On Ch-ch-changes

13 November, 2010

“Do you believe people can change?” T asked me earlier this week.

Desperate to articulate rather than ramble, I paused and thought for a while. My instinct was to answer “yes,” but I easily thought of far too many reasons why that was wrong. But to answer “no” made me depressed.

T had been asking because some people seem to disappear from our lives only to reappear again at random intervals, and so can we  – should we – ever learn to trust them when they return?

In a moment of clarity that a steady diet of daytime/nighttime cold medicine had not afforded me for several days, my reply escaped from my lips before I could even digest the thought.

“I think that people’s priorities change, but not their personalities.”

I was instantly pleased with the breakthrough I had stumbled upon.

If it is that we act according to our priorities, then it stands to reason that as our priorities change and shift and grow, so too does our behavior and beliefs, sometimes together, some times in discord (oh, how j’adore cognitive dissonance!). But who we are at our core – beneath the other layers of self, like behavior and beliefs – that which truly comprises our being remains constant.

In thinking about this in recent days, my notion seems to be universal in a comforting way. Suddenly, the behavior of a girl who was my friend in 5th grade but refused to speak to me in 6th made more sense (my memory of the pain I felt at the time is no less acute, but my ability to dismiss this ancient event is now easier). That girl may have been a cruel bitch, but her behavior changed because her priorities – acceptance by a different group of friends – changed. Her personality, which was never all that loyal to begin with, had no problem implementing that change. In more recent events, someone with a self-destructive personality may find a new priority (say, in a short, charming brunette), and so he may sustain behavior that is actually productive and progressive for a while… but he’s ultimately unable to rewire that sense inside of him that simply needs things to be worse instead of better. (I do hope that one day, this someone can find the priority that can maintain its triumph over the personality, but I don’t think that will happen for a long while.)

Of course, I realize that this hypothesis of mine holds true for me as much as it does for people I’ve known (which confirms it’s accuracy). Every single element in my life may shift and change or just up and disappear, and that all shapes me and who and where I want to be in profound and indefinable ways. But these shifts and changes do not alter who I am, they change how I react, this time and next time. They change what I want and how I go about getting it, but they cannot change that it’s me, who I am and who I’ve been, who is wanting it.

I think this way of thinking lends itself to a certain degree of forgiveness for those who come back into our lives, but does not inherently provide an excuse. I remember the first guy I ever dated in New York – I was 23 and he was 40. He did not break my heart, but I had made a substantial emotional investment in him, which made his unexplained withdrawal from my life sting considerably. Six months after the last time I had heard from him, he called me up one evening to let me know that he could not stop thinking about me. Standing on the phone, on the rooftop of the Soho House, nearing the wise old age of 24, I probably first realized what it is about people that changes, and what it is about people that doesn’t (it’s just taken me seven years to be able to articulate that). This guy most likely believed that what he was telling me was true (“I know I didn’t treat you right, but I’ve really changed since then.”), but he had, six months prior, already given me every indication that, at  his core, he was near-sighted and only knew how to go after what he wanted at that very precise moment. His feelings for me had not magically changed so as to make me the kind of priority that would cure him of his out-of-sight-out-of-mind affliction. It was just his loneliness that night that had prompted a lie. Ultimately, I felt sorry for him. Part of me still does.

For a long time, I found the “you can’t teach an old dogs new tricks” adage to be fitting to that old story, but these days, “you can’t make a dollar out of 99 cents” seems more apt. I like to believe that old dogs can pick up new tricks. But when there’s only 99¢ in your pocket, you know can’t turn it into a dollar. Your only option is change your mind so you don’t mind buying the item that was one cent less in the first place.

 

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