Wednesday, January 23, 2008

We Could All Use a Little Change

My favourite stories have always been make-overs. Cinderella. The Taming of the Shrew. Trading Spaces.

The best make-overs, of course, are the shy-girl-makes-good kind, like Valancy in The Blue Castle, hurling pot-pourri at the wall and shedding a lifetime of habitual meekness. Even in reverse, though, the process of transformation is exciting, even when the results are kind of disturbing, as they are in Shakespeare's play when Katharina is transformed by Petruchio into a meek and submissive wife. I've always felt that her final speech should be delivered with a certain twinkle in her eye: honouring one's husband is good policy in sixteenth-century Padua - by dropping her shrewish habits, Katharina manages not only to earn the respect of her harshest critics, but also to finally outshine that bitchy sister Bianca, someone who has always known on which side her bread is buttered.

These plays and novels lay out a plausible formula for change: (1) move away from the people whose expectations hold you trapped in the patterns you want to overcome; (2) face your fears; (3) get new clothes.

Nevertheless, in real life I am skeptical - pessimistic, even - about the possibility of change. I'm fond of quoting Agatha Christie's dictum: "The tragedy of life is that people don't change." To that I might add, "except for the worse."

There are exceptions. When addictions or mental illness are suppressing someone's true personality, effective treatment can sometimes allay these problems. Even in the course of ordinary life, people not uncommonly become more confident over time, more capable of matching the outer self to the inner self. But anger, selfishness, arrogance, laziness - these things don't strike me as especially susceptible to the effects of time and effort. We have a set point, I think, from which it's very difficult to improve.

I hold this view more in practice than in theory. Theologically, I am committed to the idea that the power of God can wholly transform a person's life. The problem is that the real-life examples of such transformations are few. So I'm willing to be convinced otherwise. Do you think that people can change?

48 comments:

Cyndi said...

I think people can change, and for the better. I think you are right, though, that people who have major life alterations are pretty few. I know I have chaged a lot since, for instance, high school. Or, maybe I just grew up? I don't know. I try to change and make myself better in my attitudes and such. Interesting post!

bren j. said...

I'm sure that people can change...what I wonder is how often it's intentional - a choice to change - vs. forced change.

Maddy said...

I heard a programme on the radio [NPR] some while back saying that after 30 at best you [one] might be able to change about 8% if you were really, really lucky and tried really, really hard.

Alternatively, life can take on a whole new perspective and it's a question of adapt and survive.
Best wishes

cinnamon gurl said...

I think it's possible but only with intense work and only when initiated from within the changer.

I also think it's fairly rare for people to change. Why do I think there's a back story here?

Jolyn said...

I do believe that complete surrender to the Holy Spirit can change a person from the inside out and bring them closer to who God intended them to be. However, that surrender has to be on a daily basis and we will continue to be sinners until glorification.

That being said, I once read about a long-term study that showed that up to 70% of an individual's personality is innate from birth and the remaining is shaped by environmental factors. That seemed awful high to me and seemed to help explain why some people in the most dire life situations continue to be so dang cheerful and why some of the most fortunate still insist on being grumpy.

Blog Antagonist said...

I believe that profound life changing experiences can effect a great change in a person. Perhaps being saved or finding God falls under that umbrella. But so do things like having a near death experience or nearly losing someone you love. Witnessing extreme hardship and poverty, or conversely, great beauty.

I don't know that people can just change, even if they want to. I think there has to be some catalyst.

What an interesting question.

Sarcasta-Mom said...

I like to think that I'm a person who has changed, for the better, over the past few years. Maybe some of my core values are still the same, but I'm a drastically different person than I was just a few years ago.

Though I tend to believe most people don't change, I do believe it's possible.

wheelsonthebus said...

Absolutely. But, they have to really want to, and most people don't.

Emily

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Well, what do you mean by change? If you mean, can a person's personality change, then no -- a person can't change. I believe personality is fixed.

However, I do think it's possible for people to become more or less confident; for people to completely cease bad habits or, conversely, to take them up and 'ruin' one's life; and I think it's possible for one's standing in a community to change.

