On Change

By Simon Smithson


A friend of mine doesn’t meet new people easily. With the diagnostic aid of the internet age, I supposed it’s possible he may be suffering from a touch of Asperger’s (if there is such a thing as a ‘touch’ of Asperger’s).

In familiar situations, among a known social circle, he is driven to attempt a small and ugly kind of domination – by putdowns, by attack, by withholding attention. But as soon as a random, unknown element – a new person, for example – is introduced, the strength and the bluster vanish from him. He goes strangely, noticeably quiet; he backs down like a yelping Chihuahua confronted with a pit bull. The more distinct and different a stranger, and their appearance and lifestyle, is from my friend and his, the more difficulty he has meeting their eyes; the more obvious the concerned workings of his mind become on his face. In the absence of common ground, my friend quickly becomes unsure, and intimidated. He has no way of bridging the gap, and suddenly his confidence in his own position starts to tremble until it collapses like a house of cards. Those of us who know him well can see the uncertainty and the fear creeping up in him, in his pauses and silences until, finally, when we are alone, he will confide in us: ‘I didn’t like that guy.’

Whether my friend has any depth of understanding regarding this behaviour, I don’t know. I don’t believe it will ever cause him any serious trouble. By now, his life is fairly delineated. Without some sudden future break from his life until this moment, he will always have the same friends and be surrounded by the same people – if not exactly the same people, then people who are similar enough as to make little difference. He will always live in and experience the same socio-economic streams; work in the same echelons of the same field. The odds are good he will marry the girl he is currently with and together, they will grow older, have children, work their way up the corporate ladder, retire, and die. My friend will, most likely, never have to confront the fact that he clams up around strangers; especially when they don’t work white-collar jobs and like the same things that he likes.

This is a part of himself that he, probably, will never have to change. And that’s going to be OK. As dysfunctional behaviour goes, it’s a pretty mild example. There’s no harm in it, except maybe to his chances of having a wider and more variegated circle of friends.

The question for me is, if he wanted to change, and he had the necessary capacity for self-awareness, would he be able to? Can people actually change who and how they are?

Once, years ago, I was having dinner with my parents and another friend of mine, and the conversation turned to our friend Dean. Dean was in the process of working himself out of an extended, months-long slump during which he’d stopped taking care of himself, lost his job, packed on weight, and stopped leaving the house except for an occasional coffee. There had been no great flash of light, no Road to Damascus for him, but Dean had, piece by piece, quit smoking, stopped drinking so much, found a new job, and was now seeing a new girl.

‘That guy’s really pulled himself together,’ I said. ‘He’s really changed.’

My father snorted dismissively.

‘No one ever changes,’ he said. ‘Not unless they’re faced with some total catastrophe.’

According to movies, that is the entire truth of the process. Even according to stories I’ve heard, this is how it goes. In 2002 there was a classroom shooting at Melbourne’s Monash University; a thankfully rare occurrence here. A girl I was seeing knew someone present when the gunman opened fire. He took a bullet in the hand, but, thanks to timely medical intervention, lost neither the hand nor any appreciable use of it – and the resulting change in his personality was, apparently, astonishing.

‘He was so introverted before. Kinda sad all the time,’ the girl said. ‘Now he’ll talk to anyone. He’s so happy, he’s so talkative.’

This was in line with everything that TV had taught me.

Speaking to another friend, earlier tonight, about the concept of change, she told me about how, some years ago, she’d battled cancer, and the experience changed her.

‘It changed the way I go through life,’ she said. ‘I used to hate people. OK, I still kinda do. But I value people so much more. I value the interactions and the conversations. And now I live life the way I want to. I have fun and I travel and yeah. I’ve changed.’

Compare and contrast this to the experience of my friend Juliet:

‘I was dating this guy,’ Juliet said. ‘Who was a complete asshole. We were together for a while, and everyone knew – I mean, knew he was an asshole. He’d always been an asshole. And one day I got a phone call to tell me that he’d fallen while he was rock-climbing. He was rushed to the hospital and they thought he was going to be paralysed.’

The asshole, fortunately, was not paralysed. He was fine after some minor surgery.

‘But I knew,’ Juliet said, ‘that it wasn’t going to change him. It wasn’t going to be some life-altering moment. Coming so close to death or quadriplegia… he was still going to be the same asshole.’

She was right, apparently. The guy didn’t change one jot.

This is what people tell me, for the most part, over and over again. One constantly-repeating refrain.

I left my ex because he was a son of a bitch, and he was never going to change.

We broke up because I kept giving her chances and finally, I realised that she just couldn’t change.

Some things don’t change. A leopard can’t change its spots. People don’t change.

According to the reading I’m doing at the moment (if you’ve got the time, I highly recommend Reinventing Your Life, by Young and Klosko, two cognitive-approach-based psychologists), people maintain the same patterns and habits, unconsciously, throughout their entire lives, and find their way, likewise unknowingly, towards situations that reinforce those patterns and habits, unless there’s some kind of course correction, because finding the comfort of familiarity is the psychological equivalent of water seeking its own level – even if those patterns and habits are painful or destructive.

There’s a line from an old detective story, The Long Goodbye, I think. Marlowe or Spade or the Continental Op or whoever it is talks about the case of a man who was nearly crushed by a beam falling from a construction yard as he was walking down a city sidewalk, who realised in that deadly instant that his life was suffocating him, and so he faked his own death and left town, only to set up a new life that was a carbon-copy of the old one.

‘He’d adjusted to beams falling,’ the detective said. ‘Then he’d adjusted himself to beams not falling.’

The very, very brief straw poll  I’ve taken seems to indicate that most of the people I know don’t have faith in the ability of other people to change. And, I admit, I’ve seen little evidence. The more I see of people from my past, the more I see that they’ve simply become more and more entrenched in themselves; for good or for bad. I see counter-attack and avoidance; I see people the same at thirty as they were at twenty, only more so. I see the same things in myself; attitudes and beliefs that have never shifted, repetitive cycles of various sizes and shapes. Whether they take hours, days, or years to cycle through to their reset points, the point remains that they do and then simply start to grind on once more.

But I have to believe that this isn’t the way it has to be, that, with the phenomenal gift of consciousness and the ability to be aware that we as humans have, change is entirely possible.

Preferably by conscious choice, and not through being shot in the hand.

Even if takes a while.

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SIMON SMITHSON is an Australian writer and editor. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia, but frequently finds himself in Los Angeles and San Francisco. His work has appeared on both sides of the globe in print and online in publications such as BLIP, Every Day Fiction, Beat, The Loop, My Sinking Boat, and more. He has a tumblr at www.simonsmithson.com and he runs a lifestyle experiment at www.selfhelpless.net.

2 responses to “On Change”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Wow. This piece hasn’t changed a bit since the move!
    I’m glad. I really liked it just the way it was.
    Oh and I’m excited to be the first comment on your new board!

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