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Constant change

Keeping up in a world of change

By John Bach

By the time you finish this sentence, your mind, your body and the world you live in will have changed.

Consider this: In the five seconds or so it took you to read the opening sentence, the earth moved 93 miles on its path around the sun. As for its passengers, nine people died, and 20 newborns drew their first breath. Five seconds was long enough for your heart to throb about a half dozen times and your lungs to filter roughly a two-liter bottle's worth of air. Even now, as your mind computes new data, it is generating fresh brain cells.

The point? Change is constant.

The University of Cincinnati has undergone some of its biggest changes in recent history -- a new president, a new athletic conference, the start of an academic overhaul and sweeping changes to the physical campus. Yet that only reflects the massive changes with which all of society is grappling these days.

Think of the evolution in product technology alone. Learning to use a computer two decades ago was just the start of it. Now we have to store 27 different passwords and codes to access our computer, the Internet, e-mail, voice mail, multiple e-commerce accounts, the home security system and even the garage door. Today the entire world seems to be in the palm of our hands.

Want to know your place in it? Pull out your global positioning system. Dying to share those first steps with the out-of-town grandparents? Snap and send with your cellular camera phone. Forgot an appointment? Power up your personal digital assistant. Feel like dancing? Scroll through a thousand songs on your pocket-sized MP3 player.

Change is not only constant; it's immense. So how do we deal with it? How do we prepare for it? How do we keep up with it?

"It is like walking a tightrope," says UC's Nancy Evers, professor in the College of Education, Criminal Justice and Human Services. "The trick is no matter the conditions, you need to keep balance and keep going."

Evers has made a distinguished career not only out of studying change but also out of implementing change nationally, particularly in the field of education.

"I've always been fascinated with the whole notion that change is constant," she says. "It is everywhere. It is with us.

"A lot of people view themselves as victims of change when in fact change is a way of life. If we have a choice, we can be reactive to the circumstances around us, or we can be proactive." She chooses the latter.

In Evers' mind, the simplest way to approach change is to think of it as a problem-solving process. In other words, change, be it an individual taking on a new job or an organization moving in a new direction, requires a state of constant learning. "You are going to be taking in information and making life adjustments," she says. "In the proactive mode you can have a vision and create visions together."

What not to do, she says, is to allow change to paralyze you.

"If you get frozen or locked into your fears, even when the information is telling you that you need to be doing something differently, you will whither. Change is ongoing. You have to keep moving."

But what is it that is so immobilizing about change?

Part of why we as a society struggle so much with major life changes, says Rhys Williams, head of UC's department of sociology, is that we tend to "individualize our coping response." In other words, when life takes a major turn -- death, divorce or a new job -- instead of looking to friends and family for help, as those in more traditional societies would have, we shoulder it alone.

One of the great values of old people is they have been there, and they have done that, and they have got some great perspective on it.

-- Rhys Williams,
Head of UC's department of sociology

Take death for example.

Gone are the days, he says, of such societal rituals as widows wearing black to signal a time of mourning. "That's not how we do it now," Williams says. "Everybody has their own individual period of adjusting to grief and their own ways of working through it."

Our individualistic society, he believes, has weakened our ability to cope.

"We live increasingly in an age-segregated society," Williams says. "We spend more and more time with people our own age and less time with people from other generations."

The sacrifice is the perspective of our elders. "One of the great values of old people is they have been there, and they have done that, and they have got some great perspective on it.

"As a society, we in general don't value the life experience of older people. So it is not surprising that many people feel they are going through this for the first time. They don't know other people who are.

"It is not as if people haven't died before. But if you are not around an older generation who is experiencing death, you are on your own to make sense of it."

Evers' advice for bucking that self-centered approach to change is to follow the words of Robert Fulghum, author of "Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."

"He said to go into the world, look both ways and hold hands," she says. "And that's an important lesson. In the big scheme of things, it is really the meaning that people make of change and what they choose to do or not to do with that information that matters."

In addition to our "go-it-alone mindset," the quickening pace of daily society is another reason people often feel bowled over by change, University of Cincinnati professor Rhys Williams points out. "Sure there has never been any generation that hasn't said, ‘Things are changing so fast. How do we deal with it?'" he says. "But I do think there are changes going on in both American society and global society that mean people are busier.

"It is just a fact that people are working more hours now than they used to. And when they are not working, they've got to take in the dry cleaning and go to the grocery and run errands. So they need those services open all the time.

"Kroger is open 24/7, and these things end up having a spiral effect to where, to some extent, the economy never shuts down. The economy has speeded up to the place where we work more hours at a more frenetic pace, and then that ripples through the rest of our lives."

So what is the sociological impact of being in high gear all the time?

"There are ways in which we don't know yet," Williams says. "And who knows what the long-term impact is going to be. I think the rates of workplace violence, divorce and family difficulties are indicative of the fact that there is a lot more stress."

The workplace is also no longer defined by the office, cubicle, factory or job site. In fact, he says, technology -- the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, laptops, pagers and PDAs -- has made our careers inescapable.

"You've seen the commercial where some mother takes her kids to the beach even though she has a meeting. And so there she is working on the beach. Well, isn't that great? But the fact is, she can't go to the beach without working. So technology has invaded to the point that we can't escape our jobs in many cases."

The further result of our on-demand digital lifestyles, Williams asserts, is that people have become more demanding of instant results, or change. "People want more consumer goods, and they want them quickly," he says.

"Things like e-mail have made delayed gratification a harder thing. When was the last time you got a letter from someone as opposed to an e-mail? We get impatient when our 10-minute commute ends up being 12 minutes."

Our use of technology to change daily living has not only lowered our willingness to wait, Williams argues, but also our attention span. He recalls being miffed the first time a cell phone rang in his classroom. "I was absolutely astounded," he says. "Today, in some ways I think of them as pacifiers."

Then he wonders if that is only his generational view of today's changes.
"I do think there is some cost to people for not having time for contemplation," Williams says. "But when I think things like that, I'm showing the fact that I grew up in the '70s when we were all going to move back to the land and make adobe bricks."

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