You cannot step twice into the same river

What single word best describes the cosmos and life? A good candidate for an answer to that question would be CHANGE. But when applied to the universe, the word is a bit sterile. We need something more picturesque, such as MOVEMENT or DANCE. Doesn’t the universe seem to be pirouetting? Rotating galaxies and molecules, spinning constellations and atoms, revolving star clusters and quarks, twirling solar systems and electrons, whirling celestial bodies and subatomic particles… Yes, everything is dancing. Everything is moving. Everything is changing. And everything includes LIFE. After all, life is evolution, revolution, and dissolution. Life is change.

That’s why we can never return to the place of our birth. It’s not the same place any more. It’s a different place. It changed. That’s also why the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535 ~ 475 BC) taught, “You cannot step twice into the same river. Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed. There is nothing permanent except change.”

But you already know this. Why am I stating the obvious? Because our understanding is intellectual, not pragmatic. That is, we don’t apply what we understand, and this leads to much suffering. For example, people change. You and I are not the same people we were 20 years ago. We are different people. Today, we are more mature, knowledgeable, and talented. Although people change, we don’t act like we believe it. Do you? Before you answer, let’s consider an actual case.

On April 18, 1994, a 17-year-old drug dealer boasted to his high school buddies that within a few days he would be driving to school in a Mercedes. The next day, while driving with 18 and 19-year-old friends in his mother’s car, and armed with a .45-caliber pistol and sawed-off shotgun, they went prowling for a suitable victim. After one botched carjacking attempt, they went in search of more vulnerable prey. They followed a 1987 Mercedes driven by 63-year-old John Luttig. He and his wife, Bobbie, were on their way home from Dallas, Texas.

The 17-year-old followed Mr. Luttig to his driveway, then stopped the car, ran to the garage, and shot Mr. Luttig in the head with his .45. As Bobbie Luttig fled for her life, the teenager shot at her and missed. After she fell, he returned to Mr. Luttig, who was still alive. He then took careful aim, shooting him at close range in the head once again. Removing the car keys from the dead man’s pocket, he quickly drove away, accidentally ramming into a wall and damaging the vehicle. Finally, he abandoned the stolen car and rejoined his friends, warning them that if anyone spoke about the incident, he would kill them.

How would you describe this 17-year-old? Ruthless? Atrocious? Monstrous? Hateful? Certainly all those words applied in 1994. But what about 8 years later? Would he be the same person? You be the judge. On May 28, 2002, after 8 years imprisonment, 25-year-old Napoleon Beazley (the youth who killed Mr. Luttig) was strapped to a gurney in an execution chamber. Moments before his execution by lethal injection, he made his final statement, which appears in full below.

“The act I committed to put me here was not just heinous, it was senseless. But the person that committed that act is no longer here — I am. I’m not going to struggle physically against any restraints, I’m not going to shout, use profanity, or make idle threats. Understand though that I’m not only upset, but I’m saddened by what is happening here tonight. I’m not only saddened, but disappointed that a system that is supposed to protect and uphold what is just and right can be so much like me when I made the same shameful mistake.

If someone tried to dispose of everyone here for participating in this killing, I’d scream a resounding, ‘No.’ I’d tell them to give them all the gift they would not give me … and that’s to give them all a 2nd chance. I’ m sorry that I am here. I’m sorry that you’re all here. I’m sorry that John Luttig died. And I’m sorry that it was something in me that caused all of this to happen to begin with. Tonight we tell the world that there are no second chances in the eyes of justice … Tonight, we tell our children that in some instances, in some cases, killing is right.

This conflict hurts us all; there are no SIDES. The people who support this proceeding think this is justice. The people that think I should live think that is justice. As difficult as it may seem, this is a clash of ideals, with both parties committed to what they feel is right. But who’s wrong if in the end we’re all victims? In my heart, I have to believe that there is a peaceful compromise for our ideals. I don’t mind if there are none for me, as long as there are for those who are yet to come. There are a lot of men like me on death row — good men — who fell to the same misguided emotions, but may not have recovered like I have.

Give those men a chance to do what’s right. Give them a chance to undo their wrongs. A lot of them want to fix the mess they started, but don’t know how. The problem is not in that people aren’t willing to help them find out, but in the system telling them it won’t matter anyway. No one wins tonight. No one gets closure. No one walks away victorious.”

Perhaps the above true story will help remind us that life is all about change and that people change. I have two acquaintances that hate their mother and one that hates his father for the terrible things they did 40 years ago! How helpful it would be if they would realize that their parents are different people today. Once you have this understanding, you can let go of the past. What’s the point of harboring a grudge? All that festering resentment does is poison one’s system.

The lesson, then, is to stick a date to everything, as a reminder that things change. For example, in 1994, Napoleon Beazley was hateful. In 2002, he wasn’t. Our failure to date events is misleading, distorts reality, and can cause needless pain. For instance, think about this statement, “My husband cheated on me.” What does that statement mean to you and the woman saying it? Doesn’t it suggest the husband is unfaithful and the wife is in pain? Look at the difference when the woman dates the event by saying, “My husband cheated on me 10 years ago.” Just by adding the date we now arrive at opposite conclusions, for the husband has been faithful and loving for ten years and has proven to be worthy of trust. In a word, he’s changed; he’ s a different person. So, it’s time for the wife to change as well. She needs to let go of the past, her distrust and fear and open her heart to the love offered to her by her husband.

The process of ‘dating’ (applying a date to every event) is a principle of General Semantics and was introduced by Alfred Korzybski (1879 ~ 1950) in his book “Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.” Semantics is the study of meaning and ‘dating’ points out that the meaning changes when the date changes. Here’s an example, what is the meaning of, “This is a good book.” Well, when Mary was 6 years old it meant, “This book has many attractive illustrations.” When she was sweet 16 it meant, “This book is a romance novel with a happy ending.” And when she was 26 it meant, “This book is a woman’s guide to Spirituality.”

By dating everything, our lives become much more rational and open to growth and change. I’ll give another example by asking a question and then answering it two ways, dated and undated, and then following it with the meaning of the response. QUESTION: “Do you want to go ice skating?” UNDATED ANSWER: “I can’t skate.” MEANING: “I am changeless. I could not skate in the past. I cannot skate now. I never will be able to skate. I am powerless to effect change. Therefore, I cannot go ice skating with you.” DATED ANSWER: “I cannot skate YET.” MEANING: “I cannot skate at this time. But I am open to change and growth. I can gain new skills. I can learn how to ice skate if you or someone else will teach me how. Therefore, I am willing to join you and begin learning how to skate today.”

Can you see how sensitivity to the flow of change and the dating of events can make a big difference in our lives? I’ll conclude by adding another benefit, those who are attuned to change can cope with problems more easily. For when disaster occurs, their inner wisdom reminds them that, “This, too, shall pass.”