Why Do People Change?

Posted: October 4, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

So late last night, (or early this morning, it’s all in perspective), several coworkers and I held an impromptu philosophical forum.  That is to say we all gathered on the porch of Madi’s new apartment and bullshitted about life, the universe, and everything.  As is customary for such forums, there was much smoking and drinking and eating.  This actually serves a two fold purpose.  Firstly, lubricated throats and relaxed filters contribute to a better grade of discussion.  Secondly, when the booze and weed are all gone, you know it’s time to disband the forum and go home.

My philosophical axe-to-grind last night was about how and why and whether people actually change.  For the last six months, I’ve been keeping a journal of story ideas and prompts.  Looking thought the bits and pieces I’ve collected, the ingredients I want to cook into a story, I’ve noticed redemption is a powerful theme that keeps popping up, that I want to see people change for the better over the course of a story.  For example, one of the potential ideas I’m working on involves a career criminal attempting to ‘go straight’ for romance.  But I need to write the story so it feels real, rather then superficial or ‘after-school-special’, so I’m introspecting about what I actually believe about why people change.

I came down to the Abbey looking for the right backdrop for impromptu philosophical forums...

I came down to the Abbey looking for the right backdrop for impromptu philosophical forums…

So can people change?  The trivial answer- I’m not sure whether it is a smart-ass or dumb-ass answer- is “Sure, people can change.  Look at the outfit I changed into!”  Smart or dumb, I’m going to give that answer anyway.  It lets me make a blatantly contrived segue to my postly style card before I return to my actual topic of redemption and transformation…

  • Shape: Pregnant Teen Katie, wk 31, by Cukabebe.  (Side note: before any one sums two and two to get five and sends me a flame about the gathering at Madi’s, I didn’t personally do any of the boozing or smoking.  Even if my pregnancy is merely a show of support for Mrs. Firsty, I still used it as my excuse not to drink or smoke.  I’ve always been too nervous to try being high or drunk- I joke that just being me is enough of an altered state for anyone- but I have enough sins of my own that I’m not interested in throwing stones of judgement at my coworkers.)
  • Skin: Dark Mystique in Copper by Kyxe Skins.  The little leaf design under my right eye is part of the skin.  The word ‘Slut’ under my left eye is a tattoo from the slut shop that I’ve worn many times before.  There’s also a Prozak tattoo of a cross on my back, hard to see with the veil I’m wearing today.
  • Hair: Penelope in Strawberry from My Pretty Pixels.  This hairdo is seriously cute, and scripted so that the flowers and veil are color-change.
  • Base Outfit: Seduction from Undisclosed Magic.  The corset-style top, neko ears, tail, and big paw-printing boots are all part of this outfit.  I was very under impressed with the daisy duke style booty shorts from this outfit.  They weren’t all that flattering to begin with, and my third trimester belly certainly didn’t make crotch hugging shorts look any better on me…
  • Jeans: Laica, a dollarbie from LC’s world of fashion.
  • Jewelry: The sherbet colored bangles and the ‘I’m Hot’ pearl necklace are both from Grumble, Grumble; the earrings are from *JStyle.  I’ve said before these two brands make my favorite accessories, so it’s hardly surprising they seem to pop up in every look.
    That's right.  I'm sexy and I know it...

    That’s right. I’m sexy and I know it…

     

So do people change?  Can people change?  I’m not really sure what I believe.  The problem isn’t that I don’t know what I believe; the problem is that I recognize my beliefs contradict each other, and therefore form an inconsistent system.  That actually doesn’t bother me per se.  Most people have inconsistencies in their belief systems, and the holes in their beliefs don’t really matter until or unless the people begin thinking or acting near those inconsistencies.  And by most people, I don’t mean people, more often than not, have inconsistencies.  I really mean everyone has inconsistencies, but I’m allowing for a theoretical person who has examined their own beliefs enough to find and resolve all of the inconsistencies.  Unfortunately, as a reader, two of the most emotionally powerful stories I know are the coming-of-age story, where an immature youngster accepts responsibility and becomes a better person for it, and the redemption story, where a person who has harmed the people around him in some way atones for his past actions and becomes a benefactor or protector.  Which means as a writer, I want to write stories where the protagonist changes into a better person.  I also agree with what Ayn Rand has written about a writer’s moral philosophy being unavoidably revealed by their writing, that it inherently shapes how they abstract and specify values and actions.  So if I’m going to write about people changing, I need to resolve my inconstancies.

In general, I don’t think people really change that much.  My god father claimed that by five a child’s adult personality had already developed, and I always accepted that statement.  I’ve done some research into baby personalities- (I confess, I’m both excited and a little bit terrified by the impending arrival of Firsty, Jr.)- and experts claim several key personality factors appear to be hardwired at birth.  Certainly my own personality has been fairly constant over the years as I’ve grown up, and few actions I take as an adult surprise those who knew me as a little girl.  And most of my patience and calm acceptance of people is predicated on the assumption they can’t help their flaws.  There’s no sense getting upset about the fact Jonas Giovanni is an asshole if Jonas just can’t help being an asshole.  If people can change; if, in fact, Jonas is an asshole because Jonas has chosen to be an asshole, then I suddenly have a lot more rage issues…

I'm setting sail in search of wisdom, adventure, and really cute outfits...

