Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Is Change Really Possible?


    I used to believe that change was possible for everyone. That for someone going through hard times it wasn't that difficult to make their lives better. All they had to do was, well, change it. I was younger then, and the world was a very different place. I didn't know about relationships or loyalties, addictions or abuse, finances or psychology or personality types. What I knew was that we all had choices; we just had to make good ones. At the time, I was a twenty-one year old pastor who believed that Jesus could change anyone's story. (Come to church and see what God can do in your life!) I was so excited by this possibility that it consumed me. I spent every waking minute devising ways to communicate this life-altering message to people. I handed out tracts and knocked on doors. I held youth events and youth meetings. I spoke to old friends and made new ones. People came and went. Some bought into what I was saying and came to church and good things happened. Others came to church and heard mean things about who they were and why they weren't good enough and left. Through it all, I was steadfast in my principles. There was no such thing as being inappropriate when it came to sharing my beliefs, because I knew it could change a person's life.

I remember meeting an old high school acquaintance in the parking lot of our local shopping mall. He was sitting in his car with his girlfriend, and he smiled when I stopped by to say hello. Within minutes I'd handed him a pamphlet explaining my life-changing message. His face wrinkled up as if he'd tasted something sour, and his girlfriend rolled her eyes. "Uh, that's great, Steve." He quickly put his car in gear and drove away. I hoped he would listen to what I'd said, but it didn't really matter. Whether he accepted it or not, at least now he knew how he could change his life.

The thing about preaching change is that sometimes you forget your own life. You get so intent on changing other people's lives that you start to think your life is perfect. That you are perfect. I don't think it's intentional, I think it's human and inevitable. The result however, isn't pretty, because with everyone you meet you start to think how they need change and what they can do to be better. You never say it, or even think it, maybe, but what you're really wondering is how they can be more like you.


    My friend Naomi is studying to be a counselor. She's tall and pretty and when you tell her about your life her eyes get really big and she listens so well you feel good about yourself. She's studying emotional narrative and story as her counseling major; how changing someone's story can change their life. Sometimes I don't understand what she's saying because she's smart and uses words that make me squint, but when she talks about it I am reminded of my own time when I was in ministry. A time when I used to believe that people could change if they'd only accept my story for them.

    Last week we were talking on her balcony, sipping wine and ignoring the cold wind like we were real Canadians.

    "Do you think people change?" I asked her.

    "Well," She said. "Personalities don't change, but people can. It is, however, a slow process."

    "So how do you help people change?" I asked.

    "Mostly I listen. Then I try to help them deal with the emotional narrative they find themselves in, and change it."

    I thought about that for a while, because it seemed a different answer than the one I'd used to hand out with cartoons on the backs of little papers to friends and strangers. I was also worried that I didn't believe people could change anymore, which scared me, because if people couldn't change I wasn't sure why we existed.


    During the three years I worked as a full time pastor, I never considered changing my life. Not really. Oh, I made promises to God to be less angry and more humble and be more regular with my giving, but mostly I felt like I had things under control. Everyone told me what a great pastor I was going to be and how much potential I had. I figured I was a dynamic personality because I wasn't afraid of public speaking and occasionally made people laugh. So the day my wife left me, after only eleven months of marriage, was not only unexpected, it was earth shattering. Though I didn't know it, I was about to change, and it wasn't because I wanted to or thought I needed it or sensed God's voice. I was about to inherit a new story, one that didn't make sense to me at all, but it was impossible for me to walk away from it because that new story was my life.


    My best friend Mark has a great life. I love his story. Whenever I tell him something like that he tells me not to glamorize it. I try not to, but his story is infinitely more interesting than mine. He also happens to be Naomi's husband. I go to their apartment every Monday night for football and some important male bonding, but most of the time I end up talking to Naomi on the balcony about God and change and her clients and my clients. Mark and I talk about those things too, but on Monday nights he thinks we should be watching the game and usually he yells at us to come in and tells us that we should be watching the game. But that's easy for him to say, his life is more exciting than mine.

