Can People Change?


‘Can people change?’ The question may
sound somewhat abstract and disinterested, as if one were asking for a friend or for
the universe, but it is likely to be a good deal more personally – and painfully – motivated
than that. We ask, typically and acutely, when we’re
in a relationship with someone who is inflicting a great deal of pain on us: someone who is
refusing to open their hearts or can never stop lying, someone who is aggressive or detached,
someone who is harming themselves or managing to devastate us. We ask too because the one
immediately obvious response to frustration isn’t in this case open to us: we’re not
able to simply get up and go, we are too emotionally or practically invested to give up, something
roots us to the spot. And so, with the example of one troublesome human in mind, we start
to wonder outwards about human nature in general, what it might be made of and how malleable
it could turn out to be. One thing is likely already to be evident to us: even if people
can change, they certainly don’t change easily. Maybe they flare up every time we
raise an issue and accuse us of being cruel or dogmatic; maybe they break down late at
night and admit they have a problem but by morning, vehemently deny that there could
ever be anything amiss. Maybe they say yes they get it now, but then don’t ever deploy
understanding where it really matters. We can at best conclude that by the time we’ve
had to raise the question of change in our minds, someone around us has managed not to
change either very straightforwardly or very gracefully. We might ask a prior question:
is it even OK to want someone to change? The implication from those who generate trouble
for us is, most often, an indignant ‘no’. ‘Love me for who I am’ is their mantra.
But considered more imaginatively, only a perfect human would ever deny that they might
need to grow a little in order more richly to deserve the love of another. For the rest
of us, all moderately well-meaning and half-way decent requests for change should be heard
with goodwill and in certain cases acted upon with immense seriousness. Those who bristle
at the suggestion that they might need to change are – paradoxically – giving off
the clearest evidence that they may be in grave need of inner evolution. Why might change be so hard? It isn’t as
if the change-resistant person is merely unsure what is amiss, and will manage to alter course
once an issue is pointed out – as someone might if their attention were drawn to a strand
of spinach in their teeth. The refusal to change is more tenacious and willed than this.
A person’s entire character may be structured around an active aspiration not to know or
feel particular things; the possibility of insight will be aggressively warded off through
drink, compulsive work routines, or offended irritation with all those who attempt to spark
it. In other words, the unchanging person doesn’t only lack knowledge, they are vigorously
committed to not acquiring it. And they resist it because they are fleeing from something
extraordinarily painful in their past that they were originally too weak or helpless
to face – and still haven’t found the wherewithal to confront. One isn’t so much
dealing with an unchanging person as, first and foremost, with a traumatised one. Part
of the problem, when one is on the outside, is realising what one is up against. The lack
of change can seem so frustrating because one can’t apprehend why it should be so
hard. Couldn’t they simply move an inch or two in the right direction? But if we considered,
at that moment, the full scale of what this person once faced, and the conditions in which
their mind was formed (and certain of its doors bolted shut), we might be more realistic
and more compassionate. ‘Couldn’t they just…’ would not longer quite make sense.
At the same time, very importantly, we might not stick around as long as we often do. We
should at this juncture perhaps ask ourselves a question that may feel at once unfair and
rather tough: given how clear the evidence is of a lack of change in a certain person,
and hence of a lack of realistic hope that our needs are going to be met any time soon,
why are we still here? Why are we trying to open a door that can’t open and returning
to a recurring frustration and hoping for a different result? What broken part of us
can’t leave a lack of fulfilment alone? What bit of our story is being re-enacted
in a drama of continuously dashed hopes? And, if we are talking of change, might we
one day change into characters who don’t sit around waiting without end for other people
to change? Might we become better at sifting through options and allowing through only
those who can already meet the lion’s share of our needs? In addition, might we become
better at deploying a dash of life-sustaining ruthlessness in order to leave those who tirelessly
rebuff us? We may need to rebuild our minds in order – with time – to change into
people who don’t wonder for too long if, and when, people
might change.

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