There’s a famous Gail Sheehy quote that goes like this:
“If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.”
But it’s one that I pushed back against for reasons unknown to me at the time. Upon writing a different Odyssey article, and in my profound conversations with some friends: I realize that people don’t change. They grow.
I fundamentally believe that there are elements to each person that makes them worthy and redeemable, no matter who they are. To insist on that person changing is a denial of seeing the best in that person, and not giving that person the benefit of the doubt. This last year, I’ve partially lived by the words that “you can’t change people. They have to want to change themselves,” but it’s only now that I’ve rethought people’s trajectories in life.
Change is a word that does imply that there needs to be some radical overhaul. Change implies some level of shame. Growth is a word that implies that the capacity to be better is always there, but needs to be awakened. Growth is often a step-by-step, gradual process.
I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while, and she said that there was something different about me. I asked her if I’d changed, and she said no. My mannerisms and ways of doing things were still very similar. But she used the words “refined” and “matured.” It took until now for that to settle in for me. I think back to the kid I was in elementary school, and I will always be that kid with all the personality traits I sought for a long time to purge myself of: I was angry, impatient, and thought I was better than everyone.
As much as I want to believe I’m different now, and as much as that might be true, the truth lies in lyrics of Eminem’s “Not Afraid”: “I had to go to that place to get to this one.” We won’t be who we are without the mistakes we make and what we learn from them. Often times, if there’s someone who makes a decision or has a lifestyle choice I see as destructive, I don’t try to intervene or tell them what to do. Usually, they need to step into the furnace themselves and take their own path, not one that I or anyone else wants to lay out for them.
Change is a denial of the person and the decisions you made in the past. Change means there’s a fixed destination, and the journey will end once you reach that destination. Growth is the acceptance of those mistakes or those flaws as part of your path. To me, change represents an unsustainable way of forcing yourself to be different. Growth is more organic and patient, and growth accepts that the journey is never over, that we will never know or be good at everything.
I think of the term “character development,” and how it’s often so much more compelling to see characters become different gradually over the course of a season or multiple seasons of TV, rather than a sudden, unnatural shift. It’s called development for a reason. I think of my favorite show, “The Wire,” and how two of the best-developed characters of the show, Ellis Carver, and Roland Pryzbylewski, grow from incompetent, corrupt, and incredibly brutality-prone Baltimore police officers to well-respected members of the communities they serve. They do it using their past experiences and failures, not neglecting and turning away from them.
I think of Paul, the apostle who went from being “chief among sinners” and killing and persecuting Christians to writing most of the New Testament and spreading the word of the gospel. Rev. Tim Keller tweeted on July 28 that “Paul’s conversion is a great reminder that no one is beyond the reach of Jesus.” And for people who aren’t religious, that can also mean that you are never unworthy, even at rock bottom.
The fact is all the pieces matter. We are who we are not only because of the good, but also equally as much the bad. To try to erase a part of yourself will always come back and bite, and will never last long-term. To accept all of it, the good and the bad, is to live with pride in your journey, to know that everything mattered in the final analysis of making you who you are today.
And what about being in relation to others? What about a significant other you may want to spend the rest of your life with? Author Tonia Allen Gould, the founder of the Finding Corte Magore Project, asked a woman celebrating her 60th wedding anniversary what the secret to her marriage was, and the secret was this: “You can’t change each other; no sense in trying. People don’t change, they grow. Might as well accept each other for who you both are — the person you were when you got married, and the person you’ve each become.”
I’m mature enough to realize I don’t want to change anymore, for the sake of myself, or for the sake of others. The past is all the chapters prior to now. Now, I want to just keep pressing forward, and keep on growing.