    Three weeks ago he told me that he noticed a homeless woman outside Food Basics, a low end grocery store in the north end of the city that my friends and I frequent quite often. He told her to come inside with him, gave her an empty basket, and told her to fill it up. She followed him around for a while, until he gently pushed her towards doing her own shopping. Mark downplayed it when he mentioned it to me, although he and Naomi are both students and don't have very much money. As a rule, I have to practically drag these stories out of him, but I do it because nothing like that ever happens to me. For a time last year I did a few Mark-offs, (which shouldn't be confused with Mad-offs) talking to homeless people and strangers and even helping a few of them. I felt alive and strange and new, but then I forgot to think about it before my day started and began realizing how little I had in my bank account and how I would never get ahead and stopped doing it. Nothing like it has happened to me since. Most days I do not feel alive or new, and I find that I think about the past a lot.


    For a time my ex-wife and I put our marriage back together. I realized how much I'd acted like a jerk and started writing columns about how men shouldn't act like jerks. I even got a few letters from people in different countries asking me for marital advice and felt good and important. I started teaching them how they needed to change. I'd done it. They could do it. All they needed to do was listen to what I said.

    It didn't last though, and when my wife and I decided that the marriage was not going to work we talked about it and cried together for a long time. I cried because I'd miss her and felt bad about the whole thing. I cried because I felt relief and felt guilty that I felt relieved. And I cried because I knew that whatever hope I had of being a Christian 'star' who'd put his marriage back together (a VERY good story), was over, and suddenly I didn't have a story to tell. I had nothing to say, especially when I looked in the mirror and realized that if the best stories involved change and character transformation, I was a pretty terrible character. And my story sucked.


    I met Bethany about a year and a half ago. She is the daughter of two missionaries and grew up in Ethiopia. When I met her I didn't know that. I saw a beautiful girl walk past me on my break outside the Starbucks where I was working and somehow made her smile. She gave me her phone number. Three weeks later we had the God talk and she told me part of her story. I fell in love pretty quick, and for some reason she did too, and we were married this past year.

    Bethany has a great story, although she doesn't think so. She is finishing the second year of her program to be a paramedic. It is the toughest medic program in the country, and most days she is very tired. But she goes on the ambulance now, and takes calls and helps people. Twice she has come home and told me that she did CPR to help bring someone back to life. On those days her eyes glow and she bounces on her toes when she walks. Other days she comes home sad because she sees suffering and death and the bereavement of family members. On those days I hold her and she is quiet. Most days though, she loves what she does and tells me about it. She tells me about people who throw up on her or the other medics, the problems they have with certain medical conditions, and the rich people who call the ambulance for a ride. She tells me and her eyes glow. When people ask me how I'm doing, I usually tell them about Bethany because I love her story, or I'll tell them about Mark and Naomi because I love their story too.


    Being divorced and trained to be a minister is not fun. There are some things you can do as a pastor, some things that can happen to you for you to still be accepted as a church leader, but divorce is not one of them. If your marriage breaks down, people are not that interested in what you're saying about change, because it doesn't seem like you have it all together. Why would I want to change and be like you? You screwed up your marriage! So I stopped being a minister. I worked in group homes for a while, though I spent most of my time at Masconi's, a small pub down the street. I would bring my huge writing binder and set it on the bar and work on my latest novel. Sometimes the other regulars would 'contribute' to my book, and the next day I would find a page or two of swearing and sex slipped between the pages. The guys thought it was hilarious, and I pretended to be a good sport though I was usually annoyed. I would sip my beer with them and try to explain that I was creating art. That craft was important. That to be lost in the whirls of thematic difficulty meant nothing if the reader was somehow wakened from the unconscious dream. They would pretend to listen for a few minutes before changing the subject to the Raptors and what I thought about Vince Carter.

    For a long time I'd believed that Jesus could change people, but when my marriage ended I realized that he hadn't changed me at all and that maybe it was all a bunch of goop. Maybe people couldn't change. Maybe God didn't care. Maybe I'd always be the jerk I felt like when I thought about how I'd been with my wife and how I'd been at church. If I couldn't be a pastor, I needed a new story, so I decided to be a writer. Even if I couldn't change, I still needed something to do. Something to embrace. I'd started writing years before, but now I tried to live the life that I thought a writer was supposed to live. I wrote every day, and drank coffee and liquor and smoked cigarettes because all writers did those things, or so I thought. Even then I realized it was only partly about the actual writing, and that my life – what gave it meaning – was what mattered. I figured that if I could just get published, my life would change and it would be okay. Eventually I did get published, though I never sold any of my books, but nothing really changed, and I only managed to sell a couple of articles.


