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 trying to figure 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 possible…do 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.


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  1. I suggest we invite them into a process of discovery.

    h/t to Edger for the photo

  2. I think this is worth repeating:

    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.

    I see it as talking the talk and walking the walk.  If it’s just the former and not the latter, I am extremely skeptical of what I hear or read.

    But when I see someone embody in their own behavior the lessons I can learn from them, it is a powerful experience and few words are needed.

    I agree so much that the answers are there inside ourselves if only we care to look.  That takes a kind of humility that our present culture not only doesn’t encourage, but actively disdains.

  3. that I can’t answer.

    Reflecting upon myself, I am not sure I have changed as much as I have come to understand myself better over the years. I am much better at analyzing my “hot button” issues, and why I respond and react the way I do.

    I think I have evolved. For example, politically, I am pretty much the same as I was when I was 21. However, I make much better personal decisions than I did at that age.

    I am more analytical and less all out emotional. Now, I am NOT going to argue that I am smarter or even more wise, because despite all of that I still manage to do things that confound myself.

  4. And I agree that we can’t change another person so much as be an example that walks the talk. That being said however, by careful observation of people, one can see when they are open to suggestion. At that point, a quick “zinger”, a one or two sentence remark that succinctly describes a change meme does wonders for putting the other’s mind down a thought process they wouldn’t normally walk, and which they would fight if the time weren’t right. It’s more in the timing than the quantity or quality of the talk.

    • kj on March 30, 2008 at 18:34

    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.

    First ran across this in a book by Robert Bly on Kabir: “you don’t know what you know until you live it”

    Okay, went and found the book, and ran across another quote, not the one i was looking for, of course.  lol  But i’d forgotten where i saw this great line, so this was a cool process of ‘discovery’ actually (slept in, need more coffee!)

    If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,

    do you think

    ghosts will do it after?

    • kj on March 30, 2008 at 18:43

    find what I’m looking for (isn’t that a U2 song?). Anyway, the idea that i took away, whether it is correct or not, is the “we don’t know what we know until we live it.”  I liked the bluntness of the message. I love words and books and talk… great luxuries of life… but if I don’t put some of it into practice, eh. So much for words and books and talk…!

    Where it comes out for me is driving on the highway.  (Scary thought!) I hear a line from Bruce Springteen “…the highways filled with broken heroes on a last chance power drive” and then catch myself trying to beat someone to a stoplight.  who’s the broken hero?  ME. damn.  lol  So, the other day, I let this guy turn in front of me… old truck, redneck driver, he thought my hand gesture waving him on was something else and he exploded into anger, flipped the bird and quite loudly and easy to read lips told me to go fuck myself. my initial response back was anger… then laugher.  what the hell, karma, man.  🙂  

  5. or, as you said above, it is more of a proces of better understanding/discovering the core beliefs of a person. You can better understand yourself if you understand and empathize with others with different opinions, different experiences.

    Some people are far more highly influenced by those around them. When very strong-willed mentors use guilt to indoctrinate others into only accepting their line of thinking as “correct”, and it seems only one view/opinion is regularly expressed, people are trained in group-think. All of us are succeptable to buying into some level of group-think mentatlity, but we vary on how much we’re able to break away from it.

    One of the interesting things about getting older is how I’ve realized that when I look back at things, the core of who I am hasn’t changed that much. My values really haven’t changed much at all. My priorities have changed, my outlook on what my life would be life is very different than it was when I was a teenager. What’s most dramatic to me is how my view and understanding of others has evolved. I didn’t realize how unique all of our experiences on this planet are. By meeting more people, being challenged with new ideas and other points of view, and being exposed to “the real world” (rather than the somewhat sheltered world I grew up in), I am certainly a changed person – for the better.

