Sunday, January 24, 2021

Growth vs. Change

As always, all names are pseudonyms...

Whoa, it's been 5 months since my last update! Well, a lot has been going on. For one thing, I'm almost finished the first draft of a novel that I hope to eventually publish. I am shooting for the end of the month (that is, in a week!) to have this draft finished. I've been trying on and off to write about this particular set of characters since the end of 1996, and it never got anywhere beyond a series of crappy and disjointed episodes. Well, this time it finally has, and I think I have a solid story in the works.

Now onto today's topic: growth vs. change. A couple weeks ago, I was talking on Zoom to Chuck, a counselor from my 1997 Israel trip with whom I reconnected last year. We have been chatting pretty regularly (usually once a month) since we reconnected at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked him if he remembered a particular time when the counselors led an "obscene sculpture contest" on the beach of a kibbutz we were staying at. He said he did, and I asked him whose idea it was. He admitted, "It might have been mine." Now that I think about it, I seem to recall that it might have been the idea of this other counselor who was a real smartass. But hardly the point. I laughed and said something like, "If only your kids knew. When you're a kid you like to think that your parents are these boring 'proper' people but you eventually learn that they did all the same ridiculous things that you did." Chuck laughed and said, "I really haven't changed since then. I'm still the same guy. It's just that now I'm a parent."

I was glad to hear somebody, anybody, say that. I reflexively cringe at phrases like, "People change" and "relationships change" especially when talking about someone who gets married and has kids. It's as if when someone gets married and has kids they're expected to be replaced by a pod person who has nothing to do with the person they once were. I associate these phrases with people having ditched me, sometimes inexplicably, including at least one time that involved ghosting. When I was a kid, my mom said "relationships change" and "people change" when I was in ninth grade and my "friends" caved into peer pressure and turned their backs on me. She said the same thing when I was 27 and Melanie, my best friend for more than half my life, ghosted me without explanation and didn't invite me to her wedding. Actually, she said it every single time a friendship came to a sudden end. These phrases carry horrible baggage for me, because the message I ended up getting was, "These people outgrew you. And their erratic actions were normal in response to someone like you."

Because the reality is that I haven't changed, and I told Chuck as much. And it's true: I still have the same interests as I did 23 1/2 years ago. I'm still irreverent. I'm still tomboyish/androgynous. Hell, I still think about a lot of things the same way as I did decades ago. Once, in 2015, I was telling someone a story about a conflict I had gotten into with my mother when I was in high school. Later, I found a school journal entry I had written right after the incident happened in 1998. The same points I made when defending my perspective in 2015 were all outlined in the journal entry, all with eerily similar wording. It didn't matter that 17 years had passed since the incident; I was still thinking about it in almost exactly the same way, right down to how I phrased things.

That isn't to say I haven't grown. I had a lot of issues in the summer of 1997 (and around then) but now they are largely under control. I had poor executive functioning in that I would say stupid things and regret them a nanosecond after they were out of my mouth (the "lacking a filter" issue common to people on the spectrum). I had extremely high anxiety and had a lot of meltdowns. Part of the issue was that back then autism was only used to describe people like the eponymous character in the 1988 film Rainman; I wasn't diagnosed until 2003. These issues have largely resolved with time, my growing understanding of the issues, and a whopping dose of SSRIs (which I've been on since 1999, the second half of my senior year of high school). I still have anxiety about certain things. I still have the occasional meltdown, but it's very rare and only in very specific circumstances. When it happens I am usually alone or dealing with my family. I have a good relationship with them, but the reality is we carry a lot of baggage and it sometimes comes to the surface and sets me off. As for the "filter", it usually does what it's supposed to, but I'm not perfect. I'd like to think that I've grown since then, and I believe I have.

"Oh, but see, isn't that change?" No, it isn't. Why? Because, my dear, what I described are adjustments, alterations to certain behaviors, not changes of who I am at my core. I'm still a smartass. I'm someone who will stand up on a chair in a restaurant and do the Pee-Wee dance when the song "Tequila" comes on. It's just that I'm more discriminating in terms of where I do these things; the "Tequila" incident was in a Manhattan restaurant with friends-- this sort of thing happens in public spaces in New York City quite a bit, so it's more acceptable there. I realize that I may be debating a semantic issue, but that doesn't mean that semantics are irrelevant. I'm older and wiser but, bottom line, I'm still me

So when should the word "change" be used instead of "growth"? I think when somebody's core persona changes. To use an extreme example, let's look at Frank Meeink, the former skinhead whose life loosely inspired the 1998 film, American History X. He was entrenched in an ideology that informed every aspect of his personality and his life. He even went to prison because he almost killed somebody. In prison, he found himself in sober reflection after interacting with black inmates on a regular basis. Today he is a changed man, and regularly educates people on the poison of racism and white supremacy.

I guess the word "change" also has more baggage with me, not just because of my mom's comments about people "changing" and relationships "changing", but also because over the years many people implored me to change, carrying the implication that there was something horribly defective about me: parents, teachers, peers, you name it. More then a few times when I had a social setback that was ultimately the result of an honest mistake and not rooted in maliciousness, someone said, "You could look at this as a positive opportunity to change."

"And my answer to that," to quote Bill Maher in one of his routines, "is fuck you."

And really, I was thinking about the issue of growth vs. change when I was in high school. My stance on it hasn't changed since then.

Why should it?

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