My mother and I were on the phone last week when we had one of those watershed moments. You know the sort? Where you suddenly learn a very big thing about the other person. And you come to understand that the language you’ve been using over the course of your whole lifetime has been mismatched and misunderstood and now that you know you’ve been using opposite words to describe the same experience, you can, you know, start to get on the same page.
In the wake of our watershed moment we both sat silent on the phone, before my mother said, I don’t like this one thing about myself. And I said, Well, yeah. I think that’s something you can change.
For a while the story that defined my family, or eclipsed all the other stories was my change--or rather, my need to change. And there are still moments when I am rendered breathless by the guilt of this. But while I was busy changing, I watched as my family changed--both as individuals, and as a unit--for the better.
If I had to break down the world into two types of people, it would go like so:
1. those that accept that who they are is a moving-target, an ever-changing thing, who are willing to adapt.
And then 2. those who say are who they are and there’s nothing to be done (and this is usually said in response to some negative characteristic like stubbornness, anxiousness, or lack of emotional empathy).
I really, really don’t like the latter group. I think when people define who they are by their worst qualities, when they claim those characteristics as immutable and unchanging, they are are excusing themselves of the personal responsibility of facing themselves.
And well, frankly, that is not good enough.
I think, that if we let them, the worst things can transform us, as opposed to define us.
But when a nation or a document or a religion or a person become rigid and unyielding we've got a problem. And I'm pretty sure Darwin did quite a lot of work to prove that.
In Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, she tells the following story:
“The Indians around here tell a cautionary fable about a great saint who was always surrounded in his Ashram by loyal devotees. For hours a day, the saint and his followers would meditate on God. The only problem was that the saint had a young cat, an annoying creature, who used to walk through the temple meowing and purring and bothering everyone during meditation. So the saint, in all his practical wisdom, commanded that the cat be tied to a pole outside for a few hours a day, only during meditation, so as to not disturb anyone. This became a habit – tying the cat to the pole and then meditating on God – but as years passed, the habit hardened into religious ritual. Nobody could meditate unless the cat was tied to the pole first. Then one day the cat died. The saint's followers were panic-stricken. It was a major religious crisis – how could they meditate now, without a cat to tie to a pole? How would they reach God? In their minds, the cat had become the means.”
There’s something about that story now that feels tremendously important. Like the issue of guns in this country is the cat. That people think, but this is who we are, this is part of our makeup, this is what makes us the nation we are. And well, no. I think that’s wrong. I think that’s really, really wrong. I think the pursuit of freedom has been confused for the right to wield assault rifles and I am deeply, deeply ashamed of that misunderstanding.
David Brooks writes in his book The Road to Character that “The most important thing is you are willing to engage in a moral struggle against yourself.”
Which I think means, engaging in a constant dialogue of, can we better?
And I think the answer to that--as a nation, is quite, quite clear.