Once upon a time I met a girl who'd been working at the American embassy in Canada, and who had just been re-posted to Minsk, Belarus. When we first met, she was the cutest, sweetest, shyest thing you ever saw. Completely naive. Two years later, she was hardened. She was transformed. She had denied visas to known mafiosi, she had lived alone in a harsh climate in an apt with no heat in a town with little food.... Whenever people ask questions like yours, I always remember that woman.

Mr. B&P said...

Clearly my dear wife has forgotten what a free spirit I was when we met.

minnesotamom said...

I'm with you on the "theologically believing God can change hearts and behaviors," but you're right--one doesn't see it happen very often.

Since moving to the Twin Cities, I have had the privilege of having many friends who came to Christ at a later age ("saved from the world" as they put it). For them, there has been dramatic life-change brought about by the Holy Spirit.

I also know, from personal experience, that trying to "muscle it out" rarely works. Often people are very affected by circumstance--such as losing a loved one or being in a debilitating accident, but from what I've seen, the change that comes from things like this rarely "sticks." They might resolve to be a better person, force some behavior changes for a couple of weeks, and then return to old attitudes and habits.

So my question is--if it is truly the work of the Holy Spirit, why doesn't He make it happen for us more often? Especially when we spend years begging for God to change us, make us better? Is the change so gradual that we simply cannot see it? Or do we manufacture the ability to "see" the change, even in our own minds?

Interesting discussion topic. Thanks for bringing it up.

Andrea said...

Yes. Absolutely.

But it is damned hard work.

Mimi said...

Pynchon always said we should never aim to change each other, but we could try to grow. That sounds right to me, like your idea that we can maybe mitigate some of those aspects of ourselves that need mitigation, but we can't, by force of will, become morning people if we are by nature night owls, nor will we become ambitious if we tend to take life as it comes. We are who we are. Can be more or less gracious about it, but c'est tout.

ewe are here said...

I do think people can change, but I also think that most people won't change and will revert to form for the most part.

I think I'm a bit of a pessimist in that regard.

Suz said...

I don't think the trouble is people not being able to change, but in the reluctance of those around them to see and acknowledge that change.

Teah said...

I'm with you. The scriptures abound with examples of people "changing"...going from "complete scamp" to "upstanding citizen." (or vice versa!) However, I think the reason there are so many of these stories in the scriptures...is because they are so miraculous. ;-) I think people mature...but it's hard to change what you generally like to be. If you like to be a bully...then you'll probably continue to be a bully. That said, I'm a nag, and proud, and a procrastinator...and I pray every day that those things can start to change and that I'll have the strength to change them. Wish me luck!

realitytesting said...

I think people can and do change those aspects of themselves that they have the inclination AND the resources to change--including awareness and intellect. I've known so many people who want to change, for instance, but they don't have the capacity to make these wanted changes. They don't know how, and they can't figure it out. And then, frustration takes them down....

chickadee said...

i do think people change. i used to not believe that but i do now that i've witnessed my own personal change. but it was gradual. nothing happened overnight, so people who see me everyday may not realize a change took place, also it was mostly inward.

however, the people we so want to change, often don't, or not fast enough for us.

Beck said...

I've known a dear man in my life who went from being a useless, violent alcoholic to a gentle and loving man, just by his own will. And I personally have radically changed throughout my life, so I don't actually think that Agatha Christie was quite right - most change is fairly inward, though, so it might be a subtle thing for others to detect.

Catherine said...

You know, that's a great question, especially (in my mind) the theological aspect of it. I get tired of people talking about religious change cheaply, as though it were a magical chant. Show me the money, I think, and for some reason I'm cynical about it. But then someone will actually show me the money and I'm stopped dead in my tracks.

I met a woman once who told me she came to Jesus because she was depressed, addicted, abused, in desperate need of peace, and he offered her peace. I braced myself as I asked "so, then what happened?" and she told me of immediate and miraculous and total life change and healing that lasts to this day. This has stuck with me.

I wonder if life change is like bonding with your newborn. For some, it comes on like a flash. But for many, it comes after day after day of back breaking labor and sacrifice for the cause.

