As multiplied thousands of students graduate from high school and college this time of year, they hear lofty advice from baccalaureate and graduation ceremony speakers meant to prepare them for the future. Orators urge them to keep learning, think positively, set goals, strive for excellence . . . live successfully.
Years ago Robert Hutchings, president of the University of Chicago, was asked: “If you could have your students leave this institution after four years with but one lesson firmly implanted in their minds, what would it be?”
He immediately replied, “I’d teach them to cope with change, which is inevitable.”
When I attended a high school graduation ceremony recently, even though the focus was on the graduates, I noticed many mothers (and some dads) wiping tears away. Some were tears of joy, but other tears were mixed with the sadness of anticipating an empty, or partially-empty, nest and knowing their children would soon be many miles away.
Change causes much of the stress in our lives. Some psychologists have assigned number values to types of change—from the big stressors of death, divorce, or job loss down to lesser but recurring stressors such as Christmas. Some went so far as to do the math and predict the total stress points in one year that could signal an impending nervous breakdown.
In a book titled How Not to Go Crazy, Dr. Robert Wise wrote that people can be driven temporarily “nuts” when too many changes happen around them if they cannot absorb the pressures brought on by those rapid changes. According to Dr. Wise, people may become—for a time—confused, disoriented, or irrational because they cannot cope with change.
Shortly after first reading about stress points, I had a year where my total exceeded the predicted breakdown threshold. That year involved changes that seriously impacted our family: my youngest child graduated from high school and was on her way to college at the same time my husband lost his job. We moved to another state, sold one house and bought another. After the move, when I thought things had settled down, I got an emergency call and within two days heard my mother’s doctor give her a terminal diagnosis. That same week my mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. My mother died seven weeks later, my mother-in-law 17 months later.
That year there were too many changes in too short a time but, through reliance on the Lord, I did not end up in the local asylum. Instead, I learned how the Lord could sustain someone through multiple, traumatic changes. And I’ve heard of many people who endured far more than I did. Change, as the college president said, is inevitable.
Several thousand years ago Solomon wrote about accepting the inevitability of change, reminding us that “to every thing there is a season” (Eccl. 3:1). Later Paul wrote life-raft words that many have clung to when the waves of change threatened to sink them: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
It helps when we are in the midst of swirling change to remember that Paul didn’t say that all things are good. He said that those who love God can expect good to come out of things that don’t seem good in themselves. Why? Because God doesn’t change—even when our situation does. His love for us remains steadfast.
St. Thomas Aquinas, a well-known theologian who lived in the Middle Ages, wrote “all things change—but not without reason.” When we have learned to cope with change by accepting it as from the hand of a loving, changeless God—who has a reason—we will have learned to live successfully.