By Henry Meyerding
Dec 4, 2011 - 9:16:12 PM
LOS ANGELES—Sometimes I wonder why people view change the way they do. Most people operate on the assumption that the way things are today is the way they have always been. You see this when people make really naive observations about the past, particularly the distant past. They assume that the mobility and communication we have today was always there, even when they actually know that it didn’t exist even in their own childhood.
Although almost everyone knows that they have personally changed, and that almost everyone they know has changed, they still operate on the assumption that people remain pretty much the same. This view of an unchanging personal cosmos also changes with time. Back in the middle ages, peoples’ lives were pretty much set at birth. If you were the son of a baker, you were going to be a baker, a shoemaker’s son got to be a shoemaker. Women didn’t have even that much choice. Technological change was also very slow, and the world was more reliable.
Things got somewhat more open in the Renaissance. People enjoyed a bit more freedom and mobility. During the Enlightenment that led to the American and French revolutions, people began to take charge of their own lives, and America was built upon the notion of cutting your own wide swath freely through life - even though that was a dream rather than the reality for most folks, at least it existed. By the 1960’s the attitude was that people have the inalienable right to define who they are: to choose their jobs, their education, their class, their sexuality, their friends and their beliefs.
Then came the seventies and the freedom of choice became more of a burden of choice - it was not just the right of the individual to choose, but the responsibility of the individual to choose and to choose correctly. And more and more into the 80’;s and 90’s I saw people who saw choice as a series of one way streets - where they were free to choose, until they chose. For some reason, most people got the idea from somewhere that to be a thing, one must believe that one had always been that thing.
I know a few gay men who were heterosexual until they hit forty. Now that they’re fifty something, they have firmly convinced themselves that they were really always gay and that previously they had been in denial about it. Why? Why is it now that people can’t change? What is it about our mindset today that decides that a person must always have been this, or must always have been that. I understand when people make life-changing, difficult decisions, they like to validate their decisions by seeing a basis for those decisions in their own past, but the past need not stand as a unanimous confirmation of the present desire.
I wonder whether this penchant for absolute certainty isn’t related to the consumer culture in which we live. We are constantly bombarded with decisions we’re asked to make (ie advertising). Most of these we shake off, but many hit some deep resonance within us. A friend of mine received an inheritance and her choices were simplified in her mind by the fact that she decided that she’d always wanted a Ford Mustang convertible. I’d known her for twenty-five years and never heard or seen a single peep about any Mustang, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that this was or became an elemental truth to her. It was beyond dispute.
That’s fine, but that’s just a car. People make much more important choices and decisions every day, many of which have consequences that can’t always be taken back. They make these decisions based upon a perception of reality that says “I am this now” and therefore “I must have always been this” and “I will always be this.” Why?
When I was young, the watchword was change: change yourself, change society, change your world. I always assumed that these changes were fluid and that although there was a certain resistance to change, it was possible to go back and choose again. That seems to be missing from today’s repertoire of action. What happened to people? Were we always whatever it was we were born, just that and nothing more than the degree to which we manifested it?
I see all kinds of symptoms of this in the world: lots of people think major criminals should be thrown away for all time, because they are obviously beyond redemption. Returning veterans get a free pass for any crimes against humanity they may have committed while overseas, but sex offenders allegedly guilty of the same crimes get branded for life. We’ve become a society of rigid ideas and rigid judgments. And yet, we have tons and tons of really solid evidence to prove that people can change. We ignore that.
What is it that leads us back to the intellectual climate of the middle ages? We’re redistributing wealth to match feudal societies. We’re creating a society of rigid castes, religious, professional, and various lifestyle communities, that jealously police their membership and leave no room for personal liberty or personal growth except within the limited confines of the group. What is going on here? What are we getting for this that is so important? We even have an Inquisition squad by the name of Homeland Security and a national security imperative that can be used to allow any departure from due process.
Are we so emotionally overloaded by the terrific rate of technological and societal change that we cannot recognize or believe in change on a personal level, either for ourselves or for others? Do we require this constancy of personal perspective to allow us to get a handle on all of the other changes transpiring around us? Perhaps, because we feel so powerless to influence the changes in the wider world, we resist the idea that these changes change us. When we inevitably do change, we deny that it is a change by reinventing our past to conform to our new present.
I am very much in favor of people finding out who they are and being able to self-identify as anything that makes them happy. I am just unhappy that in many cases these people feel constrained to stay with their original pick past the time when that pick serves their needs or makes them happy. I would like a world in which people could change, could change in any way that makes sense to them that doesn’t harm other people, and to change again and again as the spirit moved them. Perhaps this is unrealistic, but then most ideals are.
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