by Tracy Jamison*
Do you welcome change? Dr. Jane Barton began by querying the audience on their acceptance of the inevitable. We are all human and were born with a terminal illness: Life. So how does the average person see change and how does that affect the quality of their coping skills. As a hospice chaplain who began her journey in the oil fields of Texas, Dr. Barton is intimately familiar with loss and change although that familiarity began in her childhood. She posited that change within itself is not inherently positive or negative. To quote an old colloquialism, the only constant is change. Welcome to Holland.
Barton delivered the Hundere Lecture, “The Changing Nature of Life: Aging, Illness and Disability,”on May 1 at the LaSells Stewart Center on OSU’s campus.
If change is the norm, then why do we act surprised, frightened or become angry when our lives change unexpectedly? Dr. Barton offered a surprising answer: We like to be in control. Although we may find ourselves staring over the edge of a precipice, we still have a choice. We can enjoy the view and describe it to the person standing behind us (and there is always a person standing behind us, we are never the only one experiencing change), or we can imagine our next step causing us to careen over the edge free falling wildly and allow that fear and anxiety to overcome us.
However, not all forms of transformation are met with the same level of resistance; actually, if they did not happen we would be distraught. These changes are those that occur as a child grows from a baby into an adolescent, and from an adolescent into an adult who may have children and start the cycle all over again, the circle of life. We mark these transitions with rites of passage and celebrate their continuance with each and every new generation. Dr. Barton used the example of the changing of the seasons as a time when people relish the coming of spring’s flowers, summers lazy days and winters chill. Still, these things are still considered part of the status quo. They are expected and welcomed.
Dr. Barton’s discussion hinged on the unwelcome changes in life: sluggish thinking, crow’s feet, illnesses, broken relationships that come parcel with aging and death. These changes, according to Dr. Barton, usually fall into four realms: Physical, Cognitive, Relationship and Spiritual. Each is a relevant and necessary part of the discussion on transformation. William Bridges saw transformation as the key for success because change signaled a new beginning. Dr. Barton said she uses Mr. Bridges’ surname as an analogy of transformation offering a passage over rough water: On the other side of a new beginning is an end where challenges become opportunities. You change course, reflect and reorient yourself.
Dr. Barton closed her lecture with a story by Emily Perl Kingsley called Welcome to Holland. The story related the journey of parents raising a child born with Down syndrome. When asked how they cope with the extra burden and stress of parenting a child born with developmental challenges, they explain that the experience is much like getting on a plane after meticulously planning and paying for an extraordinary international vacation to Italy only to discover when the plane lands that you have been deposited in Holland and you have no way back.
Mrs. Kingsley’s tale goes on to explain that although these parents learn the language, set up residence and discover that Holland is just as beautiful and possesses attractions just as wonderful as those in Italy, they still experience the pain of loss; the loss of their dream. “Everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy… and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say ‘Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned’.” Dr. Barton found that in her personal journey from the oil fields of Texas to the seminary that by choosing a life of service to others she experienced spiritual freedom: She does not look at life through the lenses of expectation. She chooses to be fascinated. “We have a responsibility to respond to life. It’s hard to live in Holland when you want to be in Italy.”
*Tracy Jamison is pursuing a Master’s in Public Health and Master of Arts in History of Science at Oregon State University.