Two Kinds of Change (May 2005)Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:21
Two Kinds of Change
When I was doing my Diploma of Clinical Psychology at Sydney University in 1966 my lecturer Jack Lyle was wont to remark, ‘The older people get the more like themselves they become.’ At the time I thought that this was just one of Jack’s many endearing idiosyncrasies but as the years have gone by I’ve realised how right he was. The people I’ve known for many decades have become more like themselves. When they were young they were trying out different ideas and activities but, following what they learned from this, they discarded some ideas and activities and kept others. Their personal style of dealing with events remained the same. Some continued to deal with a new situation by looking at it as a whole and responding carefully: others in their usual manner responded immediately and with great passion. Their particular kind of sense of humour didn’t change. The ironists still enjoyed the ironic: the lovers of the homely joke still collected them: those who’d taken everything totally seriously still asked, ‘What are you laughing at?’
Over time these particular approaches and skills have been honed fine by each person’s experiences. Every experience changes us because we learn from every experience, but this learning may bring only a slight modification of who we are, or it may bring such great change that we are never the same again.
Our sense of being a person, what we call ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘myself’, is made up of a structure of all our meanings, that is, our ideas, beliefs, attitudes, opinions, memories and images. There’s no little you sitting inside you creating all these meanings. These meanings are you, and they relate together in a structure which is always changing because you/your meaning structure are always encountering something new. Every moment you are encountering something new because you have never encountered that particular situation at that particular time and date before. You draw a conclusion about that new situation, and this conclusion has somehow to be absorbed into your meaning structure. If the conclusion is very similar to conclusions you have drawn in the past, your meaning structure can accommodate it easily, but, if the conclusion is one that you’ve never drawn before, you’ll have to think about it, talk about it, even dream about it while your meaning structure struggles to find some way of assimilating it.
Suppose you’re sitting on the beach enjoying the sunshine and you glance up and see a huge black cloud on the horizon. You draw the conclusion, ‘It’s going to rain.’ The situation you’re in is very similar to certain situations you’ve been in in the past and you’ve learned to associate large black clouds with rain, so your new ‘It’s going to rain’ slips easily into your meaning structure. On the other hand, suppose you’re sitting on the beach enjoying the sunshine and you glance up and see that the sea has retreated leaving many fish stranded on the sand and not far away a 20 metre high wall of water is coming swiftly towards you. Your conclusion to the new event is, ‘I’d better get out of here’, and it is rapidly followed by many new conclusions the like of which you have never drawn before. You survive the tsunami, but you go on thinking about it for a very long while after. There’s much to be sorted out in your mind, not least the question we all ask after a disaster, ‘Why has this disaster happened to me?’
Finding an answer to this question which we can live with (that is, which will be assimilated by our meaning structure) can be very difficult. Those people who see the world as a place where things happen by chance can see themselves as simply being lucky, but some may worry that, if they’ve been allocated a certain amount of luck in their life, they may have used it all up in the one event. Some people are greatly disturbed by discovering that they’re not the person they took themselves to be. If you’ve always prided yourself on how physically strong you are, being caught up in a tsunami can show you just how puny you are. If you’ve grown up believing that you live in a Just World where good people are rewarded and bad people punished, the aftermath of the tsunami can leave you wondering why so many innocent people died, or whether you’d been spared by mistake and something terrible will soon happen to you to so that the scales of justice will be balanced, or whether the people who had taught you to believe in the Just World hadn’t told you the truth.
Any event about which we cannot draw a conclusion which will fit easily into our meaning structure changes us profoundly because to absorb such a conclusion we have to change some ideas which are central to our meaning structure. If we cannot manage to do this we find ourselves in a terrifying limbo which psychiatrists call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If we change our central ideas to reflect our new vision of the world as an extremely dangerous place from which we must hide, then our life becomes dominated by our timidity. If we decide to acknowledge and accept that death can come upon us at any time, we know that we must henceforth discard the dross in our life and concentrate on the gold.
We’ve many choices about how we should change the ideas central to us in order to assimilate a most singular experience, but perhaps what we choose is determined by other ideas which we’ve held unchanged from childhood. If we’ve always resisted changing our ideas, or if we’ve always seen ourselves as a weakling, or if we’ve always seen a crisis as a challenge we can master, then when we’re faced with a situation which threatens to overwhelm us we interpret it in the way we’ve always interpreted new situation. So even in the second kind of change we may show that the older we get, the more like ourselves we become.