Columnist Daniel Cantor Yalowitz: The challenges and positives of ‘progress’

Daniel Cantor Yalowitz



Published: 02-18-2024 7:00 PM

We hear the term “progress” all the time, in a variety of contexts. Whether we are discussing progressive (or liberal) viewpoints on politics and living, or making progress on projects of any sort, or progressing to the next level of whatever — it seems that progress stands for something dynamic that is continually moving forward, in whatever way “forward” is defined. As a word, it may be used as either a verb or a noun, so it has become a highly activated term.

Making progress must take into consideration both the content as well as the context of a given situation. When someone or something is stuck, the mere fact of unsticking it may be seen as progress. 

In education and learning, progress means an advancement of intellectual understanding of a concept, the ability to evolve one’s intelligence and cognition to a new and higher level. Politically speaking, progress refers to a policy or law or, more broadly, a philosophy of governing that may take into account the voice and needs of citizens and giving them greater voice and agency. In the workplace, progress means moving a project forward toward its completion, or rethinking and reframing it if there hasn’t been sufficient progress. Music gives us a “progression,” a series of moving chords which help to form both a melody and a harmony, most pronounced in the music of the blues. All of these are simple examples of how “progress” is demarcated and articulated in various fields and formats. 

We are living in an era where progress and progressive can be seen as dirty and tainted words. Our highly bifurcated political world may be the one place where this is most pronounced. Above all, progress means and defines change — and that is never easy for human beings. But we also know that the nature of life is dynamic, not static, and that change is completely inevitable. So, too, is progress. Time moves forward, we grow, we age, we die, and that is the simple yet profound progression of human development. Thus, it seems to me that we cannot defeat this intrinsic aspect of our life cycles and that has become increasingly hard to accept.

Why is change and progress so hard for us to live with and within? I can think of a few reasons why this might be true. 

For one, we are fearful: we may be the only species that understands (at least intellectually) that death is a pragmatic consequence of life. For many, death is the unknown, the unexplored, and that brings anxiety and fear. In his 1933 inaugural presidential address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke truth to this when he stated, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear of change, of novelty, of the unknown has always been something of immediate concern to human beings.

Another consideration is that progress may mean the potential for other forms of loss whether it be a job, a relationship, a lifestyle, and more, and few of us want to lose or let go of what we have earned. No matter if what we are sacrificing, giving up, or having taken away from us, if this is the price of progress, many would or do find this unacceptable, or at least uncomfortable.

A third possibility here has to do with the lack of control many of us feel about the happenstances within our lives. To this point, I can speak from personal experience. I learned late in life (but not too late) that the only thing that we have any true control over is our attitude toward whatever and whomever. When we feel out of control, then progress or change is seen from coming from beyond us, and we may feel helpless to negotiate or even manipulate our way around this.

To this point, I have focused attention only on the negative, scary, and challenging aspects of progress in all its forms. However, there is much to be said about the positive forces that are at work when we observe or experience progress. Articulating some of this here may help to balance the equation, so let’s progress now to that.

Among other things, progress is about growth in all its realms. It helps us to understand our emotional reactions and responses to noting the progress in our lives. As the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire (1921-1997) once said, “knowledge is power.”  And this sense of knowing enables us to move forward in our lives with the power of choice, voice, will, and determination. Progress is the vehicle and the concept that allows us to move forward in our lives. In and of itself, it is not bad – but it can be scary, intimidating, confusing, and likely a number of other emotions as well. 

Finally, what would – and could – we do without making progress in our lives? Would we rather be stuck and static in a particular place at a particular point in time? Would we willingly waive off any and all growth because it may be uncomfortable, challenging, or upsetting? Life is full of risk, and the ability to make progress is part of it.

Daniel Cantor Yalowitz writes a regular column in the Recorder. A developmental and intercultural psychologist, he has facilitated change in many organizations and communities around the world. He is former chairman of the Greenfield Human Rights Commission and his two most recent books are “Journeying with Your Archetypes” and “Reflections on the Nature of Friendship.” Reach out to him at