The elevation of Pope Francis is just the latest example. Some commentators see a pope from Latin America, a pope from the Jesuits, a pope naming himself after St. Francis and they see how this might be sign of something new happening. Others look at the tremendous historical inertia of the Roman Catholic church and assure us that nothing is really changing.
Some people see 75,000 people demonstrating against the Keystone Pipeline and see a new era of environmental radicalism dawning. Others look at the entrenched power of the oil industry and see the same 75,000 people as making a quixotic gesture.
Some people see Obama as just another politician, the new face on the same system of Wall Street dominance. Others see a genuine maturation of a new progressive majority.
Of course, the world is full of elements that are static, at least for an extended period of time. The United States is not going to become post-racial one fine day, and no single event is going to bring it about. There is a materialism about the world that cannot be wished away. My daughter, at five, responded to the news that everybody dies, with the comment, "so far."
And of course, the world is in flux all the time. What seems permanent melts into the air, just not most days.
The little cartoon boy, Calvin, remarked that nothing ever happened, and then one day, the world was different.
But if the world is a mix of the static and the dynamic and every moment could be either one of great change or continuity, which are you more prone to see? Are you more likely to make a mistake by thinking that someone has changed when they haven't? Or, are more likely to think that someone can't or won't change when they are?
When I was in CPE, I would meet people whose lives were a mess because of drinking. And they would tell me all about it and they would tell me that they had seen the light, and that they would be getting sober. No one thought it would actually happen.
And yet, I would meet people who would tell me that they had been drunks for years, and then 10 years ago, or 20, or 30, they realized what was happening to them and they quit, and got sober. And stayed sober.
I tend to err on the side of seeing deeper change going on than what is really happening. I exaggerate both the positive and negative motions of history: I see movement when there is none. Perhaps, I just like the thrill.