The Self-Destructing Fear of Change

February 23, 2017
Man cannot discover new oceans
unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
      Andre Gide
The story of Jesus healing an invalid man at the Pool of Bethesda is narrated in the Gospel according to John as follows:
Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.  Here a great number of disabled people used to lie — the blind, the lame, the paralyzed [and they waited for the moving of the waters. From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had].  One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once, the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.” (John 5:2-9 NIV)*
Irrespective of the authenticity of the incident, what strikes me most in the story is the question Jesus had put to the sick man, “Do you want to get well?”  This question to a person who had been lying paralyzed at the poolside for thirty-eight long years might sound absurd since there was no rhyme or reason to doubt the desire of the man to get well. Or, is it possible that in spite of his sad plight, the man at Bethesda had no desire to be cured?
It is true that the man had lived in a state of deep physical and emotional distress. It is true that the man was alone with none to help or comfort him.  Yet, he was in a place he had known for nearly four decades. And he survived in spite of all his handicaps. However, once cured, he would be cast into the unknown world outside the poolside porticos. He did not know how that world looked or worked.  He did not know how to survive in that world.  Thus, once cured, the man’s life would change enormously, the details or implications of which he did not know.  Placed in such situations, people tend to play safe.  Dreading the unknown, people might choose to stay put with the known.  It is apparently this reality of the human fear of change that made Jesus ask the question, “Do you want to get well?”  
I believe that this sick man at Bethesda represents each one of us. And the question that Jesus had put to him is addressed to all of us. Do we really want to change? Are we ready to face drastic changes?  We are all creatures of habit. We like our routines. Change implies the unknown and the unfamiliar. The thoughts of the unknown are unsettling. That is the primary reason why death and Satan scare us. Change catapults us into the obscure.  It means giving up controls and moving out of our comfort zones. Status quo is the known. It is our comfort zone. Given a choice, we tend to stick to the known.

The fear of change is ingrained in our nature. Our heredity and genetics teach us to resist change mainly to ‘always feel in control’.  Thus, we fear a job transfer, a career change, a new boss, a new group, a new residence, strangers, travels abroad, and so on. This is normal behavior.  We are built this way. But when the normal fear of change becomes irrational, persistent and unduly intense, it turns into a full-blown mental illness. That illness is called Metathesiophobia. It is often linked with Tropophobia which is the fear of moving.

People suffering from Metathesiophobia may simply not want anything that is different from what they already have. They reject every change in their routines.  They create their ‘comfort zone’ and are unwilling to move out of it. They prevent everything new from interfering with the status quo of their comfort zones.  In order to avoid change, people may break relationships, tell lies or invent excuses. This can affect social, personal and professional life. It can also weaken one’s will to live.

But comfort zones are not risk-free. For instance, take the case of the sick man at Bethesda. It might have been more reassuring for him to stay put at the poolside. Assuming that the situation at Bethesda stayed unchanged in the long term,  the man would continue his vegetative life there to suffer an ignominious death sooner than later. But the very assumption that status quo would stay intact in the long term is just wishful thinking in the real world.  Changes are inevitable. When changes eventually hit Bethesda, the sick man would just perish without a choice or chance to go out into the beautiful world that lay beyond the confines of the poolside colonnades. Jesus was asking him to make the choice.

We are the sum total of the choices we have made in our lives. Like the invalid man at the Bethesda pool, we too have the choice to take a chance to search and discover a new and better life in the unknown or stay put at our comfort zones and rot to extinction. We might opt for status quo. But remember that changes strike without waiting for our consent or convenience. It is, therefore, wise to anticipate changes and stay prepared to face it.  This is the lesson of Bethesda. This is also the lesson that the motivational business fable ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ by Dr. Spencer Johnson seeks to teach. This tiny book was a New York Times business bestseller that sold over 26 million copies worldwide in 37 languages. Let me close with a summary of that thought-provoking tale:

‘Who Moved My Cheese’ is a simple parable that features four characters: two mice, “Sniff” and “Scurry,” and two little humans, “Hem” and “Haw.” The names of these characters are indicative of their nature. All four lived in a maze. The mice and humans paired off to search for Cheese through the complex labyrinths of the maze. After a while, both human and mice pairs converge on a cheese-filled corridor named “Cheese Station C.” From that day, all four lived in the maze happily enjoying the huge stock of cheese they discovered in “Cheese Station C”.  

