Can People Change?

The Victorian author Anthony Trollope had some funny titles for his books – He Knew He Was Right and Can You Forgive Her? and Is He Popenjoy?  So in the spirit of Trollope I add my own title, not as funny, perhaps, but something I wrestle with:  Can people change?

The obvious answer is yes, people do change.  But then there is the age old adage:  “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Or even, “People never change.”

My argument is that people DO change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worst.

Let’s start with the bad stuff first, so I can end on a positive note.

It’s been frustrating for me to hear the news pundits say things like “Trump has really tapped into something with voters.”  People, there are some things you shouldn’t tap into.  The yawing chasm of hate that he has opened up is something, as a friend on Facebook pointed out, we might never recover from.  And the change is palpable.  Yes, those people who go to Trump rallies might have had that hate buried deep within them all along, but I also think they have changed for the worst.  Suddenly this bigoted, no-nothing shell of a man has given permission for the worst to come out of people and now we have images of a young black woman being shoved and pushed and yelled at at a Trump rally, and a young black man being punched in the face seared into our collective memory.  Trump supporters have changed because they no longer think it’s necessary to keep their behavior in check.  And that’s a scary, scary thing.  It’s all I can do not to think that this is the end of civilized society.  And yes, I know, perhaps we’ve never been “civilized”, especially to minority groups, but the public discourse has definitely been ratcheted down to a new low.

Still, I believe people can change for the better, too.

Back in the Jurassic age when I went to college, I remember arguing with my father about gay rights.  He said, “Gays are just a special interest group and special interest groups shouldn’t get privileges.”  Or something to that effect.  He made me cry.  Decades later, he has a gay son, my brother Tom, and a bisexual daughter, me.  You would never believe he ever said such a thing.  He knows the importance of gay rights now, and even more importantly, has been openly supportive and loving to Tom and his partner Jean, and of course to me.  My father, and my mother, have changed.  For the better.  I’m sure it hasn’t been easy for them, but they rose to the challenge beautifully.

Sometimes I think it’s a matter of theory and practice.  In theory, many people support gay rights and same-sex marriage, but in practice are pretty awful about gay people.  They’re clearly uncomfortable around gay people, say stupid or offensive things to and about gay people, and generally let the world know that they have some serious issues to still work out.  My parents, on the other hand, in theory are still uncomfortable with gay issues and talking about their gay children.  But in practice, my parents are love personified.  I wish more people were like them.  It is in our practice, in what we say or do, that really matters.

The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively about the “fixed” mindset vs. the “growth” mindset.  She is particularly talking about intelligence, but intelligence may rule so much of our behavior and character that I think it is relevant to change as well.  People with a “fixed” mindset don’t believe they can change.  They are stuck with what nature gave them.  The “growth” mindset believes it can change and become better, the effort itself being an important element.

Dweck writes:

“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.

I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .” (Dweck, taken from the “BrainPickings” blog)

I think it’s possible to go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.  Maybe that’s what happened to my parents. It has probably happened to me, when I accepted my own sexuality.   I don’t know if I can go as far to say that the Trump supporters at his violent rallies all have a fixed mindset.  But I wonder.  I wonder if they are just very fearful people, fearful of change, of difference, of “the other”.  I wonder if their posturing is just another form of what Dweck would say is “proving themselves over and over.”  That Trump himself, for all his braggadocio, must be a very insecure man down deep goes without saying.  That’s classic narcissism for you.

Perhaps I must leave the question:  Can people change? and go to a statement:  People must change.  We must grow and become better people.  And yes, we must convince others to do the same, whether that is in a family and done with love, or whether that means protesting the hate of others.  Both are important.



Small Talk and Civility

I love talking about the weather.  In fact, I just love weather, my least favorite being sunny hot days.  I’m perverse in that way, I know.  But I’ll still talk about it.  I know that talking about the weather is often disparaged, but I think that’s a mistake.  The world needs small talk, if nothing more than to maintain a level of civility that wouldn’t be there if we’re talking about something else.

So it was with dismay that I read a NY Times Modern Love article by Tim Boomer entitled “The End of Small Talk.”  In it, he talks about dating and how he started doing away with small talk, jumping into heavy stuff to start them off.  Admittedly, dating is something I haven’t done in a while, but to me this sounds terrifying.  Diving in with “our weightiest beliefs and most potent fears. . . Questions that reveal who we are and where we want to go” ??  I don’t think so.

Small talk, even though as an introvert I’m not very good at it, is necessary.  Start small, I say, and work up to the big things.  Build trust.  Find common ground.  And if the only common ground you can find is the weather, so be it.  That in and of itself tells you a lot about a person.  By sticking to the weather, one can avoid any number of unpleasantries.

I’m not against big and weighty issues.  God knows (and so do you, if you read my blog) that I don’t shy away from the hard stuff.  But I don’t do this all the time, or with everyone.  It’s not always important to bring up the serious.  It can be a real drag. Or somehow it misses the tenor of the moment.

So in a recent interaction, I didn’t.  I was near a conversation between two friends, in a public space, and it went like this:

Person A:  I can’t believe the Anglican Church now marries gays.  You could see them swishing down the aisle. . .

Later –

Person A:  I taught mostly black kids.  And they were all on their way to jail. . .

