Why is it so hard to change?
A couple of months ago, I was so confused about the stubborn, destructive behavior of a friend—and even my own self-destructive tendencies—that I honestly wondered if it would make a difference trying to improve. As in the case with many things, I took my wonder to Google. I asked, “Do people ever really change?”
By the way, it seems I never learn not to use Google for such existential questions: billions of results appear (more so than usual), each contradicting what the last one says. Why? Because every situation is different. People search because of a misbehaving romantic partner or a family member with a debilitating addiction. Or they are trying to lose weight or become more socially outgoing. Perhaps they’ve failed in trying to change themselves or a significant other. Yet, there was one underlying theme that I managed to tape together from the hubbub.
Change is possible, but it’s extremely hard work and it gets harder as you get older. Also, be prepared for many failures, setbacks, genuine instances of “you-know-what?-I-give-up.”
The last one is the most confusing, because by that time, you’ve convinced yourself of the rightness of the change and you’ve been assiduously working hard to make your life better, yet you find yourself prepared to throw it all away for a moment’s peace. Your determination melts into “Hey, things can stay like they are. After all, they aren’t that bad.”
Why do we do that? One word: Fear. It prompts us to remain just where we are, even when we know that where we are is detrimental to our well-being.
No one wrote it better than Gwendolyn Brooks in her poem “truth.”
I’ve always admired her for the simple music of her poetry. Though she sings about such issues with piercing depth, her poems always allow a certain accessibility. In this one, in particular, she compares the truth to the returning sun and she asks a question (in fact, most of the poem is a series of questions; no room for dogmatism here). ‘When the sun comes back, the good life that we’ve always wanted appears, do we really want it, now that we’ve gotten so used to the darkness?’
That’s the million dollar question. It’s what stops a recovering somebody dead in their tracks when they are faced with the enormity of their task to change, to be better, to do things differently.
After all, we complain, don’t we? We might not like how we treat others or our stubborn adherence to bad habits. We all dream of having happy, peaceful lives. Yes, with amazing alacrity on human nature, the poem continues: “we have wept for (the sun)…we have prayed all through the night-years.” Still, we have lived in what Brooks calls a “lengthy session with shade.” We have learned to live with our afflictions; we rationalize them until they’re whittled down to nothing…yet still managing to bruise our unconscious minds, but hey, we reason away why they are there.
The emotion behind this stance is fear. In her succinct lingo, Brooks proposes that we would “dread”, “fear”, “shudder”, and “flee” when the sun returns with all of its’ light and goodness. The poem asks if we would not rather seek to hide in the “familiar” darkness.
We rage against evil, darkness, resignation, and despair, yet we are frightened by the light, rescue, hope, and change. We would rather swim in the mire because of its familiarity than bask in goodness just because it’s uncertain. No doubt our inner resistance to positive change may be our biggest obstacle.
Gwendolyn Brooks did not give an answer in the poem. It’s not a poet’s job to do so; their task is only to raise the questions. We determine our own answers to the conundrums poets uncover. With this poem, I would like to think that change is possible, that humans have the power to choose to fight for what’s good and right, and that ultimately it is worth it to resist the temptation to hide in the comfortable darkness.
What do you think? Find a copy of Brooks’ poem ‘truth’ and tell me your answer to the puzzle she raises.