Here, ‘Cheese’ is a metaphor for what you want to have in life – a good job, a loving relationship, a lovely home, money, power, a corner office, good health, or spiritual peace of mind. And ‘The Maze’ is where you look for what you want – the organization you work in, or the family or community you live in. The four imaginary characters represent the simple and the complex parts of each one of us irrespective of age, gender or nationality. Sometimes we act like Sniff (Who sniffs out change early) or Scurry (Who scurries into action) or Hem (Who denies and resists change as he fears it will lead to something worse) or Haw  (Who learns to adapt in time when he sees change can lead to something better). Whatever parts of us we choose to use, all of us have to find our way in the Maze and succeed through changes that inevitably strikes us all at its choosing.
The little humans Hem and Haw had no idea where the Cheese came from, or who put it in the maze. They just assumed it would be there. So each morning they came to ‘Cheese Station C’, made themselves comfortable there and spent their daytime enjoying the sumptuous cheese. Each evening, they returned to their quarters in the maze.  The mice too followed more or less the same routine. They arrived at “Cheese Station C” a little earlier than the little humans. They first sniffed around to assess the changes happening to the cheese. Also, they kept looking around for cheese stocks elsewhere. 
Days went by. The mice always stayed watchful. But Hem and Haw were turning lazy. They awoke each day a little later, dressed a little slower, and walked to “Cheese Station C” at a leisurely pace. After all, they knew where the Cheese was now and how to get there. “They were becoming very comfortable now that they had found the Cheese, “This is great”, Hem said, “There’s enough Cheese here to last us forever.” The Little people felt happy and successful.  They thought they were secure. They believed that they could now just sit back, relax and enjoy life.  Hem and Haw regarded the Cheese they found at Cheese Station C as their cheese.  It never occurred to them that they had no claims to the Cheese. They never considered the eventuality of a ‘no cheese’ situation at “Cheese Station C”.  
The routine went on smoothly. Then one day, Sniff and Scurry arrived at “Cheese Station C”. But there was no cheese.  This reality did not shock or surprise them.  They had noticed that the quantum of cheese at “Cheese Station C” was gradually dwindling.  They had anticipated the situation of no cheese. “The situation at Cheese Station C had changed. So, Sniff and Scurry decided to change”. Without much fuss, the mice left “Cheese Station C” to hunt for new cheese elsewhere in the maze.
After a while Hem and Haw too arrived at Cheese Station C. There was no cheese. The Little people were shocked.  They were angry. “What! No Cheese?” yelled Hem. He continued yelling, “No Cheese?  No Cheese?” as though if he shouted loud enough the missing cheese would return. “Who moved my Cheese?” he hollered. Finally, he put his hands on his hips, his face turned red, and he screamed at the top of his voice, “It’s not fair! 
While Sniff and Scurry had quickly moved on, Hem and Haw continued to rant and rave at the injustice of it all. Haw became depressed. What would happen if the Cheese did not return the next day? He had made grand plans based on the Cheese. How could the cheese just vanish overnight? No one had warned them about it. It was not right. It was not the way things were supposed to be. Hem and Haw went home that night hungry and upset. But before they left, Haw wrote on the wall: “The more important your cheese is to you, the more you want to hold onto it”.
Hem and Haw had little sleep that night. They woke up early in the morning and rushed to “Cheese Station C”. They argued that someone was playing pranks. The cheese did not go anywhere. It was very much there somewhere. So, they reached cheese station C in great hope and anticipation.  But there was no cheese. The Little people did not know what to do. They just stood there, immobilized like two statues. Hem analyzed the situation repeatedly. Eventually, his complicated brain with its huge belief system commenced grappling with the situation. They still did not notice the absence of Sniff and Scurry.
Finally, Haw opened his eyes, looked around and said, “By the way, where are Sniff and Scurry? Do you think they know something we don’t?” Hem scoffed, “What would they know? They are just mice. They just respond to what happens. We are Little people. We are smarter than mice. We should be able to figure this out.
“I know we’re smarter,” Haw said, “but we don’t seem to be acting smarter at the moment. Things are changing around here, Hem. Maybe we need to change and do things differently.”
“Why should we change?” asked Hem. “We’re Little people. We’re special. This sort of thing should not happen to us. Or if it does, we should at least get some benefits.”
“Why should we get benefits?” Haw asked.
“Because we’re entitled,” Hem claimed.
“Entitled to what?” Haw wanted to know.
“We’re entitled to our Cheese.”
“Why?” Haw asked.
“Because we didn’t cause this problem,” Hem said. “Somebody else did this and we should get something out of it.”
Haw suggested, “Maybe we should simply stop analyzing the situation so much and go find some New Cheese?”
“Oh no,” Hem argued. “I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”
Meanwhile, Sniff and Scurry discovered “Cheese Station N”. Here the cheese was new and better.  But, back at Cheese Station C, arguments and blame game continued. Sometimes, Haw would imagine Sniff and Scurry finding New Cheese and enjoying it. He thought about how good it would be for him to be out on an adventure in the Maze to find fresh New Cheese. He could almost taste it. The more clearly Haw saw the image of himself finding and enjoying the New Cheese, the more he saw himself leaving Cheese Station C. “Let’s go!” he exclaimed, all of a sudden.
“No” Hem quickly responded. “I like it here. It is comfortable. It is what I know. Besides,  it’s dangerous out there.”
“No, it isn’t” Haw argued. “We’ve run through many parts of the Maze before, and we can do it again.”
“I’m getting too old for that,” Hem said. “And I’m afraid I’m not interested in getting lost and making a fool of myself. Are you?”

