Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Personal Change: Transformation or Unfolding?

Canna lily bud
Transformation is a term that is usually loaded with promise. There are business models that promote transformational change to help companies survive, adapt, and even thrive during challenging times. Self help books, TV evangelists, and infomercials promoting everything from health shakes to home workout machines often promise transformational change for individuals. Many are attracted to the idea of somehow becoming a “new person.”  If you stop to think about it, you probably know people who set out to make a radical personal change, only to fall back into old living patterns. You probably also know people who have been able to effectively rise above their circumstances. Some will attribute their success to hard work, some to a Higher Power. Most people can look back on their lives and see that they have changed along the way. Some can point to a particular circumstance or a time in their life that marked a pivotal change.   

How Does Personal Change Occur?

Change is inevitable. A healthy person will naturally make changes in light of new experiences. Sometimes it is an attitude that changes or a prejudice is softened or discarded. Sometimes one will find strengths and abilities that he or she had not realized until circumstances called for them. It is true that some manage to see positive changes in their lives while others can remain stubborn and stilted, refusing to adapt or alter their behaviors or their views. The question is, in those lives that exhibit dramatic change for the better, is that change a result of a transformation from without, or is it a matter of a natural unfolding of latent talents and traits from within?

A friend of mine worked with a colleague who was fond of saying, “People change, but not much.” I took that little aphorism to be a realistic notion that one can hope for some improvement in the behavior of others, but don’t expect total transformation. I can recall a time in elementary school when I usually had a comic book stashed somewhere in my room or in my book bag. On the back of many of those comic books was an ad featuring a picture of a muscular young man and promoting an exercise book. The promise was that with this amazing workout book, you, too, could achieve that same muscular physique. I briefly entertained a fantasy of ordering that book and transforming myself over the summer so that when school started up in September, my school buddies would be amazed and envious. Of course, there is no way a skinny, nerdy eight-year-old boy can achieve such a transformation. In fact, the wish for such transformation might even be a hindrance when harsh reality sets in. If one becomes disillusioned because of a false hope, he may not see the actual change that is possible and still within his grasp.

Everyone Changes

The truth is, everyone changes. An article by John Tierney last year in The New York Times, "Why You Won't Be the Person You Expect to Be," related research findings regarding how much people change vs. how much they expect to change. Most people, the study suggests, see vast changes when looking back at their lives, but imagine only minimal change when thinking about their future. Everyone changes. No one’s life remains the same. I suspect that regardless of how change comes, it is a process of the natural unfolding of our lives.

Personal change and development may be like the buds of a flower which are laid out in perfect symmetry to unfold into blossoms with time and maturity. More likely, perhaps, we may have a multitude of possibilities laid out within our DNA. From those many possibilities, our individual lives unfold. That unfolding can be hindered, stifled, encouraged, or facilitated by a multitude of factors, both external and internal. If we are nurturing toward our children or toward our friends, we can encourage that positive growth. If we find ourselves in a supportive environment, we may be more likely to see positive growth in ourselves. Certainly our own attitudes can affect whether the adversities we face will beat us down of move us forward. Moreover, it is not just the adversities that produce the winnowing fans of fate. Good times and success will also affect our lives, both positively and negatively. Change may come in fits and starts, or it may be a gradual evolving. Ideally, if we pay attention, we will see a continued unfolding of the life that is within us.

Our Better Angels

During some dark days in our country, Abraham Lincoln appealed to his countrymen
to look to "the better angels of our nature." He was not appealing to some idea of guardian angels "from on high" to look down and give us aid. No. His hope was to look within to our own nature and take hold of those good and powerful traits. That is a hope that we can continue to hold on to, both collectively for our society and individually in our own lives. So while growth is natural, and change is inevitable, you can reach down and look within to find your better self. Keep growing and developing so that in good faith you can bloom where you are planted.

Canna lilies in bloom

*Flowers tended and photos taken by Charles Kinnaird


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