Can We Change?

Are we capable of change? We like to think we are. We seek growth and personal fulfillment as we adapt to new circumstances, work towards New Year’s resolutions, promise to do better next time, vow not to repeat the mistakes of the past, commit to forward progress and disdain stagnation.

Yet it seems that every year, we’re in pretty much the same place we started, going through the same motions with the same people in the same jobs and entertaining ourselves in the same ways, theoretically open to change while not actually changing in any observable way.

We tend to forgive ourselves for this, noting that although we haven’t changed yet, we just haven’t encountered the right circumstances to impel us in the desired direction. Something will happen, we tell ourselves, and that will be the final straw needed to get us off the couch and doing what we know we ought to be doing anyway.

After all, it’s not like we never change. We did switch jobs last year or get married or divorced or have a child or move to another place. That’s change, right? So what if it’s more superficial than substantive. It’s still movement. And we at least contemplated more impactful transformation even if we didn’t follow through like we might have wished.

I know we can change given the right motivation. Look at people who are imprisoned. Their lives change because they’re forced into it. Meals, time in the yard, work: all dictated by their jailers. Although it’s a challenge at first, prisoners soon fall into a routine. They change because they have to.

Look at people who are severely injured or experience debilitating disease. They too change. Perhaps they’re confined to a wheelchair or a bed. Perhaps they’re blinded or deafened. They adapt because they have no choice.

Even those who don’t necessarily have to change often do – an overweight man with high blood pressure and a stent suddenly getting religion with respect to exercise or a woman surviving a heart attack finally giving up cigarettes. Change is definitely possible.

But change is hard. And if the motivation isn’t sufficiently strong, we will resist it, partly because we’re inherently lazy and partly because we’re doing what we enjoy doing. Why should we give up smoking or eating dessert or vegging on the sofa if we don’t have to? Tomorrow is always a better day to make a change that we know is good for us but that we don’t really want to make.

That’s why, although people talk about the climate crisis or the debt crisis, we don’t actually do anything substantive about them from a governmental standpoint. Only superficial changes, nothing that burdens people too much.

Of course, at some point we will have to change. And then we will. It might be too late. The problem then might be so great that the change we commit to, though necessary, won’t be sufficient. So we’ll have to change even more. That will likely bring immense pain, but better a distant pain than a current one, even if the distant one is way more painful than what we would experience today.

The way we view it is that the person having to endure that future pain isn’t really us; it’s some future version of us maybe, but it’s not really us. It’s not the us of the here and now. So go ahead and heap pain on that future us if you have to, but leave the present us alone. After all, we might get lucky and the pain might come to our children or grandchildren instead of to us.

Well, don’t worry. It’s coming.

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