We have a family joke about our guide to the Carlsbad Caverns when we visited that national park on our 2004 cross-country trip. We learned from him that irreversible damage had been done to the stunning geological formations in the caves during the period of their uncontrolled commercial exploitation, and that climate changes in the desert overhead had killed them, or, at any rate, rendered them inactive for the indefinite future. The spin that our manicly optimistic guide put on this sad state of affairs was, basically, that it was a pity about the damage; but after all, if Jim White hadn’t discovered and exploited the caverns, then the public wouldn’t be enjoying them today. His attitude was summed up in the phrase, “Change is good,” which he repeated more than once and which we have repeated, usually sarcastically, many times since.
Most probably our guide was riffing creatively on a script dictated by the National Park Service, whose bulletin on the Carlsbad Caverns says of its checkered history:
History is about change made by people and events and the results of that change. It is also about how that change stimulates new directions of change. How people changed this area from the frontier to a guano mining area to a world famous geological site and premier showcave to a World Heritage Site is a compelling story told within the beautiful limestone caves and Chihuahuan Desert of southeastern New Mexico.
The park staff invites you to understand and enjoy these resources and to join us in preserving them for the future.
The late singer and song-writer Phil Ochs, most of whose songs supported radical social change, wrote a wistful and uncharacteristically apolitical love song, Changes. In it he describes the world as on “. . . a journey through/the universe ablaze with changes;” in his view, nothing lasts. Yes, change is of the natural order of things, but our own approach to it is all-important.
Just recently, after a long time, I consulted the 5,000 year-old I Ching, or Book of Changes, and was reminded anew of the essential principles that govern change. All is in flux and change is inevitable, but to respond to it aright one must cultivate understanding. Action without understanding is not constructive, but neither is understanding without taking appropriate, timely action. On all levels, the way forward is always best enabled by cultivating a balance of opposing and complementary forces, with creativity arising from receptivity, movement enabled by rest, and so on.
If change is inevitable, then surely it is desirable that we seek to understand how it works, in the universe, in the world, and within ourselves. Contrary to the assertions of our Carlsbad Caverns guide, change in itself is not necessarily a force for good. Depending on the situation, conditions, and timing, it can be positively transformative or utterly disastrous. That is why we need to study its underlying principles so that we can engage with the changes in our own lives and in the world at large in the best possible way.
The same principles allow us to understand when it is necessary to resist change and when resistance is futile or even counter-productive. In the anti-nuclear movement, we argued that even if nuclear power could be harnessed to create electricity, we opposed it because, in our view, the harm far outweighed the benefits. Just because the atom could be split, it didn’t follow that it should be split. The cost-benefit analysis of the nuclear industry and other nuclear advocates of nuclear power was a short-sighted, narrowly profit-based analysis that didn’t take into account all the human and environmental costs, especially the long-term ones. It seemed to us to epitomize the capitalist, market-based approach to change: if you could make money on it, then it was a good thing. I personally think we were right about nuclear power; but conservationism to limit or modify change can also become a blind clinging to the status quo, and clinging in the face of change can be as wrong-headed as a completely laissez-faire letting-go.
I have no special knowledge of the I Ching and have only dabbled in a fount of wisdom in which scholars and sages through the centuries have immersed themselves for lifetimes of study. It is important to recognize that reading the I Ching is not an act of mere divination, fortune-telling. If approached in the best spirit it can function as a guide to the situation in question and the possibilities and pitfalls inherent in it.
In my own reading, hexagram 30, “Fire,” changed, with a changing of the third line, to hexagram 21, “Biting Through.” In the words of the translation in The Taoist I Ching,
Fire is beneficial for correctness and development. Raising a cow brings good fortune.
The explanation elaborated:
Fire is clinging, and it is illuminating. . . Although fire is beneficial to correctness and development, if you only know how to use illumination (outer illumination) and you do not know how to nurture illumination (inner illumination, raising a cow), you will not attain development . . . the path of illumination and production of good fortune has a process, a course of work; if there is the slightest carelessness, illumination will not develop. (126-127)
Following the change from Fire to Biting Through, I read,
Biting through is developmental. It is beneficial to administer justice.
And in the explanation:
If you want to act on something, you should first understand it; first understanding, then acting, all actions will be as you will. That is why biting through, using action within understanding, is developmental. Action with clarity is always based on understanding; its development and fruition may be symbolized by the administration of justice . . .practice of the Tao is like administering justice. . .When you investigate and find out true principle, it is clear in the mind and evident in practice; fully realizing essence and perfecting life, it is unfailingly developmental and beneficial. (99-100)
So here lies my task for the year ahead, probably the task of a lifetime: to seek understanding, but without clinging. And when it’s time, acting so as to make sure that it is just and beneficial; or, in the words of our Carlsbad Caverns guide, making sure that the change is good.