Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Myth of the "Unchangeable Me"

In a popular culture and education system that tends to put self-esteem far ahead of achievement, accomplishment, and success it should be not surprise that it is a popular thing to reinforce "being yourself" and "not changing for anyone."  On social media, you'll see many meme's, quotes, and images dedicated to reinforcing this idea of being completely unapologetic for "being who you really are."

From a more realistic standpoint, what if "who you really are" just isn't that great?  What if your natural tendencies and current decision-making abilities get you in trouble more often than not?  What if your personal habits are unhealthy and/or annoying?  What if the personality you have developed over time isn't quite the finished product you would like it to be?  What if you hold biases and dislikes that are unreasonable?  What if your values, work ethic, and focus are lacking or not up to the task of living the life you are capable of living, or want to live?  What if the "unchangable you" is failing to evolve and progress in your life and your relationships with those around you?

Don't get me wrong.  I get the point of the "don't you dare ask me to change" quotes.  There are people out there who try to change or fix everyone that comes within arm's reach of them.  Usually, they try to change you into someone exactly like them.  In-so-much as these "don't change" quotes refer to not being bullied or manipulated into changing yourself in unwanted and unreasonable ways, I completely agree.  In-so-much as these quotes might cause people to not aspire to change for the better, or as an excuse to behave poorly toward others, I find myself shaking my head sometimes.

From the minute we are born we are learning, growing, developing, and trying to find the best ways to interact with the world and people around us.  This process, to some degree or another, should go on throughout our entire life.  New people, circumstances, challenges, and even failures in our life provide us with new input and new information at to what works and what doesn't.  This new input almost always leads to some degree of change, and hopefully it leads to change that hindsight will show was an improvement.

None of us are perfect, and none of us are a "finished product."  This idea that there is a static "unchangeable you" is false.  Equally false or counter-productive is condemnation of anyone giving you input, suggestions, or open and honest communication regarding things you could do differently or better.  Especially if the person giving you input shares bonds of friendship with you, and has earned a place of trust in your life.   If you care about your friends and family and trust them, then appropriate feedback from them about how you could improve is a gift you are being given.  That does not mean you necessarily have to take the advice or change in the ways being suggested.  But, this sort of feedback is a key part of friendships and other relationships between people, and should be welcomed when given in an appropriate way.

I actively seek input and feedback from my friends and close family.  Sometimes they beat me to the punch, and bring me that feedback before I've even sought it out.  When I agree with the input or feedback I'm given, I'm willing to make adjustments and change in ways that will improve myself, my life, or my relationships.  Even when I disagree with the specific input or feedback being given, I really try to examine why my friend or loved one felt the need to share that feedback...and learn something from it.

I believe we have all known people who had serious problems with how they dealt with other people and the world in general.  Perhaps their behavior was widely considered by others as selfish, mean, irresponsible, or completely lacking in empathy and understanding for others.  We have watched as these features of their character cause problems in their life over and over again.  We've watched them disrupt groups and efforts they have been a part of repeatedly.  We've watched them drive away friends and acquaintances repeatedly.  We've watched them lose jobs and ruin opportunities repeatedly.  This really is a tragic process to watch when the person is not self-aware enough to know that their behavior and actions are at the heart of all their problems.  What is even more tragic, is when the person is self-aware of his or her character flaws but proud of them.

For example, something goes wrong and they have once again made an individual or group of people angry with them, and the person in question looks at you and says, "Well, I'm an asshole, so what did they expect?"  There is this sense that the person with the character flaw has no choice but to be an asshole to people, and further, that the whole world needs to give them a pass for being an asshole.  You can fill in that blank with whatever word you would like.  Bitch.  Princess.  Flake.  Cruel.  Self-Centered.  It doesn't matter what character flaw we are talking about.  There is just this sense that the individual with the flaw has no choice but to inflict the flaw on the world, and that the world needs to give them a pass.  After all, they are unchangeable and should be proud of who they are.  Right?  This is the myth of the "Unchangeable Me" at work.

Of course, people do have the complete freedom to be an Asshole, a Bitch, a Princess, a Flake, Cruel, Self-Centered, or whatever other personality traits they want to inflict on the world.  They have a right to be who they want to be.  But, the world has no responsibility to give them a pass.  They can't expect family, friends, and random bystanders to actually accept their excuse that they are flawed and proud of it...and to simply smile and accept whatever poor behavior they rain down on those around them.  Despite their belief that it does, the world has no obligation to give the flawed individual a pass for bad behavior.  Life is too short to indulge those that would repeatedly act badly toward you and around you in a way that negatively affects your life and your efforts in this life.  Much too short.

I would include in the myth of the unchangeable me, the idea that external factors are controlling us and that we have no choice in our actions.  I've seen excuses made regarding harmful choices and bad behavior, where all the blame is put on alcohol, drugs, sexual attraction, or love.

"Well, I was drinking a lot that night, and shit happens."
"I would never harm you or anyone in your kindred, but I was drinking that night."
"I'm just not that in love with my wife anymore, so when I met this other girl...."
"I can't really help who I love, you know?"

In these excuses we hear this idea that the person who is causing harm or making bad choices, really had no control in the matter.  We hear this idea that other people or the world in general can't hold them responsible for what they are doing, because it is this uncontrollable or unchangeable external cause that is in control.

Again, as with the excuse of the internal character flaw, no one can stop these people from letting alcohol, drugs, sex, or love control their behavior towards others.  But, the world has no responsibility to give them a pass.  They can't expect family, friends, and random bystanders to accept their excuse that they have no choice but to act badly toward them.  The people in your life have no obligation to just go along with your bad behavior and excuse-making.  There is a time and a place for "tough-love," where those closest to you make it clear that you have a choice between still having them in your life and your bad behavior and excuses.

When you think about it, the only thing standing between who you are and who you want to be, is your choices and your deeds.  You are your deeds.  We all have quirks, and flaws, and personal failings.  We all have problems in our upbringing and past that weigh on us at times.  We all struggle with doing the right thing on occasion.  We all suffer insecurities now and again and wonder if we can accomplish those things we want to accomplish in this life.  But, the bottom line truth of the matter, is we are creating and recreating ourselves every time we make a choice and do something.  Every deed we perform in this life adds to us, changes us, and builds upon what we've already done.  These are the layers in the well...our Orlog.  Those deeds build (or tear down) our Luck.  Those deeds grow (or shrink) or Gefrain.  Those deeds add to (or subtract from) our Worth.

To proudly announce that we are flawed and don't have any intention of working on or fixing those flaws, goes against some of the central concepts of Heathenry.  When one insists that the world and the people around us must change and accept a single individual's flaws, is contrary to the community aspects of Heathenry - Frith, Thew, and one's Honor within a group.

I think it is enormously healthy to be proud of our positive character traits and those positive things we've accomplished in this world.  I think it is unhealthy to celebrate negative character traits that have repeatedly caused negative things to happen in our life.  It is equally unhealthy to trumpet these negative character traits as something unchangeable about you, and to expect the world to give you a pass and just accept your bad choices and behavior.  The world shouldn't have to, and frankly won't.

In the end, we are our deeds.  And the responsibility for who we are and what we do as adults falls squarely on our own shoulders.

Mark Ludwig Stinson
Jotun's Bane Kindred
Temple of Our Heathen Gods