Real Change

How does real change come about?

When I pose this question, I’m not referring to broader social change, but change at the level of the individual. To what degree are we, each as individuals in our own right, able to influence or effect change in other individuals around us?

I think this is a very pertinent issue, because the idea that an individual can really influence another is one that comes up in teaching, parenthood and evangelism, to name a few. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call the two roles in such a relationship the teacher and the student (though they could just as easily be friend and friend, sister and brother, or any number of other combinations of roles). The teacher presumably has his own motives, extraneous to the mere subject being “taught.” Though passionate about the subject at hand, perhaps he also experiences great enthusiasm at the prospect of being the catalyst or cause of a “change for the better.”

This seems, for the most part, natural. If we are teaching someone because we genuinely believe in the value of the subject and that, if understood and accepted, it would better the life of the student, then we must also feel excitement that we can be a means for imparting this value. Sharing or expressing the good and true should be accompanied by joy and enthusiasm. However, this enthusiasm can detract from the “teaching” and its potential for change when it becomes of an overzealous nature. The overzealous teacher may desire the good and true, but they can easily become too engrossed in the results of teaching, in the change rather than in the process of changing. This does not necessarily mean that the means are subjugated to the end, but that the means are not given the attention and value of which they are deserving, because the mind is consumed with visions of an idealized end.

I think this is a trap that we all fall into at times, because it has to do with the human desire for control and stability. Teachers, students and everyone in between are susceptible to this illusion of control. We naturally develop dreams and goals for what we hope to achieve in life. These dreams and goals give us hope and courage, and help us to learn more about ourselves, among many other things. Yet despite their undeniable merit, they can be pushed too far. Goals may become destructive to their own intended ends when they impose an inflexible, absolute plan on a constantly changing world. When we are not open to the changing of dreams and goals or to their being manifested in ways contrary to our prior expectations, then we are also not open to the working of the Holy Spirit and its power to enact real lasting change and fulfill our dreams beyond the routes of human reason.

This applies as well to our discussion of the student and the teacher. Whenever the teacher becomes too caught up in the result of the lesson (what the student will have learned; how this will change them for the better), they are imposing their own restrictive plan and vision onto this situation. This may prevent them from being open to the ways in which the good and true are at work in this relationship and even to the lessons which the student may have to teach the teacher. When we look only for a particular destination, we miss many of the landmarks and signs of truth and beauty along the way.

Furthermore, focusing too much on an end can have other negative consequences. Firstly, this singular focus may actually prevent us from being present in the moment. In our desire to serve and to help the student, we actually neglect to address the real and deeper needs (the ones we have not anticipated), the most significant of which is simply our authentic presence. This leads into the second negative consequence, which is that we may think more of ourselves and our own needs than those of the other person. This, I think, is a danger of focusing too much on the future goal of being credited as “the change” and a praiseworthy force for good. In this light, any externally good action can become distorted from the good towards the superior feeling of the one who acts. Both of these consequences limit the potential of authentic change for the good, both in the student and teacher.

If, instead, the teacher does not see himself or herself as a superior being but as an equal to the student, the two can interact in a more meaningful and reciprocal way. This does not mean to strip teachers of their label in relationships where such roles are appropriate. Equality on this fundamental human level does not deny that one interlocutor may have more knowledge or understanding in a certain capacity than the other. Rather, it can accept this difference freely, because it acknowledges and acts out of an understanding of both individuals’ worth, dignity and unique background and place in life (including struggles which are not fully communicable to anyone other than God).

In such an interaction, regardless of who is the teacher and who is the student, both people are able to give and receive, without either shame or pride. The teacher is also able to enter more fully into the moment and be open to what this moment will bring.

I have been describing a meeting in which both teacher and student are open to and understanding of one another. In this way, I think, they can truly come to terms with each other and both grow and change in a meaningful way. However, it is not always the case that both parties are open to or believe there is a need for any change. As an example, I might refer to a cynical student who mocks his teacher’s subject in the classroom, and yet this also refers in a very significant way to people who are not in a relationship so clearly defined (as mentioned earlier: friend and friend, sister and brother, etc). How should one act if they feel they have something they could teach or share with another when that individual is not open to receiving it?

I think the previous discussion can apply as well to this situation. If an individual is too intent on changing or making someone understand their point of view, not only will change and “the good” be less likely, but also the former individual is likelier to be disappointed. They may see their efforts as a failure, because the person is still not open or understanding of their viewpoint. Yet in this case, the individual places too much responsibility on himself or herself. Ultimately God is the only one who can really change hearts and who has a plan for each and every life. By blaming ourselves for change we do not see in others, we seek to claim the burden of this responsibility, which rightly belongs only to God. Thus, in my mind, real change comes about through trust in God. If we can abandon ourselves to the truth that He is in control and will take good care of our lives and the lives of those around us, then we can act from that place of equality and of love, noticing the small and unexpected graces that appear along the way. We will be inspired to teach and share, but out of a love for and a joy in the truth, rather than a desire to be great of our own accord and forcing the “truth” unnaturally as a result. I think if we have this mindset, we can persevere in hope and belief even if there is no seeming progress and from this, real change is ever possible, since we have relinquished total ownership of it.