THE NORMALIZATION OF CHANGE
Among the more critical aspects of postmodernity is the normalization of change, the unprecedented degree to which change permeates virtually every aspect of our lives and the immediate landscape of our lives and the unprecedented degree to which we have come to live with it, expect it, and even come to desire it as the normal condition of our lives. Change occurs in things (the furnishing of our lives with objects, relationships, and experiences), change occurs in the order of things (the value and meaning of these furnishings), and, as a result, change occurs pervasively across the trajectory of individual lives. Mobilities become a near constant. Individuals in increasing numbers and frequencies move between varied social and physical locations. Even those individuals who stay in place find many of the most significant, even the most commonplace, aspects of their everyday life undergoing constant revision, if not transformation. There is the mobility of others who constitute the interpersonal involvements of such individuals, as well as the continuing renovations of their own social worlds.
Very few individuals currently living in North America expect successive generations of family members to live in the same house, the same neighborhood, or even in the same community. Vast numbers no longer expect to live in the same dwelling even during the larger part of their own adult lives, though many have learned to live in the same kind of house, neighborhood, or community despite frequent mobilities. Similarly, most expect that the objects that furnish their lives at home, work, and leisure will frequently change in appearance, concept, and social significance. Communities of memory, to use Bellah’s term (Bellah et al. 1986), give way to more abstract audiences of memory as “the community of limited liability”— communities that command our attention only to the degree that we require its services and only for as long as we plan to reside there—gives way to a more abstract self of limited liabilities where careers and relationships are no longer necessarily viewed as life-long commitments.
At the individual level, change occurs in ever-shortening spans of time and, as a result, proximate cohorts tend to share fewer and fewer “natural paradigms”.2 In other words, interaction across cohorts is persistently threatened by an undercutting of the ability to share a “taken for granted” sense of what otherwise appear to be shared worlds. This loss, in turn, often engenders mistrust of others, of one’s self, and often of both; in consequence of which empathy frequently emerges not from assumed shared experience, but as a cultivated ability to detect, decipher, and transpose the mysteries of others, including the self as other. Decentering comes to describe the realms of both the intrapsychic and the interpersonal.
Within this context of pervasive change, what the future—which was, and still is, for many persons the justification of their lives—might look like upon its realization is rarely guaranteed. The familiar cliche that there are two sources of human misery, “not ha ving what you want and having what you want”, takes on a new significance. It is only in the past several decades that we have learned on a massive basis the hard truth of the latter, as we learned that success under certain circumstances can occasion painful dissatisfactions as much as they are occasioned by failure (Simon and Gagnon 1975). Moments of achievement, which once promised consummatory gratification, often become a shallow, if not mocking, experience because either the achiever or the meaning of the achievement has changed during the interval.
We meet the future in the present with what we are, which includes what we have been. Few prior generations have had to live their own futures with the speed, comprehensiveness, and intensity with which we have lived ours as a normal condition. Even our self-conscious attempt to preserve the past evokes a kind of nervousness as if we expect to encounter signs that announce that some part of the past is currently “closed for repairs”.
Continuing change creates unevenly intense levels of stress. Perhaps it is experienced as less stressful for those for whom the constancy of change is becoming normal, but in any case it is stressful for all to some degree. All too often, strategic responses to the stress of change are either an adaptation to the requirements of the present, which must risk the pains of alienation from what we once were, or a tiring, self-conscious regulation of patterns of behavior that once were mindless affirmations of our being in the world. For example, many trained in one set of rules of gender conduct must now learn to conform to radically modified rules, often at the expense of feelings of alienation from earlier identity claims, or to resist newer expectations at the expense of risking alienation from the world, as well as from other aspects of themselves. This dilemma would be typified by many women’s feelings that loyalty to the desires currently experienced by the self are often experienced as a kind of disloyalty to prior constructions of the self as well as a betrayal of a legacy of significant others. Such inner conflict often includes issues of getting married, staying married, having children, and commitments to work and other employments.