Alpha DogMa said...

Yes, I think people can change. Their appearance, their attitudes, their actions, their reactions, their behaviours. It takes works. It takes time. It doesn't usually involve a nicely edited together montage of shots set to upbeat music culminating in softly lit closeup of the heroes smiling poreless visage.

The most traumatic period of my life occurred while I was pregnant with my first child. I've never been the same. My sense of humour is the same, my appearance is the same (discounting grey hairs and wrinkles), but my value system has fundamentally altered and my dreams for the future have been realigned. And I'm better for it all.

Angie said...

Difficult question. I am changed. I came to know Christ and gradually changed - not suddenly and miraculously like some are or claim to be, rather slowly and methodically over years. I once heard a wise woman say we are human-becomings instead of human-beings. This gives even the most cynical hope that he or she can also change.

Change is difficult because it causes one to shun a past habit or behavior or response to a behavior. That has been my most substantial change - my response. In my heart I find myself a 'half-empty" person, but my responses to situations are a choice and my responses have become less "half-empty". I find myself angering easily, still, but responding with a less angry reply or action. I am hoping that as I continue to respond with the attitude I want, my reactions will change, too.

In summary, I think it is complex question that merits good discussion and probably no definitive answer even from one who considers herself changed.

Owlhaven said...

Absolutely yes, especially if you see maturing as change. I laughed to see Mr. B&P's comment because after reading your post that is exactly the direction I was heading in my thoughts. I know my husband and I have both grown tremendously since we married at the age of 19. Gotten less selfish, less superficial and have more of our priorities right. Probably we're even a little more patient. Back when we were 19 we both would have run screaming at the idea of 10 kids. We have so changed since then. Not trying to paint ourselves as angels because we are totally not-- we mess up every day. But there's no doubt in my mind that people do absolutely change. And I do think that it is by God's grace and power.

Mary, mom to many

the end of motherhood said...

All the time...If I didn't believe in the power to change and grow, I think I'd have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning.

Swistle said...

I believe in the "set point" you describe.

I think that it's easier to work LOWER than your set point than to work HIGHER. So people can be achieving less than their set point, and that that's the improvement people make when they have dramatic changes: they do the life equivalent of doing homework and studying for tests instead of slacking. But being an A student when you're actually a B student? Very hard to do if it's possible at all, and very hard to maintain.

Karen said...

slowly - or quickly if it involved a near death experience, but those don't always work/"take" the way the do in books and film.

Christina said...

I do believe people can change, although I think it is more rare than it should be.

My husband is a great example. I can only say he was quite a, uh, "free-spirit" when we first met. Back then I didn't think him someone who would ever settle down, and wondered if we had any chance of a future. The person he is today is different in that respect, and I don't doubt for a minute that he is completely committed to me and our family, by his own choice. He's happy that he changed, too.

I think a person can change for the better if they have the right motivation to make the change.

Gwen said...

Before I can answer, I'd have to know what your definition of change is, I think. Is maturing change? And how about changing for the worse? My mom, for example, since my father's death, has become, in many ways, almost unrecognizable. I can't figure it out--was she always like that, but she hid it? does having a completely different husband result in a very different her? Is she just getting old and batshit? I'm flummoxed by the whole thing.

But I'm guessing you're thinking about changing for the better.

Nora Bee said...

I think people can change. I also think that people can keep changing to manipulate others. But ever an optimist.

nomotherearth said...

I have to believe people can change - it's part of who I am. But they have to sincerely want to.

Veronica Mitchell said...

You might enjoy Anne Lamott's section on this episode of This American Life.

bubandpie said...

Gwen - I'm thinking primarily of acquiring virtues or overcoming flaws. I wonder if the first one is more plausible than the second: if you have a track record for letting people down, it's difficult to change that, but if you simply have never been in a position where people are depending on you (like Christina's husband, perhaps) then you can develop responsibility in response to life-changing events like becoming a father.

And yes, Sin, there's a back story, but it's not mine to tell. :)

letter9 said...

I think that people can't help but change. We react to and are acted on constantly by our environments, the people we surround ourselves with, the situations we have forced on us and the ones we choose.

