You Are Not Who You Were

You Are Not Who You Were 2.jpg

Chalice Lighting

We gather in this place
A place of comfort
A place of challenge
A place of commitment
And a place of transformation
By this light, may we be changed and grow to be the people we long to be
People who care and who help and who rail against oppression
People who are filled with compassion and respond to hate with love
People who can move this world toward peace and toward justice.

Reading: Dan Gilbert, TED talk 2014

At every stage of our lives we make decisions that will profoundly influence the lives of the people we're going to become, and then when we become those people, we're not always thrilled with the decisions we made.

So young people pay good money to get tattoos removed that teenagers paid good money to get. Middle-aged people rushed to divorce people who young adults rushed to marry. Older adults work hard to lose what middle-aged adults worked hard to gain. Why do we make decisions that our future selves so often regret?

One of the reasons is that we have a fundamental misconception about the power of time. You know that the rate of change slows over the human lifespan, that your children seem to change by the minute but your parents seem to change by the year.

But what is the name of this magical point in life where change suddenly goes from a gallop to a crawl? Is it teenage years? Is it middle age? Is it old age? The answer, it turns out, for most people, is now, wherever now happens to be.

All of us are walking around with an illusion, an illusion that history, our personal history, has just come to an end, that we have just recently become the people that we were always meant to be and will be for the rest of our lives.

Message Part 1 by Rev Andy Pakula

L’Shana Tovah! L’Shana Tovah literally means ‘good year.’ It is a traditional greeting for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which is tomorrow. In just about every tradition and culture, there are days like Rosh Hashanah when people take stock of the previous year or so. We might do the same thing with any big life transition - a new job, getting married, suffering a loss, graduating, retiring, or ending a relationship.

We seem to long for these opportunities to look back and to look forward. We use such times to consider what we’ve done and how it compares to what we wish we had done. It might be as simple as wanting to exercise more, drink less, meditate regularly, or lose a bit of weight.

But our review of the past and look toward the future can lead us to conclusions that cut deeper than that. We may find ourselves wanting to act differently to those around us, differently in the world, differently in how we respond to problems, differently in how open we are to new experiences, or differently in how self disciplined we are. So, not only might we think about our actions in the past and decide to change a few things around the edges. We may actually compare who we have been to who we want to be.

We think about change. Small change and large. Superficial change of actions and deeper change in the way we are in our lives. These big changes in year or circumstances can prompt us to imagine starting anew. We may resolve to put behind us the behaviours or ways of being that didn’t serve us well and adopt those that promise to make things better.

And so we go into this new time or this new place or new job or new relationship or new phase of life. At first, it feels like we’ve really turned a page. Everything feels fresh and new. Do you know that feeling? In a new situation, your email inbox is clear. There are no projects you’ve started and left hanging. Your desk is clear. You’ve had no quarrels with your colleagues - you’re not even irritated by their habits yet! You haven’t missed a day of exercising, drank too much, overeaten, or got anxious or depressed.

And then, before we know it, upon that clean new page we find exactly the same writing as on the old pages. Your coworker turns out to be annoying. The beer was irresistible. The inbox is packed. Your desk looks just as bad as it did before the change.  The relationship problems we thought we left with the ex appear anew. The work challenges we were sure were the fault of a bad boss or bad coworker in a previous job reappear in a completely new setting. The patterns we thought we left behind reappear. It’s disheartening to recognise that we haven’t changed in the ways we’d hoped.

Change is hard. Is it harder than hard? Is it impossible? Can we change at all? Sure, we know we can change some behaviours. Sometimes, we really do succeed in drinking less or exercising more. We might even keep our inboxes clear - at least for a while. But is all our hope of being able to change in more profound ways completely unrealistic?

