“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Spring, that season of new growth, is generally greeted with joy. And yet, in many ways, growing time is mostly a time of discomfort. It certainly is so for snakes. As they grow, their skin stretches until it can’t stretch any more. Then the poor snake, blind and girdled tight in pain, desperately rubs and rubs against anything sharp or hard until its old skin splits, and out slithers a larger snake in a sleek new skin. Left behind, discarded in the grass, lies an old split casing once belonging to a smaller snake.
It’s much the same with people, I believe. Look:
The cast-off gloves still bear the shape of my hands, uncannily so. But my hands are no longer in them. Winter is over, it’s time to put them away.
Maybe it’s because it’s springtime, the season of growth, that I’m thinking these thoughts. Casting skins is a human process, too. We live, and we experience new things, and inevitably we outgrow our knowledge, our capacities, and our opinions, perhaps even without realizing it. People boast of being consistent, of never changing their minds or their opinions, as if this were a virtue. But Nietzsche, at least, knew better: if we live and undergo suffering and joy and a myriad experiences and never change, what are we?
But change mustn’t be frivolous, either. Changing something as important as a skin or an ideal or an opinion is a serious matter. We seem psycho-genetically (I just made that word up, but it’s useful, isn’t it?) to be programmed to resist change, even while it’s happening to us. Most often I’ve found that, like the snakes, for a longer or a shorter time, I need to be girdled in psychic discomfort or flat-out pain until — against my will — I come to accept a change that’s already been forced upon me. First I accept, and then if I’m wise, I embrace, and go on my way again, freer and stronger than before.
Of course, we still have to use judgment and discernment about what we’re discarding, and when. These sunglasses weren’t needed indoors at the store inside the Mall when I took them off. But the sun was still shining outdoors, and it wasn’t long before I put them on again.
It’s a balancing act then, isn’t it? A matter for judgment. In the end we aren’t snakes; we’re complex human beings driven by instinct AND intellect, fated to navigate an ever-more-complex world. A single guideline won’t do it for us. So let’s have the wise words of Victor Hugo sum up the task:
“Change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots.”
And so we get to round it off, to end where we began, with Spring, the season of new growth and rejoicing. Onward!