Can We Learn to Embrace Change, Not Fear It?

In The Book of Charlie: Wisdom from the Remarkable American Life of a 109-Year-Old Man, author David Von Drehle gleans lessons from his longtime neighbor, Dr. Charlie White. Although Charlie had been dealt some pretty heavy blows in his life, including losing his 42 year-old father in an elevator accident when he was only eight, Drehle discovers that Charlie is not only a survivor, he’s a “thriver.” Drehle writes: “He did not just live. He lived joyfully.” In his ten decades of life, Charlie saw many changes. But rather than fear change, he embraced it. “Charlie was a true surfer on the sea of change, a case study in how to flourish through any span of years, long or short. Or through any trauma,” Drehle says. 

I thought about Charlie and Drehle’s book while walking through Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929, now on display at the Metropolitan Museum. Abbott returned to New York in January, 1929 after spending eight years in Europe. She found the city she had left much different and traveled around the city photographing its skyscrapers, bridges, elevated trains, and street life. One can only wonder how Abbott would feel about the city nearly a hundred years later. My guess is she would be energized once again to photograph these changes in a city she had come to love.

But the Abbott photo that stood out to me was of a barber shop. August Pingpank, the shop’s owner, was 87 years old and, at that time, was thought to be the oldest barber in New York. “He lamented to the Federal Art Project researchers that he would soon have to retire due to the invention of the safety razor,” according to notes placed alongside the photo. “It’s different now with men shaving themselves every morning at home,” Pingpank is quoted as saying. Unlike White, Pingpank was not ready to embrace change; he feared it. Barber shops are still around, of course, having survived even a better way for men to shave.

The very word “change” seems to dominate headlines these days: “climate change,” “sex change,” “political change,” “regime change,” “demographic change,” “financial change,” “generational change,” and on, and on. Pundits lament the rapid transformation of our society accelerated by “technological change” that is being blamed for the ills affecting young and old alike. The latest fear seems to focus on artificial intelligence with so many unknowns about how AI will impact our future lives. Will some professions be taken over by robots? Will battlefields be flooded with super soldiers? Will the dystopian films and TV shows that we once found entertaining become a scary reality? 

My friends who are seniors often express fears about the future for their children and grandchildren. Unless we all live to be Charlie’s age, we probably will not be around to see how these developments play out. Setting up the next generations to fear the future is not the way to go. And I find solace in Drehle’s observation: “Still, as I’ve reflected on this remarkable friend, I have come to see that he was more than a living history lesson, more than the winner of a genetic Powerball. He was one of the few children of the early 1900s who could tell my children of the 2000s how to thrive while lives and communities, work, and worship, families and mores are shaken, inverted, blown up and remade.”

No matter our age, like Charlie we have experienced traumas in our lives. The recent pandemic is just one example. Maybe unlike Charlie, we survived and didn’t thrive. But on the other side, can we find some joy? Can we spread those feelings to others? From what Drehle says about Charlie, he wasn’t just an observer. He didn’t fear change because he exerted control when he could. Can we do that, even in small ways? Can we teach that lesson to those around us, young and old? If so, we can be more like Charlie and Abbott, celebrating change, not fearing the future. 

Top Berenice Abbott’s “Pingpank Barbershop, 413 Bleecker Street, Manhattan, 1938”
Photo by Woman Around Town

About Charlene Giannetti (696 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.