Some lessons I’ve learned about change

The word “change” is being bandied about in political circles alot these days. We hear it from candidates constantly. But we also talk about it alot ourselves here at Docudharma. We want to change the country, don’t we? But I’ve been thinking about how little we seem to focus on how change happens. I’m sure many of us have experience with change in our own personal lives. What can we learn from our own experiences that might inform us as we work together to effect change in our country?

One of the most important lessons I learned along the way is that “willpower” is not enough of a force to ever be able to change me or to motivate me to become who it is I want to be in life. This lesson came in two arenas that defined my early years.  

When I was 13 years old, I gained 30 pounds in just a few months – probably because I had to start taking “the pill” to regulate my periods and just imagine the dosage I got back in 1967 when that medication was first on the market. Very quickly, being fat became my identity. That’s a pretty heavy load in this culture – especially for teenage girls. For the next 30 years my main task in life was to develop the willpower to diet and loose weight. I love the words of Marge Piercy from a poem titled “Beauty I would suffer for.” She describes dieting this way: “the scorched wire, burnt rubber smell of willpower, living with the brakes on.” I remember a doctor  I saw when I was 15 telling me that I would have to watch what I ate for the rest of my life. Something inside me knew what this meant and that it was not something I could do, even at that young age. Can you imagine living your whole life “with the brakes on.” Can’t do it!!

The other arena in my life where this struggle was even more central was in the fundamentalist christianity in which I was raised. I’ve written here before that one of the main tenants of that belief system is the doctrine of original sin. At my core, I was told that I was sinful and evil. It was only by using my willpower to adhere to the dogma or rules about life that I could become a worthy human being. As a young person, I remember responding to “alter calls” regularly where I would go forward during a church service and cry – promising god and the pastor that I would – this time – be a “good girl” and do all the things I was supposed to – only to fail yet again and start the whole process over again.

Using willpower to become what I wanted to be always set up a battle inside of me. On the one side, there was the thing I was supposed to do – because I thought I should do it. On the other side, there was the ever present rebel that was saying “NO, I don’t want to do that!!!” These battles defined much of my life for too many years. Willpower could maybe get me to do what I thought I should do initially. But eventually, I’d give in. Then the guilt of feeling defeated would immobilize me for long periods of time, not to mention the shame of not having enough willpower to carry it off.

It wasn’t until I abandoned willpower as a means that I ever found any contentment in life. As a very wise person once told me, “Willpower is good for the sprint – but not for the distance.” Overall, I had to learn two things:

1. Recognizing that what’s inside of me is wisdom and that what I WANT is good for me, if I can dig deep enough and find it. After years of glossing over all of that with what I thought I was supposed to be and do, it is still sometimes hard to find. But its there – and waiting.

2. Embracing my failures and short-comings. I remember at one point in my life while I was working as a Family Therapist, I would drive home at night and literally comb through my day looking for places where I had failed so that I could beat myself up over it all. It was hard to stop that thought pattern. Eventually, I did have to look those failures in the eye though. At that moment, I had a decision to make. Did these failures mean I should write myself off as a looser? Would I allow them to paralyze me or hook me into an attempt to live by the rules again in order to avoid failure? Or were they just part of the “me” I was growing to love and trust. Eventually I had to embrace myself, failures and all.

These two things released a ME that was always there on the inside – but that I had no idea existed. I’m still working on trying to recognize her. A lot of my current failings come as the person I had learned to be early in life gets mixed up with the person I’m becoming. I give off mixed signals to people, loose my integrity and create distance from others in the process. But I know I’m on the right path for me – and even in the struggles, I now find a sense of peace.  


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  1. Photobucket

    • Edger on February 14, 2008 at 01:02

    Just quickly scanned – heading out the door to work for a couple of hours as you posted, but now I have something to read when I get back. What a great last sentence.

  2. is the answer to your previous essay:

    Why do I blog here?

    Well done.

    • kj on February 14, 2008 at 02:57

    It’s funny what words I can remember in my mother’s voice, she’s been gone 36 years, but I can her “Pitch it!” as clear as anything.  Like everyone else then, we didn’t throw away much, so it must have been a big deal for her to say it and that’s why I remember the phrase so vividly.

    “86” is my favorite term. Probably picked from the years working in restaurants.

    I was a really shy, quiet kid, the youngest. Would have given anything to have spent my years just tagging along, not changing much, not calling any attention. But that isn’t what was in store, beginning a few years before my mother’s death, and all these years later, change has been the one constant, as they say.

    I’ve ended up moving around the country. Not military, just life. Pack and move, new job, new environment, new community, then… pack and move. It struck a long-buried wanderlust, so I’m not complaining, I wouldn’t change anything about all the change.

    But man, have I learned to pitch!  86, toss, file 13, gone.  Whatever doesn’t fit. Whatever doesn’t work. Whatever is broken and beyond repair. Pitch it, out the window. No regrets, whatever it was it served its purpose and if there is no longer any need for it, bye.  Maybe “Thanks and bye,” maybe “Good riddance and bye” but if it’s time for something to go, I have learned it is much, much, much easier to just let it go than drag it around.

    We have a saying around here. “Update.”  As in software updates.  When one of us ends up carrying something that we’d already tossed aside, the other one says, “Update! Version 2.0!”  “Oh yeah, right, I forgot.”

    Doesn’t fit? Doesn’t work? Pitch it!  @;-)  except the cat, we’re not allowed to pitch the cat!

    • kj on February 14, 2008 at 02:58

    is a word that comes to my mind when I think of you, NL.  

    • kj on February 14, 2008 at 03:07

    the kind of courage you have, NL.  You have made your changes by choice.  I think I would have been happy to live my life with the breaks on. I was/am not courageous.  I was forced out the door by life and for whatever reasons, life keeps tossing me back out into the deep water when all I really want to do is sit at the shore at the edge!

  3. of the young ones these days are learning this lesson quicker than I did.

    • Edger on February 14, 2008 at 05:07

    and do what you were told, could you?

    You just had to get all subversive and start thinking for yourself, didn’t you?

    What’s the matter with you anyway? You got a problem with authority or something?

    Peace? Peace??

    Are you some kind of hippie or something? What did you have for breakfast today? Granola? Fresh fruit or something? Twigs and tree bark, for chrissakes?

    Jesus! Hugged a tree lately???

    🙂 Great essay, NL!

    • Edger on February 14, 2008 at 05:17

  4. if my experience is any indicator, “change” is the wrong concept to be focusing on altogether. What we want, and what we want to be is there already. Its just a matter of digging through all the layers of crap that have been heaped on top that we need to get out of the way.

    So perhaps its not a matter of change…but of discovery.  

  5. … Pandora.

    The second point you make (about faults) is very profound, I think.  Sometimes we think that the faults and flaws we have are what is preventing us from being “good” when those very qualities are necessary for us to be who we are and realize our true connection with each other and the world.

    There’s a danger, of course, that we can use that knowledge to rationalize our actions, so the balance is difficult, I think.

    The meeting of the light and the dark, the ability to see oneself whole, not just this or that quality or fragment and find the whole too frightening to contemplate, is a struggle for everyone.

    To put it in a larger and political sense, I think that is why we see so many people who are lost in the machine of our sick culture as they are lured by promises that they will never have to contemplate that view, that these kinds of connections will be fed to them like pasteurized milk and they needn’t worry about that particular individual struggle.

    Of course we have seen in our own history that when this manufactured and ersatz reality is exposed, folks can get very grumpy and decide to … oh, I don’t know … make some kinda revolution.


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