I believe it was the French author, editor, and flower aficionado of the 19th century, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr who said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Perhaps this is true of very superficial items. For example, I still wear the same clothing I wore 30 years ago, though a lot of it is very worn and often stained. My name is still the same, my features are still the same, though more weathered and old. You will still find that I live in CT.
However, there are profound ways in which I am not the same person that I was many years ago, and not only that, I am not even the same person I was a year ago or even last month. Yet, isn’t it somewhat annoying to find that in the minds and memories of the people who have known you, your image and your personality remain fixed in time as if since the last time you saw them time had stood still? It is most particularly annoying if the way they remember you isn’t that good.
For instance, when I was growing up I came from a particularly dysfunctional family. Instead of taking responsibility for that and doing something about it, my parents regularly went to the school system and complained about my bad behavior of getting Bs rather than As in school. While that was probably not the worst kind of behavior my teachers saw, I noticed how at a recent 40th reunion of my high school, the remaining faculty from my time there kept a distance from me as if fearing that the dark clouds that settled over me during my teenage years still remained.
In vain, I joked a bit and bantered. In vain I demonstrated qualities of character that were radically different than what I demonstrated as a public school student. For instance, I was barely able to maintain a conversation as a young person, but now I have become relaxed and approachable in a conversation, almost, if I may say so myself, an outright extravert. Yet these new qualities I’d developed over time subsequent to my childhood and youth completely escaped my former teachers. They had me down as trouble then and they were going to keep me there no matter what.
I will say that is a disappointment considering how hard I tried consciously to make positive improvements in my social skills.
I find the same situation exists when it comes to my brother and sister. As a child and into my teenage years, I tended to be a fairly inarticulate, shy, but sweet and gentle individual whom my siblings could quite easily bully. I tended to just forgive when my brother and sister took advantage of me, or I would try to brush their behavior off as unintentional. I absolutely adored my older brother whom I imagined myself close to since there was only a year and a half between us. Early pictures of us standing together with my brother’s arm over my shoulder show me looking up at him with a face full of love and admiration.
But you see, people treat you like garbage, the years go by, and experience has a habit of wiping looks like that off your face. You just don’t have that emotion any longer. Why? Because people do change.
Eventually, my brother, sister, and I all went off to college and continued on with our careers in different locations around the country. But when we came together for the many family reunions that occurred in the years before my father’s death, my brother still expected me to be the same old pushover that I used to be. It plunged him into a complete state of confusion when he found that time had gone by and I wasn’t that girl any more. At 60, he still expected me to be the same little girl he once knew when he was 18. The problem was, that little girl wasn’t there any more. That pretty much meant that I had no idea how to talk to him any longer, and he couldn’t think of what to say to me either. We were strangers moving around each other in circles that never connected.
My change in character dawned upon my father in the year before he died. We’d been having this conversation where I was explaining how excited I was at a deal I’d negotiated that turned out well for me. Right in the middle of my excited monologue, he suddenly interrupted me and said, “You aren’t weak at all; you are really a tough, strong individual, just the same as everyone else in this family.”
I think he meant that as a compliment, and it probably was, if you think cold, steely individuals are superior to sweet, loving and caring types of people. For my father, a holocaust survivor, strength and, I’ll admit, a certain amount of heartlessness, was essential to survival. I like to think that he wanted to see that quality in me not because he was kind of a mean person, but because he wanted me to live, to overcome the overwhelming obstacles life presents to us, ones that can break us and destroy us.
My other interpretation of him is that he simply had contempt for the weak–my mother always said that if my Dad hadn’t been a Jew, he would have been a great Nazi–and as long as he saw my nature as weak, he saw no purpose to my existence. These are very harsh judgments. But they are the kind of judgments I grew up with, the ones that sculpted my personality and make me the kind of person I am today.
And yes, people see me often as hard and unemotional. Some of the people who interact with me in my social justice work will often say, “Why can’t you just be nice?” The fact is, I simply have no time for nice. Nice does not achieve results, nice does not live to fight another day, nice does not get the job done. So I have no time for nice. As soon as people start to get all emotional, I tend to shut off, and only come back and pay attention when the conversation returns to questions such as what can we do about this? What solutions can we craft to resolve the problem?
Why am I this way? Because life has taught me that the expenditure of a lot of emotion is pretty much a waste of my time.
As I have said, I wasn’t always this way. It took betrayal to make me the way I am today. It took my observation on a repeated basis of how those who like to think of themselves as good people turn their backs on the poor and vulnerable, particularly protective mothers and their children before I began to add two and two together. I realized that our culture operates on the basis of total self interest and the acquisition of money. Sometimes it seems as though everybody is for sale; everyone has a price.
This doesn’t mean I go around like a prickly hedgehog stabbing people with my spines right and left. But it does mean that I am cautious. As many people know, I went through a devastating six year divorce and custody battle. I am a different person now than I was before my divorce, less loving and less trusting. At the same time, I am more effective when it comes to social activism because the process I went through honed my intellectual skills and taught me how to speak about the values that I believe in.
In the course of life’s battles, it is true that there are many precious and irreplaceable qualities of character that we lose, but then there are the ones we gain as well, so it all is somewhat of a trade off.
What gets me, however, is when I run into a person I once knew in the years before my divorce, and they expect me to be the same gullible person that I was then, and they try to pull the same shit that once worked on me. It’s like, seriously, you think I am that dumb, you think that I am so incapable of learning better, that 20 years later you’re going to try to pull the same old tricks on me and get away with it? That’s not how it works, baby, not at all. When you pick up an irreplaceable Chinese vase that is 2000 years old and smash it on the floor, trust me, it remains smashed. Only an idiot would think otherwise.
People do change. People do not stay the same. They lose what once was, sometimes even those features that fundamentally defined who they were, and they move on and become other than they were. You want to hope that if they were basically good people that the goodness will remain, perhaps in another form, but sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes individuals become bitter and vengeful and take on a mission to pay the world back.
However the story goes, the passage of time and changing circumstances affect us all. It is that capacity for change that distinguishes us most particularly as unique creatures in this lonely universe of ours.
So when you go back to your high school reunions, when you return for those college reunions, when you run across some work colleagues you haven’t seen for years, don’t insult them by acting as if nothing has changed, or as if you don’t see anything different about them. Time doesn’t stand still for anyone. So show some respect and note the change, particularly if you played a role in creating some of the scars you observe. You’ll be a better person for it.