I love movies and novels where a character finally makes a change that we’ve been dying to see since the story began. I love seeing Lester in American Beauty finally understanding the importance of other people, when he sheds the worst of his self-deceptions. It’s a huge relief to see Miss Havisham in Great Expectations break down and finally see what she’s done to herself, Pip, and Estella. Yet to some extent, these transformations are a lie.
The bad news
Let’s face it, our problems, hangups, bad habits, and limitations aren’t hats or shoes, ready to be taken off and replaced at any moment. They’re more like our bodies, which can’t be replaced but can be gradually transformed. The trick of it isn’t to get to that one sudden moment of transformation, because there is no moment of transformation in which a body suddenly becomes healthy after being unhealthy, or in which decades-long thinking patterns spontaneously unwind themselves from our brains. The neural connections we’ve established through repeating problem behaviors or choices over and over can go away, but they only go away gradually.
To put it another way, making one choice one time will not transform us, although it can start us on that road. But making one choice dozens or hundreds or (sometimes) thousands of times will change us. Instead of receiving goals like prizes, we build them up bit by bit, so that a goal is less often something accomplished than a state we reach from some kind of thought or action that we’ve woven into our daily lives.
The good news
Is sudden change useless or imaginary, then? No! We really can and do experience sudden changes of perspective, insights or experiences that completely alter the way we look at some part of our life. And when we start something radical and good, like doing a task that’s been dreaded and avoided for months or going out and offering forgiveness to the person we have most reason to despise, that action can release a lot of energy to propel us forward into thinking similar thoughts and making similar choices going forward. Except in the most extreme cases, we’ll need more than that initial charge to get us all the way to a new habit, but the initial charge can still count for a lot.
Ultimately I think these dramatic fictional transformations do have a value to us, and that value is in their illuminating what it feels like to become a different person. Often the hardest thing about motivating ourselves to follow the difficult path that leads to an altered self is believing that change is even possible. But both in fiction and in life, if we look for them, examples of transformation are all around us.
Photo by Stuck in Customs