    The novel I'm writing now is about a young boy who is awkward and doesn't think too highly of himself. He is tall and shy and can't read or fight. His parents were both very important, but his father is dead and his mother is missing. He thinks he is slow and dumb because that's what he's been called his whole life and doesn't know that it isn't true. I call him Josh.

    I like Josh a lot, and even though I'm creating the story I find myself cheering for him. Cheering for him to find a new story. To find his story. And no, he's not like me. He's quiet while I talk a lot, although I guess we respond that way for the same reason. I like that his life is one filled with adventure, though I don't envy some of the things he's gone through, because they seem so sad to me. I like it that he is making new friends even as he escapes a group that is trying to kill him, but I feel sorry for him because he is young and is often lonely. His story is exciting and fresh. Mine isn't.


    I never went back into ministry, although I still read about Jesus a lot. I like how he reaches out people around him, how he makes them feel welcome and how he loves them despite their faults. I like it because I hope that's how God sees me, because I don't have a very good story and sometimes I worry that I will never change.

I have a web site where I write about spiritual things and the church. A few weeks ago, one of my readers commented, at length, how I'd grown increasingly cynical and narrow minded the past two years. I thought about what he said for a long time because I thought he was right.

On my web site I complain a lot about the suffering and injustice of the world, and I expel a lot of righteous indignation at men who think they're better than women and people who think they're better than other people. What I don't say is that there is hope or that everything will be okay. I don't say it because I don't know it, and I think I complain because I wish I was better, or at least had a better story. Instead, I spend most of my time writing my novel about Joshua and training people in the gym who want to be fit. I prepare my wife's lunches and try to do most of the cleaning in our apartment because her schedule is so busy. She's grateful and warm and there isn't much I wouldn't do just to see her smile. I like being helpful, and often I feel guilty because I don't make very much money. I don't hang out in bars anymore, although I spend an inordinate amount of time at Starbucks because I like to write there and it isn't as lonely as writing at home. I still find people fascinating and wish I could do more to help them. But every time I've tried to build my life around changing others, it's ended up in the toilet. I get proud and arrogant and end up talking down to people who seem more like Jesus than I do.



    Can people change? Can people change their story? Naomi says people can, and I believe her because she knows more about that than I do. Can Jesus change our story? Mark says that he can, and I believe him because he knows more about that than I do. As for me, I'm not sure, exactly. I no longer think that I am destined for 'great things', because the things that I now think are great don't get a lot of publicity. Feeding a homeless person and reasserting their dignity is great. Counseling and listening to someone to help change their emotional narrative is great. Studying seventy hours a week so you can save someone's life is great. And teaching people to love one another regardless of what they do to you, and then dying to save everyone, is the greatest story of them all.

    So the answer, I guess, is that people can change. I'm not sure how we change exactly, but I know it's not as easy as I used to think. And I know we can't do it on our own.

Most change, in my life at least, has come through mistakes and tragedy and sadness. I'm a better husband because I was lousy before and the woman I'm with somehow understands me. I'm more understanding because I know what it's like to feel judged. I'm a better friend and more accepting of others because I know what it's like to be lonely. (I remember the nights I spent staring at my coffee table in a darkened apartment with no one to call.) The more I think about it the more I realize that Naomi is right. People can change, and while choice matters, it isn't just about the choices we make. It's about me. It's about you. It's a magical thing and sort of a silly cliché, but it all starts with this crazy idea that we're all God's children, as if we're one big family. We'll probably never be a happy family, because there are too many kids and someone will always feel left out or better or worse or not enough. But sometimes that's us, and that's okay too. Somehow, I think, so long as we remember the basics, that God created us and loves us, that we're going to screw up and make mistakes and that other people will too, I think we have a chance to change our story. And when our story changes, so does our life. I'm not sure I can explain it, but I've seen it happen, and if it can happen to the other kids, it can happen to us too.