The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

We are living in a time when things change very quickly – perhaps more quickly than at any other time in history. Newspapers are bulkier and loaded with more content than ever before. There always seems to be something new happening. All in all, the world is moving at a much faster pace than we have ever seen.

There are several explanations for this phenomenon. First, there is the rapid development of technology, whose reach goes far beyond science and industry and impacts our interpersonal relationships and many other aspects of our society. Another factor is the breakdown of tradition: age-old social institutions like the family, values like obedience and acceptance, and even more modern ideas such as nationalism.

Many people can remember the much simpler, more stable world of the recent past. Though life was far less comfortable, it was also less full of fear and oppression. People tended to live in the same place for many years, where they maintained a consistent lifestyle and earned a living at the same job (or, at the very least, in the same profession) for their entire lives. But all of that seems to be changing – not only in ultra-modern countries, but also in developing countries where technology and mass media are not yet ubiquitous.

This constant whirlwind of change can be quite tiring. A certain amount of change and adventure is good, for a while, but an endless race filled with unexpected twists and turns is extremely exhausting. Surprisingly, it is not only older people, who have a tendency to look back and glorify that past, who feel this way; young people today are also overwhelmed by the feeling that life is moving way too fast, and nobody seems able to stop it. Everyone feels that they have no choice but to join the race. So, everyone is running, living life like a thriller or an adventure movie – and nobody is all that happy about it.

If we could glance out from the roller coaster that has become our modern lives, we would see the same dreary scenery everywhere: houses, trees, people. Speed makes everything look the same and blurs any sense of novelty. When we are moving so quickly, it is impossible to take a long, satisfying look at anything, to complete any kind of meaningful work, or even to experience thorough enjoyment.

The rapid pace of the world also creates a great deal of repetition. A huge scandal, like the downfall of a prominent person, may be headline news today, but before we have time to savor the immoral glee of witnessing such an event, another story breaks, and then another. A life full of scandals is but a different sort of commonplace existence. Similarly, vacations have become a time when people rush from one exotic place to another – East to West, North to South, cruises to safaris – but we are all still bored, albeit in a new place and in a different way. Change may be objective and tangible, but there is still a feeling of a lack of substantive change. What is the deeper reason for this widespread sense of stagnation and boredom?

While the events of the outside world are changing constantly and considerably, human beings change far less. We may have new gadgets, modes of transportation, styles of dress, means of communication, and sources of information that no other generation has had, but the essential character and personality of human beings has changed very little.

What really erodes the novelty of new things, then, is the immutability of human nature. Today, we grapple with many of the same problems and questions as our forefathers 5,000 years ago, and we have the same lack of adequate answers. Whether people are cave dwellers or live in high-rise apartment building, they face the same problems: how to live their lives, how to work out disagreements with others, how to obtain the things they crave most, such as friendship, closeness, and trust.

It makes little difference if one’s opponent holds a spear, a machine gun, or a portfolio full of papers; as has always been the case, enemies are enemies, and true friends are hard to find. The impoverished citizens of today’s world may be far less poor than they were 1,000 years ago, but their envy of those who have more has not changed much. Today’s rich – as rich people always have – find that a more comfortable life is not necessarily a happier one. An expensive gourmet dish in a lavish restaurant will never be as tasty as a meal eaten after two days of fasting. The joys of a very posh wedding will never be as satisfying as the smile of someone we love.

We may have more access to more kinds of information today than ever before, but this does not make our minds better or brighter. There is still the same gap between a few wise people, a majority of stupid people, and a large number of mediocre ones, and this is something that even the best kind of education cannot change. The fool of the past who could not adeptly handle his bow and arrow is today bungling with his computer. Cruelty and murder have not been obliterated by any modern invention; they have simply changed their external manifestations. And the fulfillment of the age-old dream of peace and rest does not seem closer, but rather much more remote.

Our problems are timeless because, fundamentally, we still want exactly the same things: external objects, like new cars and fancy clothing, and internal things, such as love, the desire to advance, and the strength to cope with loss. We may have more trinkets to keep us busy, but we as humans are the same as always, with the same basic drives and quests.

The only real changes in this world of unceasing mutability are the subjective ones, not the objective ones. A person who changes will perceive real change, but when a person remains unchanged, nothing will really change. Despite the speed of events, the novelty and the newness, we inadvertently face the same basic questions: the passage of time, our finiteness, the fact that most of us will not be remembered as individuals, and that even whole societies will eventually be wiped out.

If there is any hope for change in this world, people must turn to the only thing that can indeed make a difference: themselves.