There’s a funny thing about change. On one hand, it’s inevitable and the only constant. On the other hand, I’ve heard from multiple people over the years that “people just don’t change.” But yet you hear relationship experts talk about how you’ve got to fall in love again with your partner every 5 years because we all grow and evolve.
Besides, G-d help us if we can’t learn from our experiences. Hell, even lab rats learn a maze in short order to get to the food.
So what’s the difference between personal growth, learning, and change?
I’ll offer up an example from my personal experience: You can look at my childhood, back to the years when my ability to string a sentence together was brand new. My great aunt was a life-long devotee to the conservative church I grew up in – a church that categorically eschewed chemical alterations of any variety – drugs, nicotine, caffeine, all were treated with the same degree of horror. You just didn’t. So when I walked into the room where this great aunt was convalescing and announced that “my daddy gives me coffee,” the lady nearly had an apoplectic fit.
And in that one incident, my innate ability to walk into a room and say the one thing guaranteed to freak everyone else out was revealed. When the original Shrek came out and Donkey says “what’s the point in being able to talk if you’ve just got to keep secrets,” I felt like my life-long struggle with things that must not be said had been outlined perfectly by a cartoon ass.
It hasn’t changed. It just doesn’t compute why we should all stand around not saying this one thing when we could say it and then move on. I don’t get it. If the emperor is starkers, we could all quit looking at his junk if someone would just hand the man some pants. What’s the problem? Like, it genuinely doesn’t register why a solution isn’t infinitely superior to leaving everyone’s sensibilities in tact while stupidity goes on unchallenged.
So what has changed? Most of the time, the way I manage myself in these situations. Now it isn’t an impulse that gets expressed without consideration. I still find the naked emperor situation incredibly difficult to manage. So I either walk away or try to find some way to get the man some pants without being obvious about it.
The thing itself hasn’t changed, how it is expressed has changed. So does that qualify as change, growth, or learning?
I didn’t start out as a measured person. I was a blurter; an impatient, everything has to be resolved and said right now, no I can’t hold my emotional reaction together in a state of patience or observation. Intervention must happen and it must happen now. Charge ahead with little consideration except that the right answer must be imposed this very second… Solve every problem, accept every challenge, climb every mountain, resolve every issue… That was me. No sense of proportion, no ownership of the boundaries between me and everyone else. Rash, impulsive, reactive, passionate, intense. That was me, all the time.
And I’ve changed. Dramatically. Sometime in 2011 I woke up and I was all alone and I didn’t have a relationship to provide some kind of emotional stability and I discovered that I’d become the source of my own stability. I wasn’t trying to rescue anyone and I didn’t need to be rescued. There was no crisis, manufactured or otherwise. With a handful of exceptions, I’ve held on to the things I genuinely value: method, analysis, neutrality.
The truth was I was tired of being at the mercy of external events and my emotional responses to everything and everybody. External events weren’t going to go away. It’s just not possible to control the external world. Which left me with a choice. I could either carry on as I had been, or I could get very clear about the boundaries between me and what happened in my life. I’ve got new tools, a deeper understanding, better philosophy, and much practice in putting that philosophy to use.
Wholesale change? No. There are things I will be forever and ever amen. But you can learn and grow. You can get sick and tired of being sick and tired. You can admit that what was isn’t working and choose something different.