Can people really change?

Reading NPR’ s app on my way to the office recently got me thinking about one of my favorite questions — whether people are really capable of change.

Terry Gross on WHYY’s Fresh Air did an interview about the new HBO series called “Enlightened,” and talked about that, among other things:

Can people really change? That’s the question Laura Dern and Mike White ask in their new HBO series, Enlightened, which premieres Monday night. The show features Dern as Amy Jellicoe, an ambitious executive who has a nervous breakdown at her workplace. She goes to a rehabilitation center in Hawaii, where she experiences an awakening.

White: “I think there are certain ways that people are always themselves, but I do think people change. I feel like that is the hopefulness I think the show tries to get at. … That’s a big question both Laura and I have discussed throughout the entire shooting and writing of the show, you know … how enlightened is Amy? If she’s just a fraud … and in the end …. hasn’t really grown, then I think it is a cynical show. I feel like we’re all human and nobody’s perfect, and we’re all sort of fumbling towards something better. But if we don’t believe that we can change or get over ourselves, it’s a pretty depressing resolution.”

Dern: “Mike so beautifully writes about incremental growth, and I think so many film writers want to tackle this enormous growth where this villain becomes a hero in the hour and half that we have with them. In the long form of this season, Mike has this opportunity of Amy having this longing for growth, and longing for some form of self-acceptance … So there’s this complicated and elusive journey toward growth that she takes.”

Listen to the Story

I probably wouldn’t write a blog about living life intentionally if I didn’t think people could change.
But I’m not sure if changing your actions means you’ve actually really changed.
I have developed an appreciation for traditional jazz, learned to love many international cuisines, gained at least a little more patience and cultivated new skills from piano to social media — but when I read my elementary school report cards a while back, they could have been my most recent job review. The same strengths, weaknesses and personality traits I work on today were present in 8-year-old me.
Have I changed if I’ve learned to cope with being a naturally forgetful person by making long, detailed lists and making a place to put everything so I don’t lose it? What about a recovering alcoholic who no longer drinks — that person’s life may look 180 degrees different, even if the desire and addiction still lurks.
I wonder how much we remain the exact same person at our core and simply refine the outward expression of our bundle of ticks and eccentricities, sort of like polishing a diamond makes it shinier but it had to be a diamond to begin with. Or are we in fact capable of real change, more like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon?

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5 replies

  1. Which, I forgot to add, is what I think your wonderful blog is about. Changing for the better, in conscious and meaningful ways. Making decisions instead of riding inertia. Choosing carefully what we can do in the very limited time that we have.

  2. As a pragmatic optimist, I definitely think we change. Logically, if we look at who we were when we were seven (full brain growth) and when we die, we are not the same person, personality-wise.

    But you’re right that the impulses, the way in which we solve problems, the desire and tolerance for interpersonal interaction–many of these things probably don’t change that much.

    So much of human striving is built on the basic need to change, to improve, to become better. It’s such a strong drive, I’m not sure if the right question is: ‘can we change?’ or ‘it’s impossible not to change, so how can we change for the better, and live life critically and thoughtfully’–to paraphrase ol’ Socrates.

  3. I think people grow, though our basic personality traits are quite steady. Human growth is much enhanced by success under crisis, and by social supports/instigators. I believe the scale of human growth is more along the lines of pupa to larva; it seems only the rare individual sticks it out for the butterfly stage.

  4. I changed a lot about ten years ago. I had a spiritual crisis and did a ton of reading and thinking about religion. In the end, I became a more hopeful, less bitter person, more willing to see the good in people and situations.

    I think people can change. The trick is, most people don’t want to. I certainly didn’t! Am I happy I did? Heck yes. But if you’d asked me beforehand if I wanted to change my whole way of looking at the world, I would have said no.


  1. Can people change? Part II, with input from friends « Newvine Growing — exploring evolution, revolution and living life intentionally

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