Saturday, September 1, 2012

On change, again

I've got two "Great Courses" lectures I have been listening to. One on Buddhism (what else?) and the other on Communications. The second topic is addressed in a more scholarly way than I had expected, talking about our subjective unconscious mind vs. our conscious mind and a number of experiments that help shed light on the way we perceive and communicate with others.

The Communications lecturer spoke briefly about self-fulfilling prophecies in the context of other people living up (or down) to our expectations of them. Here's a link to Professor Dalton Kehoe if you are interested.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are especially at work with our own children. The conscious and subconscious expectations we place on our children helps determine who they become, so watch out for them. That's not the whole story with children, by a long shot. I think that who children already are (even at birth) is the biggest determinant of who they become, and that is completely outside the control of parents.

It's easy to see the effect of our expectations on our interactions with adults, as well. If we act abrupt and condescending, we receive a much different reaction than if we greet another person in warm, positive ways. Look at the way that old grudges just never die, both between people and groups. It's because people treat one another in the same ways and anticipate the same problems and conflicts, year after year.

I notice the way we box other people in to the "schema" (mental preconception) we have formed and don't allow them to change over time. I guess it is the way our brain avoids hard work, but it's beneath the level of intelligence and compassion that we are capable of. Think of someone you dislike intensely, and the way you view that person. Do you leave room for that person to grow and change in significant ways? Do you look for that kind of change in others, anyone at all?

I think one of the most inspiring messages of Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" (which we watched last night again -- Andrew picking it out and seeing it for the first time) is that people can change in dramatic ways, at any age. Look at Eastwood's character, a bitter old racist who is transformed by the end of the movie. How realistic is that? Yes, it's a legitimate question. I think that the people who change are the ones who first, believe they can; and second, work very hard at it. It can take years -- but it also can happen in a moment of decision. (I think of Thomas Merton's decision to become a monk. He had the sudden conviction that he should become one, though he did have to go through his own spiritual desert to get there.)

Too many people receive the message from our society (parents, teachers, authority figures, their spouses, etc.), that they will never change. Period.

One of the freedoms that the Buddhist philosophy conveys is impermanence, the knowledge that nothing stays the same and everything changes. Rather than being a threatening message, this can also be an invitation to enjoy the adventure of life! Our lives and even our selves are a flowing river, constantly in motion. This moment is precious because it is fleeting. Pay attention to it!

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