Keep the Change

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IMG_1357When my husband and I got married, I had a small nest egg and he had no savings at all. What’s odd about this is that I was a school teacher and he was an attorney. Until he married me, he had no concept of saving for a rainy day. Now he is even more frugal than I am.

Common wisdom says that you should never go into a marriage thinking you will change a person. Certainly it was not my overt intent to “fix” my husband. But over time, we have each taken on some useful and positive traits of each other. Indeed, it is possible and even likely for people to change throughout their lives.

Although there is a popular conception that our personalities are fixed, evidence shows that people can and do change based on their circumstances and sometimes the sheer force of their will. The work of behavioral psychologist Walter Mischel, for example, showed the importance of physical, social, and environmental forces in shaping behavior.

My own life experience bears out the idea that people’s personalities can change over time. When I was young, I was terribly shy to the point of seeming aloof. That perceived aloofness kept others from approaching me, leaving me even more lonely and reticent in social situations. When I became a teacher, though, I was forced to lose some of that timidity in order to thrive in the classroom. Over time, this more outgoing manner extended outside of the classroom and into my personal life.

The idea that people can change has important implications. For instance, believing convicted criminals can change will affect attempts at rehabilitation and reintegration into society. In families, we can hope for and be open to positive change in our loved ones.

Yet psychologists have also found that experiences in early childhood can be indelibly imprinted upon an individual. Researchers studying the phenomenon of synesthesia, wherein people see letters as having colors, found that the exact color for each letter was remarkably consistent from subject to subject. They discovered that the colors corresponded exactly to the colors of Fisher-Price magnetic letters many people had as young children.

In my own life, I have often felt that the loss of my mother at 13 months of age has given me an almost unshakable fear of abandonment. I also recall listening to an interview with the mother of Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber.  Kaczynski became a loner who lived in the woods and sent bombs through the mail to people he had grown to despise. His mother said that Ted became very ill as a baby and was hospitalized. His mother was not allowed to stay with him in the hospital. After Ted was released, she said, he was never the same happy baby he had been.

It gives me hope to believe that people can change. While we may struggle with childhood wounds or develop destructive patterns of behavior, we can become better, more functional, and happier people. That’s change I’d like to keep.

(Information in this post comes from NPR podcast Invisibilia.)

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