After hearing what Ham said, Haw was once again gripped by the fear of failure.  His hope of finding new Cheese started fading. So every day, the Little people continued to do what they had done before. They went to Cheese Station C, found no Cheese, and returned home, carrying their worries and frustrations with them. They tried to deny what was happening, but found it harder to get to sleep, had less energy the next day, and were becoming irritable. Their homes were not the nurturing places they once were. The Little were having nightmares about not finding any Cheese. But Hem and Haw still returned to Cheese Station C and waited there every day. Hem said, “You know if we just work harder we’ll find that nothing has really changed that much. The Cheese is probably nearby. Maybe they just hid it behind the wall.” The next day, they tore through the wall. But there was no cheese.

Then one day Haw began some soul searching. He realized the folly of paralyzing fears of change and the unknown.  He decided to move on rather than sit crying over the cheese that would never be coming back. “If You Do Not Change, You Can Become Extinct”, he chiseled on the wall of “Cheese Station C” for his friend to ponder. Then he left “Cheese Station C” and entered the maze.

Haw was still not fully free of his fears of the unknown.  So he wrote on the maze wall, “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”  Haw stood there thinking over what he wrote. Then he moved forward. His fears continued its hold on him. He realized that precious time was wasted living in hunger at ‘Cheese Section C’, arguing with his friend. He had become weaker. Haw found some bits and pieces of cheese around. He ate it to regain strength and kept moving forward. The terrors of the unknown still haunted Haw.  But he slowly wriggled out of it.  He started to smile once again! He realized that “When you move beyond your fear, you feel free.”
After a period of futile search for a new Cheese station, Haw decided to go back for Hem with the few bits of new cheese he came across in the maze. But Hem remained adamant. He refused the new cheese. Haw was disappointed. But, he had already changed. He had grown out of his fears.  So, leaving his friend at the empty “Cheese Station C”, Haw headed back into the maze. He went deeper into the maze, inspired by the bits of new cheese he found around the maze.  As he proceeded through the maze, Haw left a trail of messages on the wall to give clarity to his thoughts and to provide inspiration to his friend. He knew that one day Hew too would be forced to leave ‘Cheese Station C’ to search the maze for new cheese.
Then one day Haw came across “Cheese Station N”. He found an abundant stock of cheese there. It included some varieties of cheese he had never seen in the past.  Haw realized that he had discovered what he was looking for. He ate his full. He was happy and satisfied.  Then he reflected on his experience. Once he toyed with the idea of returning to see his friend Hem. Then he decided against it. Each person has to find his own way in the maze. Each person has to discover his own cheese.
Then on the wall in “Cheese Station N”, Haw wrote as follows:
Change Happens: They Keep Moving The Cheese
Anticipate Change:  Get Ready For The Cheese To Move
Monitor Change: Smell The Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old
Adapt To Change Quickly: The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese
Change: Move With The Cheese
Enjoy Change!: Savour The Adventure And Enjoy The Taste Of New Cheese!

Be Ready To Change Quickly And Enjoy It Again: They Keep Moving The Cheese.

Jesus asked the sick man at the Bethesda pool, “Do you want to get well?” The man had the choice to answer in the negative and rot to his death.  He also had the choice of answering in the affirmative to go on an adventure into a new world of exciting opportunities.  The choice was his.  The choice is ours too. Remember,Our lives are a sum total of the choices we have made” (Wayne Dyer).


*Until the 19th century when archaeologists discovered the remains of a pool fitting the description in John’s Gospel, there was no evidence for the existence of the healing pool of Bethesda. So scholars had argued that the gospel was written later, probably by someone who had no first-hand knowledge of the city of Jerusalem. 

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  1. It is an eye-opener for all including me who would like to be in a comfort zone rather than exploring the abundant opportunities we come across in life…

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