I’m setting sail in search of wisdom, adventure, and really cute outfits…

And yet, and yet… In rare instances, people do seem to change.  There are big dramatic instances, like Saul on the road to Damascus, or the personality change from being the victim of a crime.  There are milder stories like my own.  I’m generally regarded by my coworkers as the informal morale officer at Giovanni’s.  I’m generally cheerful.  When someone else is in a bad mood, I generally probe to find out why and do what I can to fix the problem or advise them on how to get over it.  I freely let fly with my catty and snarky sense of humor, helping others laugh rather than stress out.  Several coworkers have told me that its always a better night at work when I’m there, because there is less stress and drama.  So would it surprise you to hear that two years ago, I was a seething kettle of rage?  That I once stormed through a swinging door so angrily that the door came off its hinges?  That every time I saw a floor plan or a new schedule, my mood soured because worse servers were getting better sections and better shifts and I was falling ever further behind on my charge cards and student loans because I was getting fucked over from shifts and stations that I deserved and had earned?  That every customer who gave me a crappy 12% tip after I busted my tail, and every meeting that blocked my table from turning for an hour while some mid-level office flunky slowly nursed a soda and showed off his spreadsheets had me clenching my fists and looking for someone to punch out?  I made a conscious decision that I don’t like the person I am when I’m a petty, vindictive, angry bitch, and decided not to be that person.  I forced myself to let it go when I was angry, to look at the half-full side of the glass, to forgive people until it became less of a continual decision and more of a reflex.  I changed.

Or did I?  I’m still the same person.  Listing some of the things that made me angry back then was still enough to cause my jaw to clench and my eyes to narrow.  I’ve learned giving vent to that anger is counter-productive and that keeping a cheerful spin on things helps me obtain my goals- pleasant social interactions, profitable shifts, less attention from bosses.  For that matter, when I’m at low ebb- if I don’t get enough sleep, or I’m sick, or during certain other private health concerns- I devolve, and can feel my patience bleeding away.  Did I actually change, or did I just alter my priorities enough to override my basic behavior patterns?  Or is altering priorities really all change is?  Here’s a really trivial example.  Lasagna is one of my favorite meals, and Giovanni’s does a lasagna special every Tuesday night that is simply incredible.  Every Tuesday, Donnie, one of the cooks who has been there forever and a day, comes in an hour early to help Jonas or his son Stephen prepare and bake the lasagna.  I’m generally off on Tuesday, so I would often come in to use my employee discount and get some awesome lasagna.  About a year ago, Marcus, another server, confided to me that he would no longer eat anything Donnie was involved in preparing since he had twice seen Donnie leaving the bathroom without washing his hands.  Eww.  There is a sink and some soap in the prep kitchen; it’s perfectly possible that Donnie doesn’t wash his hands in the bathroom because he washes his hands in the kitchen.  It’s equally possible he doesn’t wash his hands in the bathroom because he doesn’t wash his hands anywhere.  I haven’t been back for lasagna Tuesday since.  So, I used to love our lasagna, and now I refuse to eat it.  Did I change?  Or is it more appropriate to say that I remained the same, but altered my behavior because new information- i.e. Donnie’s dirty crotch germs are the secret ingredient in the sauce- changed the calculus by which I make my decisions.

This is more than just semantics.  As I debated change back and forth with increasingly drunk and stoned coworkers, I realized my examples of change all had one common ingredient.  Something happens to modify a person’s worldview, and as a result the person transforms.  A woman who is raped becomes more distrustful of men because she now knows just how horrible some men can be and that you cannot always tell which men are safe and which are not.  After a religious epiphany, a new believer begins to prioritize actions and relationships according to a different set of more spiritual standards.  I still like lasagna- I’ve eaten a family tray of Stouffer’s all by myself; it’s my default choice if I’ve never eaten at a given Italian restaurant before- but my liking for lasagna doesn’t outweigh my aversion to Donnie’s dirty crotch germs, so my behavior changed.  My goals for work didn’t change.  My attitude about whether I like my job or not didn’t change.  My attitude at work changed when I altered my world view because I recognized bitterness and negativity were biting me in the ass, and acted upon my new world view.

I'm in a cemetery because my thoughts are very grave...

I’m in a cemetery because my thoughts are very grave…

Sometimes people change their world view, but don’t seem to change.  An alcoholic who recognizes he has a problem, and keeps drinking anyway.  The chronic philanderer who continues to cheat.  But given that people lie to those around them and even to themselves about what they believe, that people don’t really think out the consequences of their beliefs, that people don’t always line up specific instances against general beliefs, I’m willing to still categorize those instances as unchanged, or insufficiently changed world view.  For example, the alcoholic who ‘recognizes he has a problem’ may have decided he needs to drink less, but until he realizes that he cannot control his drinking and that he therefore cannot drink at all, he isn’t going to have true change.  People put their money where their mouth is when they act on their beliefs- if you feel there are exceptions, or loop holes, or other priorities, then you do not act and you cannot change until you are acting.

So to pull things to a semi conclusion: people change when their beliefs change and they act upon their new beliefs.  If I am toying, for example, with a story idea where a career criminal decides to go straight to become ‘worthy’ of a woman, I must either establish that such a change is already within his world view, that he values love enough to choose love over the difficulties of going straight or demonstrate believably that the romance is enough to change his world view.  In either case, I’m operating in that hazy area where seeming outward change is actually being true to inward values.  And forgive me for rambling a bit today, but the mixture of listening at Madi’s and talking to you here has helped me have a greater understanding of what changes us.  So I suppose I have changed for the wiser…

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