In one of the most poignant scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus, Apocalypse Now, the protagonist who is traveling through Vietnam during the war falls upon a French colonial family stuck in time. Living on a remote rubber plantation in the Vietnamese jungle, they sit around a long table dressed in fine clothes to have their dinner, attended to by local servants, as if life goes on as normal. The world around them is crumbling; bombs and machine-guns, fires and dead bodies, blood and mayhem envelop their once paradisiacal colonial bubble, yet the French family is in utter denial. They drink wine, discuss politics, and “lecture” the American Captain Willard about the futility of the war, as if what is happening is just a transient chapter in their lives. When Willard asks when they plan to return to France, the head of the family becomes angry and says they will never leave, because this is their country, their land. Completely disconnected from the war and reality that surrounds them, the whole scene is surreal and dreamlike. The family’s futile and tragicomic attempt to hold on to their old lives, their stubborn refusal to accept that their world has crumbled, is the perfect cinematic portrayal of what we may call resistance to change.
This scene often came to mind while I watched the speeches from Trump, Bolsonaro, and Johnson in February and March about the coronavirus being innocuous, “a little flu” that would soon go away — even as the virus was spreading fast around the world, the catastrophe soon to hit their countries’ shores. These and other leaders’ unwillingness to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances, their resistance to change, soon led to a human and financial catastrophe that was totally avoidable. Trump’s “best economy in the world” with the “lowest unemployment in recorded history” was crushed by an invisible virus within a span of weeks. The “best US economy ever” was separated from the worst economy by that short period during which the leader resisted change, thinking that his recent achievements were eternal…
Although the pandemic is far from over, in these last five months, we have all learned many things about the virus and about ourselves. We have learned that despite our advancements in so many fields, despite mastering matter and energy, conquering space, and having eradicated many diseases, a microscopic non-organism still remains a mystery to us as well as a potent foe — we, the human species, are not as powerful as we think we are. We have also learned that our world is more interdependent today than at any other time in history, and that the West is lagging behind the East in almost everything yet it still remains arrogant. And we were once again forcefully reminded that death may strike at any moment and memento mori should be a constant in our lives.
All these lessons and more have forced us to reevaluate our lives, particularly our global interconnectedness, our values, and our philosophical outlook. Yet still, for me, there is one lesson that stands apart as perhaps the most important of all, even if it has barely been discussed:
It is the concept of Resistance to Change.
The countries that have handled the pandemic well are those that did not resist changing their habits, systems of work, familiar behaviors. They adapted fast to the rapidly changing circumstances and navigated wisely through a constantly shifting reality. These are the countries that have come out victorious: China, Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Cyprus. Yes, even my tiny country of Cyprus is up there on the top of the list, for Cyprus and all the others in this group adapted to the changing circumstances and did not resist taking painful measures fast. Most crucially, their citizens voluntarily consented to radically changing their lives for a short period of time.
The countries that are suffering the most are those that most resisted change. This resistance has come in various forms: seeing but denying seeing — burying the head in the sand like ostriches (e.g., the American and Brazilian governments). Or seeing what was happening, accepting it, and deciding to imitate the idleness of their neighbors by simply waiting for the approaching catastrophe to become more palpable (France, Spain, Russia, and others). Or the worst of all: seeing and understanding everything but openly refusing (for a long time) to make even minute changes to their lifestyle (UK and Sweden). Those that have most resisted change are none other than the same countries that have suffered disproportionately large fatalities. Some of them are still in the grips of the pandemic — the USA, UK, Brazil, Sweden.
“Ta panta rei” (“everything is in constant motion” or “all is flux”), uttered by the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus two and a half millennia ago, is now more relevant than ever: The Universe and Life are synonymous with Change. Resistance to change is resistance to Life itself. And as the pandemic has shown, resisting change when change is demanded by the changing circumstances or by a natural growth is pernicious.
But of course, Change is not the only law in the universe. If it were, then nothing stable, no (at least) short-lasting event or structure could ever appear. Our world would have been in a constant state of earthquake without us being able to create or build anything. There are other laws that allow some stability and constancy in the cosmos, even if ultimately the law of Change topples everything. There is Newton’s First Law of motion, the Law of Inertia, often treated as if it is to be applied to many other fields apart from those of physics: “all bodies remain at rest unless acted upon by an external force.” This seems to suggest that all things, inanimate or animate (including humans) tend or want to remain in a state of inertia — not welcoming change unless pressed to by some external force. Well, Newton’s First Law is actually followed by his Second, which describes what happens when such an external force does at some point act upon an object: it accelerates! So things stay where they are, but once something external urges them to move, they start moving fast.