    I realize that while I’ve always been quite open-minded and accepting of others, I did harbor some assumptions of others, some stereotypes and prejudices that were ingranied. That surprised me. I soon realized that these stereotypes and prejudices were built on a complete lack of reality – or, at least assumptions made based on a very warped sense of reality. I realized these attitudes towards others who were “different” only served one purpose – to make people “like me” feel superior. The more I met people and experienced situations that were outside of the sheltered life I had led, I had a much more reality-based outlook on my fellow human beings. Of course, that type of personal evolution is a process that never ends.

    It took a much longer time for me to understand that many of my fellow humans are not as open-minded to learning about others. To me, facts and experiences learned through others are invaluable. To me, it’s part of our human experience – to understand others and continually grow as people. It was hard to wrap my head around the notion that some people will never even try to understand or accept that all human beings are not cut from the same cookie-cutter. I still have difficulty understanding those who close their minds off from anyone that deviates from what a vocal majority dictates as “normal”. It almost seems as if people like this are afraid to learn from others, that they are afraid to possibly grow or change as a person. That’s such a different view of the human experience than I have. They don’t see closing out other viewpoints as limiting their own human potential, and I do.

    This doesn’t mean my viewpoint is superior – just different. It’s truly difficult to not be judgemental of those who seem very set in their ways, and I have to remind myself that others see my views as stubborn and inspired by “group-think”, too.

    In my core, I do believe that one of the most important ways we evolve as humans is through personal experiences with others.

    Some people choose tight-knit communities of like-minded individuals to hang out with. It reinforces what they know, and reinforces what they are told to believe. To me, that type of closeted life seems to constrictive, too limiting of my own potential as a human being. I like to be challenged with ideas that are different than my point of view. And, I like to politely challenge others to carefully consider other viewpoints. Experiencing the ideas of others helps us grow, and more fully realize the core of our human experience.

  6. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb.

    Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.

    So a slightly different perspective. People change in minor ways everyday. They change to meet the demands placed on them. Change is a constant.

    But….completely unconsciously….as part of societal conditioning of avoiding fear and pain at all costs, to keep from having to face and understand fear and pain they choose to change in ways that keep them ‘safe.’ Which is in essence, a constant retreat from life.

    Real change only comes when their lives demand that they change in ways that are risky, that make them uncomfortable, that make them have to feel and face pain and fear. People only really change through “crisis”

    Our whole society is based o avoiding any type of crisis or stimuli that would bring about change….and eventually people start to identify change with pain and fear, and just crawl deeper into their cocoon of comfort, including a cocoon of thought, that enables them to deny and rationalize the suffering…..the suffering all around them of those not fortunate enough to have a sufficient cocoon…..and the suffering in themselves that shutting down their hearts and their empathy causes.

    It takes an immense amount of courage to consciously choose to change. And as we know, courage in all forms is discouraged in favor of being “good,” conforming.

    One of the most valuable life skills you can have imo, is learning how to change well.

    Because you will.

    And we can all either embrace it, or fear it. And fearing it just makes it harder. Choosing change makes it a journey of discovery. Denying it is slow death.

    Getting people to change “against their will” requires some form of ‘crisis,’ either internal or external. That crisis can be brought on by intervention, sometimes. But most often it only occurs when an event forces them to wake up and realize their cocoon doesn’t serve them any more. They choose to change.

    The world is going through a massive amount of change right now, let’s hope people choose to change with it by coming out of their cocoons and choosing to help.


  7. better or differently, is my observation. so who we are? i think that does not change… but grows (or, for some, maybe shrinks).

    positive and negative conflict/tension is what invites or challenges us to dig within and rearrange our priorities, re assess our strategies, and open flood gates to exert our spirits and strenghts in ways we hadn’t considered.

