“The only people who change, who are transformed, are people who feel safe, who feel their dignity, and who feel loved.” – Richard Rohr
I’ve heard it said that priests are change agents. We are here to help people grow and growth always involves change. My two observations about this are: 1) people basically never change; 2) people change in dramatic ways.
People basically never change. Our resistance to change is huge. We don’t like to change. The more you try to make me change, the more likely it is that I will stay exactly the same. There is a basic inertia that we tend toward. Even when the evidence is overwhelming that our lives are out of control and unmanageable, we will keep doing the same thing again and again, not really because it has been effective but because it is simply what we are used to doing. Even when we want to change, we have a really hard time finding a way to do it. Unhappy people will change their circumstances – they will divorce their spouses or go to work in a different place – only to find they are still unhappy. The signals life sends us that indicate a need for change within typically result in efforts to change something in our outer world instead and those efforts rarely work. People basically never change.
Yet, people change in dramatic ways. Mean people soften. Alcoholics quit drinking. Hateful people become loving. Every one of us has a before-and-after story: we used to be a certain way and then that way had to change and it did. We saw things differently. It wasn’t so much that we chose to change; we just found ourselves changing. When we try to change, or someone else tries to change us, we get entrenched. But in very remarkable ways change occurs in us and we begin to relate to the world in drastically different ways. When that happens, we often view those times as transformations, places where what we most needed was somehow brought to us. We feel relieved and empowered.
About thirty years ago I made a shift in the way I met with people who came to talk about the situations in their lives. I moved from a counseling format to a spiritual direction format, from a problem-solving approach to an observation approach. Instead of meeting with people to solve a crisis, I began to ask people to consider a daily discipline of prayer and reflection. That moved me from being the change agent in their lives to me simply providing a space for them to report in on their situations and the progress or lack of progress they were experiencing. That involved placing more of our attention on God’s presence and less attention on ourselves and making changes. It also involved honestly facing people’s circumstances over a longer period of time. Instead of trying so hard to make things different quickly, it involved really admitting the way things are.
Sometimes we are so focused on the critical nature of the pain we are in and getting rid of that pain, that we fail to sit with the discomfort long enough to know what it is truly about. When we’re just trying to get rid of something, when we feel desperate about making something different, it tends to resist any changes we try to make. Just like I resist your efforts to change me, my problems resist my own efforts to change them. Calming down the crisis approach to problems and honestly observing my painful situations over a longer period of time leads to substantive change.
I get to watch people change every day. And it seems they only do that when they get really honest AND they get a little calmer. Change is more something that happens to us than it is something we orchestrate by sheer effort. When we feel safe enough to face our lives honestly, then we change. Until then we just keep doing the same thing over and over again, desperately looking for a solution.
Alcoholics quit drinking when they honestly face the pain they are in. Couples stop blaming each other when they look at their own wounds. Parents quit raging at their children when they admit the fears their children’s behavior elicit. That sort of honesty requires being safe enough to feel what I am feeling. The change that sort of honesty produces comes in its own time.
If someone you love is in a desperate place, try helping them feel safe and loved instead of trying to make their situation change. If you are feeling desperate, resist the temptation to chase it away; go deeper inside. Pain and suffering are inevitable parts of living. Coming to trust that I can sit with my pain produces better results than desperately trying to change my pain.
There is a healing force in life that leads to remarkable transformations in us even though we are deeply resistant to change. As we really admit who we are and what is going on in our worlds, God provides the changes we have so long desired.
How do I change? By admitting who I am and what is going on inside me. How do I do that? By remembering that I am loved by the being who created me.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.