Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How do people change?

A question that never strays too far from my mind is this: How do people change?

I have been reflecting on this question recently in light of the bombardment of messages that we receive on a daily basis, from all spheres of life. Out of self-protection, I think, we have to close our ears to most of them, which means that we are not open to having our minds changed by the vast majority of things we hear and people who say them. That's important to recognize. You are not available to most of the messages that you hear. You may ignore them, you may disagree with them, you may get defensive to them, or you may become angry about them, and those responses indicate that you are closed to what you are hearing. Sometimes I wonder if it would be more helpful to say "I'm not open to that message or that person" rather than debating endlessly over the topics that are raised.

It's a good thing to be closed. In order to be open to being changed by a few things, you must be closed to a lot more things, especially those things that seem harmful or wrong to you. But what makes a message actually stick, to get inside of us and change us? What causes us to start thinking, feeling, and acting differently?

I am convinced that real change happens in relationship. More specifically, in relationships that are built on trust and mutual listening. If I fundamentally don't trust a person, then I'm going to be extremely suspicious of anything that they say. If a pastor preaches the best sermon ever uttered in the history of Christendom, but I don't trust him, then I'm not going to believe it. A few years ago, I encountered a survey that reported that congregations are convinced they are hearing the Word of God preached based on their level of relationship and trust with the preacher. The more they knew and trusted the pastor, they more they believed her sermons were the spoken words of God.

Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, a renewed debate about gun control has stormed in this country, and I think very rightfully so. In political spheres, in social media, and in public venues people are debating the issue with passion and vitriol. My good friend Mike, new father to a little girl, couldn't sleep the night after the devastating news. He was shaken by the event, but also disillusioned with the way people debate hot button political issues. He came up with a plan. He would think of a person in his life who owned a gun and he would call that person, tell him his feelings about Newtown from the perspective of a new father, and ask him if he would consider getting rid of his gun. He called this man and had a constructive and honest conversation with him. And then through social media he encouraged others to do the same thing.

Even with the effectiveness and reach of media these days, the vast amount of information available for any issue you want to consider, and the power of the court of public opinion, I believe that the context of interpersonal relationships is still where most people change. When I float my thoughts into internet space, I rarely see how it affects anyone else. But when I see how my actions and words affect another person whom I love, and I see how their face and voice change in relationship to what I do and say, then I am far more likely to be different.

I would go so far as to say that people are more likely to change when they know they will still be loved if they don't. You can't compel or threaten people into change. That might lead to temporarily modified behavior but not true inner and outer life change. Love is what changes people. We need to know that the relationship, and the love that binds it together, is bigger than a particular issue, whether personal or political. We need to have people who will let us process and work through our challenges, doubts, and struggles without scorning or judging us if we don't agree with them. We need people who will respect our otherness and not try to achieve some forced, superficial conformity. We need people who will listen to us and let us be where we currently rather are, rather than impatiently trying to rush us to where they would like us to be.

True change occurs only when we know we are loved.