Have you ever heard that saying that people don’t change, they just become more of who they are?
In many ways this is true – my mother at 75 often does things like agreeing to make sweet potatoes for the holiday only to be surprised at 2 pm on Thanksgiving that she does not actually have more than one tiny shriveled up sweet potato in the house and, when confronted by this fact, then gets distracted and starts cleaning her oven. At 75, you have to ask if this could be a sign of cognitive decline but, if we cast our minds back over the years, we can see that she has always been like this. It just makes us crazier now because we are trying to teach her to live an interdependent life, which is about as productive as teaching a pig to sing. At her age, she is content to just become more of who she is.
On the other hand, there are times when people make dramatic changes. And I’m not talking about a person I know who, after saying he was against marriage, suddenly got married; and, after being staunchly anti-religion, converted to Catholicism; and then went to divinity school; and then confided in me that he was really a woman — after all those years I had put up with his macho, I don’t have to cook or clean and you should take care of me BS. (It was good for me to have to confront my own enabling behavior of him – how often we allow men to get away with shit because, well, they’re men and you can’t expect much of them.) Although these were changes that my friend went through, they represented a continuum of behavior that was really just becoming more of what he was. [Please note that this is not a comment on transgenderism in general; it’s a comment on a specific person’s life journey.]
I am a firm believer that it is possible to decide to change your behavior and succeed, because I have done it.
Up until a point when I was in college, I was always late. My mother is always late and I grew up with it as a norm, and just showed up late. Oh, I sometimes had good intentions, but then I got distracted and showed up late. I was late to class, late to dinner, late to work. I remember clearly the moment when I decided not to be late any more. At the time, I was working in a bookshop and I really admired one of the managers I worked with. She had natural glamour and grace and, although I never articulated it, there was something inside me that said, “I want to be more like that.” One morning I drifted in about 15 minutes late yet again. She was at the cash register, doing my job since I wasn’t there to do it; and, as I passed her on my way to drop off my coat, I called a cheery hello and waved at her. She gave me such a look of disgust, as if she was so disappointed in me, that I stopped in my tracks. She didn’t have to say anything, she just shook her head, but I noticed. And I made up my mind that I was not going to be late any more. Something shifted inside me, I made the effort, and I started to arrive places on time and even early sometimes, and it has continued for 33 years.
Another bad habit I changed was being negative. I was cynical, dismissive, always telling stories about how I had been wronged. One day at work, I told one story too many, and two of my colleagues joked about it. They weren’t being mean — these were the kind colleagues — but something about the joke struck a nerve. I reflected on it, and started working on my attitude. I took up meditation, and I found a way to look at the positive, accentuate the optimism. I was so successful at it that now, when I tell the story to people who met me after the ’90s, they can’t believe that I was ever such a negative, unhappy person.
With these examples, could you say that I was just becoming more of who I was? Was I deep down inside someone who arrived places on time, I just hadn’t realized it? Buried beneath my thick pessimistic exterior, was there an optimist struggling to emerge? Well, with the second, maybe, because perhaps I was an optimist all along, and the pessimism was my shadow side. But I doubt that lateness is the shadow side of being on-time; so that one feels like a real change.
The point is, as the New Year approaches, along with our annual foray into self-condemnation for all our bad habits and our struggle to change all at once, change is possible.
Sometimes you just have to decide to do it.