For many years, researchers threw cold water on the prospect of deep-seated change. They concluded that, after adolescence, our core personality traits are fixed and nearly unchangeable. More recently, new studies have suggested that this claim is incorrect - that we can, in fact change in major ways. Some studies have even concluded that relatively short periods of therapy - therapy of almost any kind - can result in significant and long-live changes in our personalities. Other events and transitions in our lives do change us.

The comments from Dan Gilbert we heard a few moments ago point to something fascinating about how people tend to think about change in their own lives. We can recognise the vast change that has taken place in our lives in the past but when we look toward the future, the average person tends to imagine that there will be no more change coming - that who were are now is who we will always be.

Reading: Transformation, Naturally: Theresa Novak

Did your lungs burn with that very first breath?
Was your skin tender as old scales
Were rubbed away
On the rocky shore?
You crawled from the sea
On new legs
Searching for food
For something new.
Was your body worn and tired?
Your vision blurred,
Your hopes vague?
Transformation is never easy.
A new butterfly
Has damp and fragile wings
Before it learns to fly.

Message Part 2 by Rev Andy Pakula

Take a moment to think back in your life. Think back 10 years. Where were you? What were you doing? What occupied your thoughts? What did it feel like to be you then? If you’re old enough for it to make sense, think back 20 years in the same way. Some of it will probably be the same as it is today - you may still have many of the same kinds of reactions in the world, but have things changed in important ways? Have you changed? What precipitated big and deep-seated change?

I’ll say it again: Change is hard. If you try to initiate it just by force of will alone, it’s almost unimaginably hard. Change often comes when circumstances prompt or force it. I’ve changed in times of personal crisis. I’ve changed through therapy. I’ve changed by being married and working through the years to negotiate a relationship with another changing person.

I’ve changed as a result of becoming a parent. I’ve changed from having a dog and all of the joys and challenges and demands he brought about. My most obvious change came about in my midlife transition - a pretty major change in situation by any measure - going from biotech scientist and executive to ministry. Even then, it was not something I could initiate all on my own. That change, for me, was not in any way easy or predictable. There were many factors involved. Some had their effect over a period of several years. Others - like getting fired with no warning by a person I thought was my friend - came out of the blue like a two-by-four to the head.

In retrospect and looking over a long sweep of time some might offer the platitude that ‘when one door closes, another one opens.’ Sure - that slammed door can force an openness to change that would not otherwise have been present but the metaphor is too gentle. The modification that rings more true to me is that ‘when one door closes another door opens - but it’s hell in the hallway.’

The long slow change coupled with the big shock helped to send my on my journey. The journey itself - as my wife can tell you - was anything but gentle. I was buffeted about like a leaf on turbulent waters. Just when I thought I was heading in a particular direction, I was spun around, pressed under the water, unable to breath before reemerging for a moment of calm followed by another whirlpool.

I had to give up so much. The worst of it was a sense of my own identity. Who was I if I was not an acknowledged success in something? Who was I if I did not have a job to go to every day? Who was I if I didn’t have a good title and a substantial paycheck? It would be hard to overemphasize what disorientation and pain this all caused me. Change can be like this.

Did I really change? Did I change in deep ways or is it just the situation that is different? I don’t know if my core personality traits changed - maybe not. But so much else did change. The settings, the values, the beliefs, the attitudes, and the structures became radically different. Having meaningful work to do and an orientation to people instead of profit was a tremendous shift. In some ways I feel the same - some of my reactions and ways of being have not changed. Something feels to be core to who I am. But so much did change. In many many ways, I truly feel like a different person.

Researchers would agree. Even if there is an unchangeable core to who you are, you can change and change dramatically. So many influences both around you and within you can change the way you are and - more fundamentally - the way you feel in going through your life.

Positive change is possible. It may come with struggle but it can come. You can be more the person you want to be with the right support and environment and commitment. L’Shana Tovah. May this be a good new year for you filled with the change you hope for.

May it be so.

Closing Words

Life is change
It has happened for you and it will continue
May our coming together be a force for positive change
For change that leads us toward growth for ourselves
And a brighter future for our world