What I actually find changes less is how we perceive others. What I mean is this: I think we store convenient shorthand ideas of all the people in our life -- stereotypes, if you will, that encapsulate them for us. My parents think of my sister as impulsive, artistic, a lousy decision maker. Whether she is those things or not (she may well be a better decision maker now than she was as a child) they will always see her this way.

So saying that people can't change I think means something closer to saying "People don't change in my perceptions of them."

Literature and films are able to show these transformations, I think, because they shape our knowledge and perspective so purposefully. Narrators selectively choose what to show about a character, how to show it, when to show it, etc. They also (in some cases and not others) can show us how OTHERS see characters, and how these perceptions change or don't change can affect us.

Lily Barton in Wharton's House of Mirth is a great example -- Wharton's never 100% clear on whether Lily has truly changed or not. So in our reaction to the novel, there's debate.

And now I've gone on too long. And gotten a bit off point. Hmm.

Jenifer said...

Uh oh. My gut reaction to this was that in fact that people cannot change. I have no idea why this my first reaction.

Now I am trying to decide if I really believe it. I guess a part of me does. You can improve and/or change certain traits or qualities for certain, but really changing who you are at your core? I am not so sure about that.

I have changed a mighty lot since my timid, be a doormat days, but in my heart of hearts that person lurks there. You can try to change and even have success, but a part of you will remain true to form.

Moondance said...

We do change, but not all of us, and not all at once. Most never do.

Sometime the change is so gradual, we don't notice.

But we do usually need to be inspired to change. I think that's why so many people cited faith as the turning point, or great tragedy.

I need to believe that we can change, because I am in the middle of doing it. I am focusing on changing my behaviours, and my way of looking at things. My plan is that reinforcement that "the new way yields better results" will actually CHANGE me to prefer the new me.

The bonds with the old ways become more tenuous, the new way becomes more rewarding, and the cumulative changes add up.

Moondance at SeaChange

Luisa Perkins said...

So many intelligent and thoughtful comments; what a lovely group of readers you have, bubandpie! I have changed. I have seen others change.

But it's a darned good thing that God's time is more like that of a glacier, because real change is usually very gradual, almost imperceptible to the casual observer.

bubandpie said...

Letter9 - The idea that people don't change is absolutely a perceptual lens - even when we do see changes, we (I) may be more likely to perceive this as a discovery of what they were really like all along. I do know people who have changed radically over the last ten or fifteen years - but in every case those changes occurred before I met them, so I don't have a lot of first-hand experience of dramatic change. Certainly when I think of myself twenty years ago, I see someone who is almost exactly who I am today, minus the irony.

Merle said...

I am intrigued by this conversation. I agree most emphatically with realitytesting - a person must possess both the inclination and the resources for change to occur. Further, change is a result of incredibly hard work as Andrea pointed out.

The idea of a set point is also interesting. I've always thought of this idea as a thermostat. We are born with a temperamental set of traits but that the expression of each trait falls within a set range of possibility. Where we end up on this range is a result of our environment and our own choice. It is an interesting idea. I honestly don't know if we can change a certain trait to its opposite such as shy to bold.

But I think others are right to ask "Is this what we mean as change?"

I think change is more learning a new set of behavioral responses. If we wish to, we can learn how to write a better essay and thus earn a better mark. We can also learn better ways of responding when a friend is angry or uspet. As well, we can learn to think about things differently than we thought about them before. Further, there are other changes we can make which are harder but still possible. We can learn to curb our automatic reactions to given events and respond differently. For instance, we can learn not to respond to our partner's anger when it is more about him than us.

Personal change is complicated. I wonder sometimes (in a bitter, negative, sort of way) if people who say change is impossible, are really trying to deceive themselves. If you believe change is impossible than you are pretty much off the hook to putting in any effort to better yourself.

But after this conversation, I don't think it is as straightforward as this. Perhaps those who don't believe people can change are hung up on the idea of changing your basic temperament. That does theoretically seem impossible. But I think they need to stop focusing on changing some abstract part their personality. Instead, we need to realize that thoughts and behaviours can be changed. It takes motivation, effort, resources, time and commitment but it can be done.