So perhaps you can see that a little small talk was in order here.  Something safe, like the fucking weather, and not views on social issues mixed in with a little homophobia and racism.  It would have been a much safer topic of discussion.  And what did I do, you ask?  Good question.  I debated speaking up, but I didn’t.  Perhaps that was wrong of me, but a friend pointed out that a heavy silence can be its own form of condemnation.  I hope so.

Perhaps we need to be a little more afraid of offending people. tornado-8 There seems to be more than enough incivility to go around.


We’ve Got Work to Do


“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hand down a decision on whether or not same-sex marriage will be the law of the land.  Let’s hope they don’t do something stupid (like Citizens United).  It would be a mistake to think that our work is done, even if the Supreme Court does the right thing and makes gay marriage legal in every state.  We still have a lot of work to do, much of it on a very personal level.  We won’t be in a post-homophobic era, just as we are not in a post-racial, post-feminist, post anything era.  To think so is incredibly myopic, and plainly insensitive.  We are right in the muck, where we have always been.

A prevailing statistic is that ten percent of the population identifies as gay.  My shrink believes it may be closer to 25 percent.  From my own vantage point, I think many, many people are at least a little bisexual (and I include myself in that category, as well).  So it is understandable that so much of the hate comes from so much fear. Fear of one’s own feelings.  Fear of what you have a hard time understanding, even in yourself.  We need to work on that.

Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, and a gay man, has made this call in a piece he wrote last week:  “Do Gays Unsettle You? Same-sex marriage, Republican Scorn, and Unfinished Work.”    

In his piece, he says we seem to have come so far, and yet.  And yet.  “When (my boyfriend and I) are walking down the street after a long dinner or a sad movie and he slips his hand in mine, I tense. I look around nervously: Is anyone staring? Glaring? I feel exposed, endangered, and I’m right to, even here in New York, even near my apartment on Manhattan’s epically liberal Upper West Side. Just two years ago and two blocks from my home, an inebriated young woman who spotted us shouted: “So you’re gay? These two are gay!” She went on and on like that, for what seemed an eternity.

It was the booze talking, sure. But sometimes alcohol is a truth serum, stripping the varnish of etiquette to reveal the ugliness beneath.”

Snark and shaming seem so often to go together.  Now I’m going to tell you some of my own stories.  They are not nice stories, but I want people to think about their own reactions to gay people, and for those who have similar stories to know that they are not alone.

Last fall sometime, I went to the opera with my father.  We were sitting up in the balcony in a middle row, my dad to my right, and some empty seats to my left.  While we were waiting for the show to begin, I heard very distinctly a young woman behind me to my left say “Big dyke”.  It was so clear that I’m guessing she would have had to lean down a little bit towards me for me to hear it.  I don’t think my father heard.  I just ignored the comment.  I don’t know if that was the right thing to do, but I thought reacting to it would just get ugly fast.

I live in a nice, upper middle class liberal neighborhood. I often hear words like “dyke” and other hostile discussions of gayness in this neighborhood.

Now, if you’re using the “d” word, (or any slurs used for gay men), that is not only rude and unseemly – it is aggressive.  You are aggressively putting down a whole group of people.  If you are loudly and belligerently trying to guess who is or isn’t gay – that is aggressive.  You are trying to shame someone for not conforming to some silly notion of how you think people should look or act.  And in all of this – it says more about you than the people you are targeting.  You’re a bigot, plain and simple.  Gay people (and people you think are gay) make you uncomfortable.  Not only do they make you uncomfortable, you don’t think they have a right to exist, in many cases.

More stories.

I attend a Unitarian Universalist church (UU) – the most gay friendly church there is, right?  Last year the youth group performed a song for the congregation, Macklemore’s “Same Love” which in its lyrics supports gay marriage.  It was nice.  They did a good job.  But – the girls in the group sang the first verse, when in fact it is Macklemore, a male, who sings it.  The verse goes like this:

When I was in the third grade I thought that I was gay,
‘Cause I could draw, my uncle was, and I kept my room straight.
I told my mom, tears rushing down my face. . . .

Now, it’s true, I don’t know the back story.  Maybe the girls wanted to sing the verse.  Maybe it was out of range for any of the boys.  Or – given the context in which we live, was there some fear of singing it because of the lyrics?  Afraid, even in a UU church, that someone would think they were gay?  That is how powerful this societal fear is.  It infects us all.


(A side note here:  I saw on Facebook that Macklemore performed in concert in a Hasidic Jewish costume, with an exaggerated nose.  Obviously he is not bigot-free either. )

Once, in this UU church, I went to sit down before the service.  I heard some whispering behind me, but I didn’t hear what was being said.  When another friend came and sat down beside me, I heard the man from behind say loudly, “There’s another one.”  In a separate incident, I was leaving the church, and a young boy was holding the door open.  He said, “Here’s a big one,” to one of his friends, as I thanked him for holding the door.

I hope I’m not being petty for sharing these stories.  And I have a lot more stories than these.  My point is – even when you think you are liberal and open-minded, ARE YOU REALLY?  This is the kind of tough work I’m talking about.  This is the work we need to do.  We need to go to the (figurative) desert, wrestle with our demons, and come out the other side.

There are plenty of things I need to change about myself – not letting others’ bad behavior bother me so much, for starters.  I admit to being constantly disappointed in humanity, and I need to fight against that.  Still, I know each of us can be better.  We shouldn’t just rest on our liberal-minded laurels, but struggle with the darkness in our hearts.