    • Robyn on March 30, 2008 at 19:39
    Art Link

    Suspended in Blue

    Common Ground

    Common ground

    cannot be found

    when some people demand

    that everyone have

    the same beliefs

    that they have

    Common ground is found

    when it is acknowledged

    that individuals

    with different beliefs

    can work together

    towards the same goals

    Common ground is found

    when we concentrate

    on what we do

    not why we do it

    or what we believed

    while we were doing it

    Common ground

    is populated

    when individuals

    with different beliefs

    can respect the value

    of divergent points of view

    Most important of all

    common ground occurs

    when people are willing

    to be changed

    by the effort they make

    to seek it

    –Robyn Elaine Serven

    –February 10, 2006

    If people are ot willing to be changed, there is not much anyone else can do about it.

  8. Change cannot be forced even in ones self. It requires letting go rather then grasping and striving for something separate from you. Cultural change is really tough but cause it requires not listening to the narrative that is pumped out at you. Itrequires looking at life through your own eyes not the filter of our culture.

    As Obama said on culture change it has to be lived you have to turn off the TV and participate with others, have empathy, spend time with your children engage. I don’t see much empathy in our society. We scorn the poor, we can’t seem to connect that where killing people for nothing. As long as it’s not you, we seem not to care or can turn a blind eye. Then it’s back to the TV with it’s mirror of a life that stops all change.

    Perhaps the cravings we see for ‘change’ and hope, will find fertile ground. Perhaps people are realizing that the change they seek is theirs. Perhaps they kind of dark and ultimately empty changes we’ve gone through as a society, went too far too dark. Maybe our better angels, are tapping on our shoulders and saying enough. It’s not going to be an easy journey however as the status quo has a lot to lose and will not go down with out using every trick in the book.        

  9. Their behavior does

    It may sound one and the same but they are vastly different.I wish Compound F was here to explain but I will try.

    Who are is fully devolped by 5 years of age – some say much earlier. That is why young children ape their parents – what surrounds them.

    With experiece and age we learn. Some (the lucky ones) are able to differentiate between learned behaviors that are beneficial to them while other behaviors are not and elect to change those behaviors. It comes easily to some. Others seek help.

    As we age changing our behavior becomes more difficult and is usually the result of a trauma or loss- a child is killed in a war we once believed in, a spouse leaves us, we go to Iraq,we lose a home to foreclosure.

    These experiences challenge our core beliefs and so to survive we try on different behaviors. If the result is positive – we stay with them and others say we have changed. In essence we have.

    • shpilk on March 31, 2008 at 01:39

    most people will change. Maybe that’s part of our job, to help present the evidence.  

  10. I eat dinner (leftovers, I always change one thing into another, it’s cooking alchemy)  I was just thinking that politically we have alreaydy had in this election cycle a plewthora of brilliant and passionate people asking us to change. They were called Kucninch, Gravel, Biden, Dodd, Romney, Huckabee, and others, maybe the one who spoke to me most powewrfully was Edwards.  We rejected them and they dropped out because we live under a system of majority rule.

    Now we have a wonderfull oratorical soaring  to the heavens of ‘change’ from a gifted young man. We have a painful staggering journey of a woman who has been wounded in every way known to women during her lifetime of service (except she has not been denounced by her children) everyone else on the road to the pinnacle has had a shot at her in the stocks, and left bleedingh by the roadside several times.

    If Obama is being punished for his heritage, she is being punished for her gender.

    I’ll take either of them and trust them fully, or better yet, BOTH and i don’t give a hoot who is on top!

    Goodnight and good luck.

    • Alma on March 31, 2008 at 02:31

    I finally got around to reading this (Its been on my to-do list), and boy are you right.  Educating people never hurts, but its from with-in that they notice and start questioning things.

    • Tigana on March 31, 2008 at 21:41

    This is what Molly Ivins wrote in her final column “Stand Up Against the Surge,”:

    “We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. … We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, ‘Stop it, now!’ ”

    If you care for the Constitution and this country, please don’t waste another minute speculating about how your background formed you or about noetic sciences. Molly didn’t whine and she didn’t talk about herself. Cancer or no, she got out to “moon” the KKK.

    Get out the pots and pans.

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