I am fascinated by the idea of change; particularly, how we change for the better. This book written by journalist Polly Morland is titled “Metamorphosis: How and Why we change”. It’s not a self-help book, rather Polly seeks to explore the topic of individual change on a broad structure of: Why do we want to change? How much can we change? How do we change? And Changed? Each section linked one-to-the next with a brief exposition tells the story of an individual who has through choice and agency, or in response to unexpected and unwished for change has successfully grown. The author expands the personal stories into lessons in psychology, sociology, philosophy or just good sense. This is a fascinating book and well worth the effort of reading multiple times. That’s our lives. No matter how not wished for, change happens. Not a self-help book, Poly’s goal is to give us a broader appreciation of the options we have; options, confidence, empowerment, and agency.
Of many examples:
Didier Long: The soul as a butterfly. Didier Young has changed. As a young man, angry and disconnected from himself, he was a thug, used women thoughtlessly and was a violent drunk. He attempted suicide before his 17th birthday. As he recovered he found God. Yes, that’s a cliché but instead of becoming a quiet believer he became a monk in a strictly silent order. That’s not the end of the story after fifteen years within the order and seen as the next Abbot, he was interviewed by a woman journalist and was smitten. Didier left the order and with his IT skills became a successful businessman. After months convincing her, he moved in with her and later he married her. That is not the end of the change. Late in life, he became a Jew, leaving his Protestant faith behind. How can one person change so much? How to have the confidence, the balls to make that kind of change? How and why take those risks? In the beginning, clearly unhappy I can understand; unhappy and destructive; he sought something better. And leaving the Monastery, I can understand that. I would hate to give up sex or love. But I don’t understand religion at all.
Growing with change doesn’t always come because we want it. Accidents happen, leading to growth or collapse. How can a young woman, lose her twin brother in an accident, and lose the use of her legs in a second accident, yet still be a positive bubbly person studying agency and happiness; and training as a counselor to help others? That woman is H’Sien Hayward of California another example from Polly’s Metamorphosis. Studies show that each of us has a happiness set-point. Our happiness does not change much. In addition, we tend to overestimate how an exceptionally positive thing, like winning a major lottery, makes us happier. Likewise, a really negative event, like losing the use of our legs, does not push us into depression. Polly’s subject, H’Sien Hayward studies happiness, her view is that happiness, or at least engagement and focus comes from action. This idea that happiness is not simply pleasure is an old idea, certainly dating back to the Greeks. Their word for this kind of happyness was eudaimonia generally translated as “flourishing”. With a change, action leads to a sense-of-control and, to a degree, a measure of happiness. H’Sien deciding to keep learning, to stay engaged and active, and that made all the difference.
As much as we deny it, change is continuous. Violet K, another of Polly’s cases, was a drug addict. By the time she was 22 she was addicted to heroin, and a prostitute. Poly introduces Violet as an example of a continuously changing life, making the point, it’s not stepped change, we don’t grow into our lives in steps but continuously. On the one hand, Violet’s story is one of hope because in the end she rejected drugs and grew her life but I have a question. Metamorphosis explores change, and the subjects come through: stronger, healthier, and more successful. Is this the full story, do some attempt to change and fail, perhaps collapse?
Not all change is good. What about, those that fail? And what about those who change and become evil or broken? These questions are not the subject of Polly’s Metamorphosis.
Our culture suffers from “success bias”. That is, we seek stories of the successful to emulate and tend to view the unsuccessful as failures. There is a subtle sense of victim blaming in our view of how success works, a poor understanding of the statistical nature of success means that many blame those who struggle. The point is that making the choice to change, if we have the choice, is dangerous and we fear loss. Not every change is successful but we have little choice and respond by making the best decisions we can. That is a reality of our lives.
Does Polly’s Metamorphosis bring understanding? I think it does. Her book is thoughtful and interesting, and she explores many aspects of change that I had not considered. It is a book I plan to reread. I recommend it to you.
Polly’s Metamorphosis seeks to explore the: why, how, what, and results of change, as such it is an important book, especially as it is not a self-help book. In spite of the success bias, there is much to learn from those who successfully change. The stories make the challenges we all face starkly real. Change happens to us all, we dance with that, accepting or denying change, some of us change with limited success, some fail, and some succeed. That is the life we have.