What's Tony Thinking

Transformation You Can Believe In


A number of you responded to my blog, “Does Travel Change Your Life?” in which I drew on philosopher, Agnes Callard’s article, “The Case Against Travel.” All of you who responded argued that you had experienced travel as life-changing, and made a good case for it.

“Transformation” is defined, in an on-line dictionary, as “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” As I noted in that earlier piece, these days all kinds of products, processes and experiences (travel being one) are marketed to us as “transformative.” “This will totally change your life,” we are told. I question the glib claims of “transformation.” Such claims are made not only for various products but often for religion and church.

But I wonder if “transformation” is less becoming a totally different person than it is more a matter of coming to grips, and finding peace, with the person you are?

In this connection I was re-reading a chapter in George Saunders really terrific book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. If you are looking for a new book or summer reading, I recommend it. It is based on the course Saunders teaches on Russian short-stories. His literary analysis of a succession of classic stories is super engaging.

I re-read his chapter on Tolstoy’s story “Master and Man,” in which a master, Vasili, and a serf, Nikita, go on a fool’s errand and end up lost in a snow-storm that costs Vasili his life, though Vasili saves the life of Nikita.

Saunders writes about the transformation that takes place at the end of life for Vasili, who is pretty much a jerk for most of the story.

“Tolstoy is proposing something radical: moral transformation, when it happens, happens not through the total remaking of the sinner or the replacement of his habitual energy with some new pure energy but by a redirection of his (same old) energy.

“What a relief this model of transformation is,” writes Saunders. “What else do we have but what we were born with and have always, thus far, been served (and imprisoned) by? Say you are a world-class worrier. If that worry energy gets directed at extreme personal hygiene, you’re ‘neurotic.’ If it gets directed at climate change, you’re an ‘intense visionary activist.’

“We don’t have to become an entirely new person to do better; our view just has to be readjusted, our natural energy turned in the right direction. We don’t have to swear off our powers or repent of who we are what we like or are good at doing. Those are our horses; we just need to hitch them to the right, uh, sled.” (A reference to the story of Vasili and Nikita and their means of travel.)

I like that. A lot. The idea is that transformation can occur without total, thorough or dramatic change so much as a tweaking or redirection of our existing characteristic energies or capacities. That strikes me as both true and hopeful. Total, thorough and dramatic change in a person may happen, but not very often. Setting that up as the goal is setting ourselves up for failure and frustration. Better to take our basic make-up and capacities and build on them in a different, improved direction.

A personal example, I can be impulsive. My mother used to say, “You go at everything like you’re killing snakes.” So I try to moderate my impulsivity, while remaining willing to take action and risks for worthy endeavors.

This also has an application in the life of organizations, and in particular my area of interest, congregations. Instead of trying to turn a declining mainline congregation into a mega-church (which ain’t happening), it is better to re-orient a bit, to build on strengths of the church. Say your church is activist in its DNA. Instead of trying to totally change, from Martha to Mary, it makes more sense to tweak and re-direct it a bit. Stay active and engaged, but with more humility. See your activist work not just as changing others, but as mutually impactful.

Moreover, and to return to Saunders metaphor, we have a lot of horses (energies) surging in American society these days. But often they are hitched to crappy sleds. I think this points to what is actually a strength of Joe Biden’s leadership, about which many complain. He seems to me to be trying, and with some success, to hitch our energies to at least some problem-solving, life-improving purposes, rather than attention-grabbing “blow it all up,” “burn it all down,” of the political extremes.


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