It seems fitting that the podcast A Slight Change of Plans began during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time of disruption on a global scale. Its theme of reckoning with a big change, however, is of course a timeless one.
Maya Shankar, Ph.D., the host, is a cognitive scientist who interviews an eclectic variety of guests with stories of suddenly changing course. How do these experiences alter people’s perspectives, identities, and priorities? (The word “slight” in the title could be interpreted as a nod to the fact that most of the time the impact of change is never really … slight).
Guests include well-known authors, actors, and leaders (even so, the thematic framing can give freshness to familiar stories). Others are less known or newer to sharing with a wide audience. Several episodes involve navigating traumatic events such as illness, death, and injustice. There are also more general, analytical “science of” discussions about topics such as quitting, connection, and motivation.
Christian listeners might be particularly interested in the discussion of the role of faith amid sudden change in the episode with author and professor Kate Bowler. After being diagnosed at 35 by a Stage IV cancer diagnosis, Bowler refused to give in to simple spiritual platitudes (e.g. “everything happens for a reason”) and she continues instead to boldly hold to “an intense belief now that love is one of the only guarantees in the awful times.”
Shankar is a patient and generous interviewer who steadily guides interviewees through their often painful and emotionally fraught personal histories. As she listens, she also finds ways to share her own questions and observations without distracting from the guest’s central narrative. This artful and tender interview-to-guest balance is demonstrated well in the episode with civil rights icon Ruby Bridges, the first African American student to attend an all-white elementary school in 1960—at 6 years old.
As Bridges describes how her childhood innocence and imagination shaped this pivotal time, Shankar wonders if “a situation like that almost demands the innocence of a child to make it bearable, to make it something a human being can survive,” to which Bridges agrees. It is Bridges' insights that shine most powerfully throughout their conversation, though, especially as she details her growing awareness of the historical impact of her actions and the reverberations for those who continue to work for racial justice today.
The episodes that feature Shankar’s personal experiences with navigating big life changes, such as a childhood injury that derailed her musical career and her recent journey with infertility, are moving and worthwhile listens, as well.
Season 5 of A Slight Change of Plans premiered in October 2022, and episodes are available on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, and other popular platforms. (Pushkin)