Can people change? We wonder. In what ways and how fast and how much can a person change? What about those who vow to change only when caught, become penitent at the moment of truth--a sort of death-bed conversion with a second chance? How many faults can we tolerate, knowing that we all have our share?
And don't we often flinch at the wrong flaws, shunning leaders who found honorable help for honorable problems such as depression, yet accepting all manner of lies, pretending a little dishonesty doesn't matter?
Character is not only a political issue, it is a life issue, too. Our trust is betrayed, our hearts broken, by changes we never prepared for and sameness where we hoped for difference.
We all blunder; who can "cast the first stone"? No one is perfect, yet, to paraphrase Orwell, some are more perfect than others. Which mistakes are actually such deep manifestations of one's basic being that we cannot reasonably trust for the future? Once a thief, always a thief?
Faith in human transformation is a phenomenon basic to our culture. We buy self-help books believing we can reverse ourselves from meek to assertive, depressed to joyful. We adopt abused children confident that we can erase these painful experiences from their psyches. We join Alcoholics Anonymous with the hope that we can become sober citizens. And sometimes it works. I could not have been a therapist if I did not share in this vision of possibilities.
Our ethic is based on faith in human change, going back to our Biblical heroes, like the transformed Saul to Paul. Yet sometimes we go too far. Fully aware that most prisoners come out cleverer criminals, we bring them up for parole hearings where the convict says, "I'm different now. I wouldn't think of cutting off a girl's arms after raping her." Although few of us think such magic has taken place, we build this second chance into our [justice] system, bet our children's lives upon it sometimes to our regret.
We need a measure of certainty which of our political personages is Teflon, which plastic, clay-footed, polished brass, sterling silver with the patina of time. Since we cannot observe their off-the-cuff lives, the media have taken on the perspective of the little child pointing out whether the emperor is wearing anything at all. Personally, I am grateful for news reporters and papers that have allowed us, the public, a certain knowledge of what goes on politically that we never had thirty years ago. I want to know if the emperor is naked!
As a psychologist, I recognize that, for most of us, our fundamental ways of responding are still recognizable from fifteen to fifty. We each respond in our own unique way: some of us emerge tempered from the fires of adversity, while others are consumed.
Our fundamental nature stays the same. The same fire that melts the butter hardens the egg. And even though people can change, when we do, it is a remarkable event. The ten-year-old who tortures cats will not become an Albert Schweitzer nor will the tender little one who cries over the death of his puppy become tomorrows sniper murderer.
Consider milk as an analogy: Milk may be soured and churned into butter or sweetened and whipped into dessert. In each case the milk becomes very different. Yet it will never be turned into leather or geraniums or furniture. It will not break through the limits of its self. And neither can we.
A stable person is whole and somewhat knowable. S/he has come to terms with the wild vacillations and conflicts for which a person is called immature or crazy by her peers. We allow adolescents a period of unpredictability, an attempt to find themselves, implying that there are solid selves to be found. We do need to recognize that any transformation of ourselves, of our relationships, is not going to happen instantly. There is no quick fix. But those who continually make sudden directional shifts one after another are considered immature at best, irrational at worst.
We don't, if we are wise, continue to believe in character reform when we have seen no movement at all. We need to be accepting and wait for the slow process of growth, but it should be evident that there is some! A tree that bore apples once will not begin to bear magnolias. It knows itself!
Usually our friends know us well enough to say, "She'll love this" or "She'll be here if she said she would." When we do something 'out of character,' they tell us, "That wasn't like you," or you may say, "I wasn't myself."
When a person claims to have been through metamorphosis and pledges not to go back to being a worm, we may respect his intentions while doubting his capability to promise for tomorrow just as we promise ourselves slim eating right after devouring a hot fudge sundae. It's so easy then.
Allen Wheelis in his profound little book How People Change, sums it up:
"Action which defines a man, describes his character, is action which has been repeated over and over and so has come, in time, to be a coherent and relatively independent mode of behavior."
You see, neural pathways in the brain form through repetition so that we perform certain tasks without thinking; the neurons set off automatically. That is often the case when a person's mouth goes off without [his/her internal] conscious orders! Then we reveal who we really are.
If a child steals once, s/he is not a thief. But let him/her repeat this behavior into adulthood and s/he can fairly be labeled accordingly. Once a thief s/he can with the will and means, stop stealing. It is only when s/he has proven him/herself over years of resisting temptation that s/he can begin to see him/herself and be seen as honest.
What we can accomplish is to become our own best, unique selves. We can change, for better, for worse, still keeping our identity. However, if we are Poodles, there is no point in dreaming about becoming German Shepherds.
We can offer forgiveness as we also require it, yet comprehend where forgiveness leaves off and being a sucker begins. We can keep faith in the possibility of transformation and still be skeptical of quick-change artists with big pay-offs.
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Posted by RoadToPeace on Thursday, August 04, 2005.