Biology too has a concept called homeostasis (from the Greek homo + stasis, meaning staying in the same position or state), which posits that all biological organisms resist change when they are already in their optimal conditions. Although it refers to the functioning of our body and its internal organs, there is another more general sense in which humans tend to resist changing their current state of being — be it their routines, their job, or their comfortable position on the sofa while watching TV! But yet again, Heraclitus intervenes to disturb all stasis. The optimal conditions are at some point disturbed: We become ill or weakened, or we suffer pain. Or, moving to the homeostasis of Life in general, we reach adulthood and we have to boldly leave the secure family nest, or our company restructures and we get fired, or we get old and cannot maintain our daily routines. Our environment does not allow us to sit comfortably on the couch for too long.
Well, as it happens, there is another law of biology that describes exactly this: allostasis — achieving stability through change. As their surroundings change, organisms have the ability to actively adjust to both predictable and unpredictable events. Allostasis complements homeostasis, just as Newton’s Second Law complements the Law of Inertia. At the end of the day, what all these physical and biological laws tell us is that in Nature and Life there is a constant interplay between the tendency of everything to remain as it is and the necessity to change in response to the exertion of the Force of Change itself. For Change to effectuate change, it needs to act upon something that strives to remain changeless! Yet of the two opposing forces, Change has the last word. For it is the quality of change that in the end comes to characterize the overall movement of the universe. Heraclitus’s law reigns supreme.
Although things are usually quite steady and only vary within our familiar parameters and within ranges that we can easily comprehend and navigate through, there are points, junctures, even whole periods in life when events acquire a completely new character — be it an accelerated speed, a sudden shift in direction, an opening into new fields of action and creativity, a rift in our normality. We are called to move into uncharted waters and unknown fields of action. There have always been such important junctures. Whether because of wars, revolutions, social unrest, financial collapses, or whatever else, countries are continually challenged to adapt and change. But it is not only countries. Families and individuals — each one of us — are faced with the challenge to “change or perish” with respect to the everyday circumstances of life. Just as some countries have adapted well by not being resistant to change during this pandemic, the same has happened with whole professions as well as individuals. The companies that adapted fast by allowing their employees to work from home — the schools, universities, yoga studios, and teachers that moved their classes online — are those that have managed to survive and emerge stronger from this global crisis.
Of all these “pandemic adaptations” none is more relevant than the recent revolution in the sport of chess. The visionary and imaginative current world champion, twenty-nine-year-old Magnus Carlsen from Norway, after organizing the richest online chess tournament in history in April, with participation from the top players in the world, moved on to organize three more online tournaments that will last until the end of next August! The whole sport has been irrevocably changed, and its popularity has never been greater. Tens of thousands of people now follow live all these tournaments, while writing their comments on message boards, asking questions via Twitter to all of the contestants, observing detailed analyses of moves by expert grandmaster commentators, and more. In between these tournaments, Magnus, followed by other grandmasters who are now emulating him, plays online chess with ordinary players around the world in what has become known as “banter blitz.” During these online chess games with fast time controls, the world champion engages in playful and humorous banter while talking about his thought process, thereby giving a glimpse into the mind of a world champion in real time. This is the first time in the history of any sport that anybody can compete with a world champion from their own sofa in their own home while the champion explains to them and thousands of onlookers how he works his magic!
But of course, billions of people around the world have had to adapt to the pandemic by changing their personal routines and the way they work, communicate, and interact with others. A considerable number of inspired artists, writers, musicians have also managed to transmute the events of our times into works that transcend the ephemeral — just as so many others have done throughout history, from Homer turning a war into his majestic poem The Iliad, to Picasso doing the same three thousand years later with his painting Guernica. Such transmutations show us that a crisis or a catastrophe need not end in desperation and tears, but can lead to creative and positive change. As the pandemic is still ongoing, the call to change will be continually renewed. The ones who embrace these changes are the ones who will expand and enrich their (and in effect, our) world in ways that are now unimaginable.
The coronavirus pandemic is the saddest event yet in this new century. But if we study it carefully and allow its hidden lessons to affect our lives — most importantly, if we leave our comfort zones and embrace these nascent and powerful calls to total change — we may end up in a more interconnected and peaceful world, wiser, stronger, more imaginative, and more in harmony with the principal law that governs Life: the law of Change.
If you liked this essay, read my previous two essays, Coronavirus I — The Arrogance of the West and Coronavirus II — Our Wealth Is Our Elderly. You may also subscribe to my monthly Tuesday Letter and check out my award-winning book, “Destination Earth — A New Philosophy of Travel by a World-Traveler,” published by Bamboo Leaf Press.