Saturday, March 29, 2008

Do people really change?

I hear alot of talk on blogs that centers on trying to figure out how to change people. Its not so much psychobabble as it is about trying to find out how we can get people to open their eyes and see things differently. But its also about trying to figure out how we can get people to make the kind of changes in their lives that will save the planet, reduce consumption, vote for the right person, protest unjust wars and policies, etc.

Today I'm going back to square one and asking whether or not this is people really change? Those of you who know a bit about my story might find that a strange question coming from me. I was raised mostly in East Texas in a family/community that is extremely right-wing fundamentalist christian. And up until I started openly asking questions in my 20's, I bought it all. So if I'm any example, of course people can change...and alot!

But the question for me is not so much did I change, but did I find what was there in the first place. This might seem like a distinction without a difference to some, but I think its extremely important when we think about how we approach the goal of trying to increase the ranks of people who are willing to stand up and fight for the causes we espouse.

That's because when we want people to change, we tend approach them by giving them information and trying to convince them that the way we see the world is the right way. And that's actually the easy part (even though we know its not easy). Because then people have to commit to changing how they live their lives. We all know behavior change is possible, but its an uphill struggle and most people can't sustain it over the long haul.

The process of how I got from there to here did not happen because someone convinced me to live my life differently. It came, first of all, by noticing that what I believed and what happened in the world did not jibe. In other words, I experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance. And so I began asking questions.

Just as an example, right after graduating from college, I worked in a residential treatment program for chemically addicted kids. My world view at the time was that I was a christian and, therefore, had a corner on the "love thy neighbor" market. If this was true, I should have been the most effective counselor that agency employed (because the others weren't real christians you know). But that world view turned out to have no connection whatsoever to reality. I was a naive "goody two-shoes" with no training or experience in what these kids had been through or what they needed from me. And pretty much every other staff who worked there was able to connect and be more effective with them than I was. So I began to ask myself, "What difference does it make that I'm a christian?" These other staff, by living out their commitment to the young people in that program, began to help me see that my life was a lie. None of them ever tried to change me or my world view. They just lived out theirs in front of me and I was left with questions.

Molly Ivins (may she rest in peace) describes a similar, and yet more concrete experience of recognizing the lie. She also grew up in East Texas and as a child was told not to drink from the "colored" water fountain because it was dirty. In her innocence, she noticed that the "white" water fountain, due to more usage, was the one that was actually dirty. Thus began her questioning of everything she was taught...starting with racism.

Over the years, there were many other people who had a huge impact on me. But the ones who helped me the most never tried to convince me of anything. They tried to help me find myself and what I believed to be true about the world based on my experience. In the end, my process was not so much one of change, but of discovery. I can't speak to that as the universal experience, but it is mine. And, as Earth, Wind and Fire said, its all there and waiting...written in the stone.

Deep inside your heart for you to keep
lies a spark of light that never sleeps.
The greatest love you've ever known
Yea is written in the stone.

In the stone you'll find the meaning
Why you're not standing tall.
In the stone the light is shining,
forever touching all.
Never, never my darling,
never you'll be alone.
Ever, forever my darling
True love is written in the stone.


  1. NL - sometimes I feel you are in my head! I, too, have been thinking about whether people change or can change. Here's where I am right now:

    1) People, as part of the planetary system, are primed for survival. Thinking of Jill Bolte Taylor, the part of the brain that is fully functioning at birth is the amygdala - where our emotional memories get stored. Our senses develop pretty rapidly...and then we try to make sense of it all with the primary drive to survive. Our "rationality" is one of the last things to develop. Imo, we are not very skilled at using "reasoning," considering how many things we do that we know are not really good for us. This is also why "facts" and "logic" are not very useful in changing beliefs. The tools of advertising are the visuals and music that tap our emotions - fears and wants.

    2) Part of our survival skills is our ability to heal. Bones knit on their own. Now this does not mean they will knit with full usage or in the "best" way on their own. In the same way, I believe we "heal" emotionally. This does not mean it is the "best" or the "healthiest" we could be. Skilled care of bones and psyches makes a difference.

    We make sense of the "world" with many of our "beliefs," particularly beliefs about the "self," becoming hard-wired by the time we are 5 or 6. These are not rational or logical. They can even be contradictory and conflicting.

    It is in the space between the contradictions and conflicts that we can create change. I think this is why cognitive therapy can be pretty powerful, particularly when the change in the "self talk" is based on an existing, alternative contradictory belief than the belief used which created or contributes to an identified "problem."

    We are creatures of patterns. But we also have imaginations and the ability to play with the patterns. The mind-body connection is one to explore - I really recommend checking out and finding a Feldenkrais class. ( might help you locate one) Subtle changes in the way we organize our muscles in a movement can change the way we move, giving us a much larger spectrum of movement with ease. Changing the way we move subtly changes our interaction with the world around us. For sure, moving without pain allows us to live our day in a whole different way! Changing the body...changes the mind.

  2. Wow tampopo, you've given me alot to think about. And I will check out

    I also wonder if you've ever checked out the blog Docudharma (there's a link over on the right) I post most of the diaries I put up here over there as well, including this one which generated almost 100 comments. I think you'd fit in really well there and I'd love to have these kinds of comments be a part of the discussion there. I posted the video of Dr. Taylor there too and people really loved it.

    So if you haven't checked it out yet, please do. And if you decide to sign up, let me know.


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