly have to face the possibility that they will not, their world is turned upside down. People also report a sense of having been transported from the kingdom of the sick to the kingdom of the well, a parallel society in which hospital appointments, tests and procedures mark the passage of time. (Havi Carel writes about this eloquently in Illness.)
Our initial response to such dramatic change is often to refuse it. People disassociate, thinking of it as something happening to someone else. (“This can’t be happening to me!”) Some go into flat denial, (“This isn’t happening!”), others avoidance (“can’t think about it right now, there’s a match on.”) All sorts of emotions are stoked, including a sense of injustice (“Why me?”). The job of a psychotherapist like James is to allow people to talk about what they might otherwise find it difficult to discuss, so that they can rebuild a new assumptive model which fits the reality of lived experience.
This all makes perfect sense to me. But I am always staggered that anyone actually, really believes that illness and death will never happen to them. You might be deeply upset, even devastated by such bad news, but surely not surprised? I certainly have no expectation at all of a long and healthy life, free from emotional upheaval or economic difficulties. That’s why I always sign off my newsletters and podcasts with “if nothing prevents” a secular “inshallah” or “god willing”. I don’t take tomorrow for granted, let alone next year.
When I say this, people often come back with, “Ah, but do you really believe that? It’s one thing to believe in theory that you are not invulnerable but it’s another to really feel it deep down.”
It’s a fair point and many, if not most, people who say that they do not take a problem-free future for granted haven’t really taken that belief fully to heart. They merely parrot it as banal truism. As I discuss in my latest book (you didn’t think I wouldn’t mention it, did you?) psychologists distinguish between intuitive (or affective) and reflective beliefs. Intuitive beliefs are the ones we feel in our bones. You don’t need to remember that fire burns to keep your hand from a flame. Reflective beliefs are different. We can assert they are true without them touching how we really feel. A fundamentalist Christian may in some sense really believe that their atheist neighbour will burn in hell, but because they don’t really feel that, they are not appalled at the prospect.
I think this is a spectrum rather than a binary: beliefs can be more or less affective. Still, I don’t think it is true that my belief in my own vulnerability or that of others is something I just pay lip-service to. As evidence for this, I would cite the time in my thirties when I was awaiting a diagnosis for what was clearly some kind of brain tumour, which I thought would more likely be pretty awful than not. I obviously didn’t want the news to be bad but I didn’t think for one minute that this was some kind of aberration of the course of nature. I thought that if my number were up, why shouldn’t it be? Plenty of people have died even younger and I’d had a very full life. (It was benign, thank goodness.) Similarly, when I got the news of my father’s sudden death it did not seem at all impossible. When my mother got her terminal cancer diagnosis it almost seemed inevitable, given her lifetime of poor health.
That does not mean that I think a person who doesn’t have unjustified assumptions about the future holding no nasty surprises is not going to be deeply affected by major, negative changes. Although James talked a lot about our explicit and implicit beliefs, I think his model explains why awful diagnoses and the like are hard to deal with psychologically regardless of your beliefs. When my father died, the emotional and social map of my world had a continent torn out of it. No matter how much you accept that will happen one day, it is still an upheaval when it does. Likewise, even if you tell yourself everyday from the moment you get together with a partner that there will come a time when one of you will be left alone, when it happens your “assumptive world” is shattered. The fact that you knew that one day it would be doesn’t stop it being a major trauma.
As David Hume argued, our great guide to life is not belief but “custom and habit”. A major illness, a divorce or bankruptcy may not challenge our beliefs about the capricious ways of the world but they very much undermine the customs and habits we have got used to. Adjusting to changed circumstances is as much, if not more, to do with adjusting to new routines and normalities as it is to getting our heads around new facts. Accepting something is true is easy; living according to a new truth can be very difficult.
I asked James about this, somewhat incoherently, and he said there was some evidence that people who do not have strong assumptions about future health and well-being find adjusting to the changes of ill health easier. So there is some benefit to excepting the worst. But my wager is that nothing can stop such change being difficult. At best it means you can skip denial, avoidance or dissociation, and won’t agonise about why it has happened to you. But nothing can save you from the work of having to rebuild the internal model of the world that you use to get around it every day.