As a last thought, letter9 and others commented on how often we fail to recognize change in others. Given the amount of effort etc it takes to change, I think we all need to remember to look for and support each other in our efforts for personal growth.

Janet said...

Sure, people can change. But it's really, really, really freakin' hard to break out of our familiar comfort zones and paradigms.

See how I added "paradigms" so I would sound (somewhat) intelligent after using 'really' three times, followed by by clean version of the f-word? I'm so slick.

edj said...

I do, actually, and I believe it's a work of God. I've seen some pretty remarkable things; like a very angry and violent man who has become gentle and patient.
Having said that, I also believe that we have innate personality types, so that we may change (for better, esp with work of God in life, or for worse) and no longer be characterized by something, but will occasionally continue to deal with whatever it was.

Jeana said...

I do, but I think it's usually very slowly, not all at once, so therefore not so noticeable.

Mommy Bits said...

I like to think that people can change but I always say that change is like a marathon, not a sprint.

You just have to have faith, and hope it comes to be.

painted maypole said...

oh yes, people can change. i have seen it happen. But they have to really really want to do it, and then, as you said, I think they have to rely on something far far greater than themselves to do it.

Carrien said...

Chiming in late.

I absolutely believe people can change. I know I have. In many dramatic ways.

But it's not always that fun, and there are many points of choice involved.

My FIL had one of those dramatic conversions in his words, "Filthy beast of the earth turns raving evangelist." In one 24 hour period he went from violent behavior, serial fornication, (Think high school football jock, the stereotype) smoking hadn't ever read a book in his entire life, could barely read, to a guy who suddenly was thinking things like, "I can't go to Vietnam, I'd either be sending someone to hell, or shooting a brother." He stopped smoking over night, became a conscientious objector, an Olympic athlete, a preacher, a best selling author and theologian, earned his PHD and sired 8 children with the same woman to whom he is still married, and founded an international mission organization.

So yeah, I think people can change, or rather, that God can change people. The trick I think is allowing the change to occur instead of fighting it. Becuase the work of the Holy Spirit is transformational.

DaniGirl said...

I haven't read all the comments, so forgive me if I repeat someone, but I absolutely believe people can and do change in ways both big and small. What a horrible, static, boring life if they could not. Even our essential natures can change, in some circumstances.

The mistake lies, I believe, in pinning your hopes to someone else making a change that you want them to make.

radical mama said...

Pardon me for not reading all the comments...

I say yes and no. (I know, not good policy to play the middle ground!)

I definitely think that people learn from experience and that I will not be the same person in 10 years that I am now. I think my fundamental personality will be the same though. I think I will still love to read, still love hanging out with kids, still feel passionate about feminism and social justice and the environment. I hope I will be more patient, but I doubt it. That's just who I have always been and it would take a great deal of effort for me to change that part of myself.

I think change is slow unless one has a really traumatic life experience that forces them to reevaluate.

I think if people are mean, the only get meaner. If they are kind, they get kinder. Stuff like that doesn't change much.

Rae said...

Heck yes, and I cannot believe that you just brought up THE BLUE CASTLE in your blog post. I knew we were meant to be life long friends.

And yes, I know that people can change. I've seen it happen many, many times. Some changes are harder than others... the ones that are the hardest are the lies that have been hard wired into people from their parents. But even this, I feel, can change.

Terri said...

I'm behind on blog reading so I'm a week late in responding to this very intriguing post. I have often wondered the same thing. How much can people truly change. I agree that over time people can become more confident and sure of themselves. I think I'm an example of that. Yet, deep down there still resides a remnant of myself of years ago when I was very shy, introverted and socially awkward. Sometimes that former self rears its ugly head and I get immensely frustrated for myself for that. As I write this, it occurred to me that I guess I've overcome some of my personality flaws, but I guess I'm essentially the same person just more mature (I hope).

I tend to agree with the commenter that said our personalities essentially don't change. I think we can work to improve on the weak areas, but this would require us to acknowledge the weaknesses and we all have blind spots.