Thursday, June 24, 2010

Reflections on Personal Development: How I Thought I'd Change

The New You

I don’t know how many novels I’ve read or movies I’ve seen that feature this plot, but a lot; I think it’s an archetypical American fantasy. The character moves to a new location – maybe a different part of the country, maybe returning to her childhood home, or someplace completely new – and starts over, reinventing herself. Of course there’s pain involved, and conflict; the change doesn’t come easy. But that’s the story, the story of how she transformed herself into a wonderful person. Usually by the end of the book or movie she's forgiven whoever hurt her in the past and probably fallen in love, fallen in love with the kind of person who they never would have chosen in the past but who is just right for the better self she is now becoming. A “happily ever after” is strongly suggested.

Sometimes we see this in missions; people who think the crucible of cross-cultural living will turn them into the kind of person they always thought they should be. Sometimes it works, eventually, somewhat. A lot of times it doesn’t. I don’t say that to make an argument against missions, just to say that the whole “you’ll get more out of it than you’ll give” dynamic doesn’t expand exponentially from a two-week mission trip to a term or two overseas. In fact, most people find it takes years to really be effective in another culture, once you commit to belonging instead of just passing through. Still, self-improvement is such an engaging fantasy that if I were writing missions-fiction I’d probably be tempted to tell one of those personal transformation success stories. Perhaps I’d suggest that God was the one who affected the change, but I’d still tap into that American, be-all-that-you-can-be fantasy. It’s so dear to us, so compelling.

A Nicer Person

Here’s one story I realize I had hoped to be telling at the end of this year, but am not so sure about now. I don’t know if I ever put it into words but I had this idea that while I was on sabbatical – and maybe after I had finished my sabbatical, as well – I would be a nicer person.

After all, without all the pressure that comes from a job, without traveling all the time and trying to keep up in so many areas of life, without living life on overload and without margins, I’d be able to stop and smell the roses. I’d do nice things for myself, and enjoy them. (That much is true – I have!) But I also expected I’d be more thoughtful. I’d send more birthday cards and considerate presents. I’d reach out to people both spontaneously and intentionally. I’d be available and responsive instead of striding around looking like I’m on a mission. And by golly, I’d even commit “random” acts of kindness!

Certainly there have been some changes for the better. I’ve replaced the briskness in my walk with more of a mosey or saunter. I’ve smiled at people and waited patiently in line. And, when people have called or written asking for a favor, I’ve been able to say yes to things I might not have been able to help with in the past, like babysitting or giving people rides to the airport. My conversation has been richer, some days, simply due to the space and level of reflection in my life.

If I can spend my 40s doing less, instead of more, than I have in my 30s, I’ll probably experience some of that same fruit.

But I’m here to report that overall, I haven’t become the nicer person I envisioned. I still think of far more nice things to do for other people than I actually follow through on. And really, I don’t think of that many. I have not become a “noticer,” one of those people who just has eyes to see people’s needs and quietly comes alongside them with acts of thoughtful service. Nor have I made many phone calls or written letters to friends who thought I’d forgotten them, just to let them know how much they still mean to me!

Hmmm… what do you think, is “be nicer to other people” still a good goal to have? Does it need to be reframed, reworked, or replaced with something different?

“Become a nicer person,” if you put it that way, does seem rather self-referential. Too often my desire for self-respect is higher than my actual love for other people – even if they are pulling in the same direction. However, I am learning that a simple acknowledgment and acceptance of my negative emotions or self-referential responses to things can really free me up to get beyond them to responding to others with love and compassion. More about that in future post, perhaps.


Dean Smith said...

What about just being who you are?

Marti said...

Dad, I don't think being who I am is consistent with being who I was made to be. I mean, self acceptance is an essential part of the strategy but I think there's a lot more richness, freedom, and fruitfulness in life that I'm not experienced because I'm still not very mature. Maybe when I'm your age I'll see this all differently, though; who knows?