Do You Think People Actually Change?

It happened one evening. I was making dinner while listening to National Public Radio. The program, Fresh Air, came on. I wasn’t very interested in the interview but left the radio playing while I continued to cook. I don’t remember the guest. I don’t remember the actual topic of the interview. But host, Terry Gross, asked a question that caused my ears to perk up: Do you think people actually change? I heard the show two or three weeks ago. Oddly, the question stayed in my mind.

It’s with this question in mind that I find myself approaching the Christian observance of lent. It’s during the time of lent when Christians focus on change and renewal. But do I think people actually change?

One of my long time friends and colleagues recently visited for a few days. We’ve known each other about thirty years. He’s in his mid-seventies and very active in his retirement. As we usually do when we get together, some of our time was spent re-telling stories from the past. We laugh at some of the wild and wonderful situations in which we found ourselves, lament well laid plans that just didn’t work out, and fondly remember people who passed from this life but whose influence remains part of us. We also share what we know about people with whom we used to work but are now in other positions. In these stories, we’ve remarked about the ways many of these people continue to live out the patterns we recognized about them in the past and chuckle as we say, “Oh, they’ll never change!”

We also spoke of our health and our habits. We both have a fondness for good food. Neither of us have a great desire for athletic pursuits. As we grown older, we’ve recognized that we only accomplish physical activity with will power, focus, and discipline. Even when we engage in the activities we enjoy the most, we’ll never really become athletic individuals. In this, we’ll never change.

We shared stories of a couple of families who are part of our lives today and the challenges they’ve had with their children. As he shared about the family he knows, I told of a very similar situation with the family I know. Each family has children who were diagnosed with ADHD early in life. The children were prescribed stimulants to treat the disorder. Now, in their late adolescence, the youth display intense out-bursts of aggression and have been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Therapists have suggested the possibility of sociopathic personality disorder as another possible diagnosis. Recent research suggests that the aggressive behavior in these youth could be the result of long term stimulant use on brain development. Will these young people be able to change?

The observance of the Christian lent is a traditional opportunity for repentance. The word “repent” is often use incorrectly. It’s a Greek word, metanoia, and connotes a fundamental change of mind and heart. This is the kind of change that reorients life, changes us in a foundational way.

You could say that I’m in the business of personal change. As a psychologist, for years I attempted to facilitate change in people’s lives from a therapeutic perspective. As a professor, I’ve worked with graduate students, challenging them to grow and think in ways that would lead them into a well developed professional life. Of course, as a minister and spiritual director, I’ve been with people throughout their journey in life attempting to point out sources of hope, comfort, and healing to support them on their way. While I’ve made the business of personal change the primary focus in my life, I’m puzzled by the question, “Do people actually change?
In speaking with my friend about the families we know who are facing challenges with older adolescent youth, it came clear to me: yes, indeed! People can actually change. I know that when the human brain has been damaged because of drugs or trauma, it is capable of growing new neural pathways so that normal functioning can occur. Interestingly, one of the best ways to facilitate this kind of change in the brain is with a regular practice of meditation.

This helped me to remember once again that our capacity of change is rarely dramatic. Instead, it is most often rooted in small changes that lead to big results. Growing new brain cells that link together to form networks that compensate for damage to the brain is a barely perceptible kind of change. Yet, it’s the kind of change that results in different ways of behaving, thinking, and feeling.

Similarly, the fundamental change of heart and mind that is part of the Christian lent is not likely to be the experience something grand or other worldly, like seeing Jesus riding a thunderbolt across the horizon. Instead, it’s likely to be rooted in an insight based in prayer or spiritual reading, a realization that arises within a person in a moment of stillness, or a connection made while listening to another sharing their stories of pain and of hope. It’s the moment of insight or clarity that has the potential to allow us to have a fundamental change of heart and mind.

As Christians observe the time of lent, as people in the Northern hemisphere observe the coming of spring and those in the Southern hemisphere move into the cooler temperature of autumn, how is it that we can open ourselves to change in fundamental and important ways? Our planet teaches us about the cycles of change. The changes emerge slowly but in time result in real and observable differences. It’s exactly that kind of change I anticipate as I look out my front window at the cherry tree whose branches have started to swell just a bit in preparation for blossoms to open. What are the blossoms that can open in our life? What insight or experience will fertilize the new growth? The change may begin with something quite subtle. But the result has the potential for being amazingly dramatic.

As I think back to the question Terri Gross, the host of Fresh Air, asked her guest, “Do you think people actually change?” I must answer, “Yes! We can!” But the process of change may be very different from what we expect.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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One Response to Do You Think People Actually Change?

  1. I believe in spiritual evolution as the most significant type of change. When we learn to give up ego through acts of compassion our character evolves. The concept of reincarnation epitomizes the process of repetition until we get it right. For example, in the movie Ground Hog Day we can watch a selfish jerk evolving before our eyes. Whether it’s one lifetime or many — for me at least — learning to serve others is the key ingredient for spiritual change.

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