That’s yet another reason why the contemporary popularity of Stoicism is misguided. Stoicism promises to make you invulnerable (or as good as) to any future misfortune. The advice that is most repeated is all concerned with anticipating the worst, all the better to prepare for it. That’s fine. But true Stoic teaching goes further than this. It tells you not to make anything that might be vulnerable part of what matters in your assumptive world. For example, you may assume that your nice jug is something that you’ll continue to own, so if it breaks, your assumptive world is disrupted – but not enough to deeply upset you. The Stoics say treat everything like a jug. Your wife dies – she’s a jug! Your children beaches drug addicts – they’re just jugs!
Being prepared to the worst can help us to cope better with it when it comes. But the only way to make future hardship a breeze is to make it not matter. If you don’t think it matters if you live or die, I don’t think you’re truly living. And if it doesn’t matter to you whether those closest to you live or die, they are not that close to you after all.
Several events are coming up. I’m chairing an event with Daniel Chandler on his book Free and Equal at Toppings of Bath on Tuesday 16th May at 7pm. His book is a brilliant exposition of the political philosophy John Rawls and a prescription for how to apply it today. I’m also in Glasgow on 27 May at 7:45pm for the Aye Write festival to talk about my new book, How to Think Like a Philosopher. On June 6 I’ll also be discussing some of the ideas in the book as they relate to policies with the MP and philosopher Jesse Norman. It’s an online event organised by Intelligence Squared.
I was David Freeman’s guest on his mercifully short podcast The Author Archive. (Why are so many podcasts so gratuitously long? You’d have thought “edit” is a dirty word…) David wrote: “In this conversation Julian wonders about the validity of monarchy, whether truth in politics is essential, if wisdom inevitably comes with age, why there is so much angst around trans people …… and much more! How does AC/DC fit in to all this, and…. does thinking like a philosopher make you feel better??”
You can also listen to my discussion with Sarah Bakewell about her book Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Enquiry and Hope, in which she “reflects on 700 years of humanist thought, perusing the work of various writers, thinkers, scientists and artists who have spent time trying to understand what it means to be truly human. She tells the story of humanism, explaining why it has continued to flourish for so many years in spite of opposition from other groups.” (It’s a minimally edited live recording so not the greatest audio quality in the world.)
The current series of the Microphilosophy podcast, exploring how the exemplary habits and principles of the best philosophers can help us to think better, has coming to its end. All the episodes are on my homepage, the sound and vision section of my website, Apple, Google and all the other usual podcast outlets. I enjoyed making the series and I think there are some great conversations in it.
My latest philosopher-at-large column for Prospect asks “What is a nation?” As the subheading neatly captures, I argue that “National identities are social constructs—and no less powerful for it.”
There’s an online café philosophique discussion for supporters only tomorrow (May 14) at 8pm. More are coming on 18 June and 3 July.
On my radar
Jerzy Skolimowski’s donkey road movie EO is a true original. The eponymous donkey finds himself passing through various human hands, his own innocence showing up the more troubled and often unpleasant sides of modern humanity. It teeters on the sentimental, but doesn’t fully tip over into it. The final understated scene will stay in your mind for a long time. But beware: despite its 12 certificate in the UK there is one flash of brutality which anyone troubled by violence may find disturbing. I should also point out that despite good reviews and my enthusiasm its audience scores aren’t brilliant. At Rotten Tomatoes, the critic score is 97% and audience one 67%, almost identical to IMDB’s.
I think Jafar Panahi’s latest No Bears is even better. Typically it blurs fact and fiction, with the director playing himself directing a film remotely, due to being banned from leaving Iran, which he is. Like some of his other films, the first half was engaging without seeming exceptional, but by the end it had all built into something very impressive. (The Rotten Tomatoes audience score for this was 81%, still less than the critics’ 100% but high nonetheless.)
In podcast land, the BBC continues to produce some great stuff. Helen Lewis’s The New Gurus is a fascinating – at times depressing and frightening – look into the rise of online gurus, or “thought leaders” as many would prefer to be called. I’m a big fan of Lewis. She’s level-headed and smart but not showy. She lets her interviewees reveal themselves, which they duly do.
Jeremy Bowen’s Frontlines of Journalism see the veteran foreign correspondent, now the BBC’s International Editor, look at the obstacles that stand between journalists and the truth. Although nothing in it is a revelation, it brings the real-life problems of reporting accurately into sharp focus.
On the books front, my review of David Edmonds’s Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality is still forthcoming but I can tell you now it’s well worth reading if you are at all interested in its subject, or even suspect you might be.
That’s it for now. Remember that if you enjoy these newsletters and would like to support my work, you can get access to exclusive content and regular online discussions by becoming a supporter.
Until next time, if nothing prevents, thanks for your interest.