Can People Really Change?
Psychologists would tell us that the personality of a child is basically formed within the first five or six years of life. All of the things that happen to a child from the moment of its conception to its experience of birth; from its first steps to its first words right up until the first day of school, all act to form who that child is going to be. After that the way it looks at the world confirms who it already is.
That is a rather bleak perspective on human nature but as we celebrate the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul we are asked to consider a different theory, a point of view that says that people can change, even change drastically, with God’s help.
Saul, an enemy of Christians, is on his way to Damascus for the purpose of capturing Christians and bringing them to trial. Along the way Saul is struck down by a blinding light and has a revelation of Christ asking why is he persecuting him. After this he loses his sight. Saul then has an encounter with a man, sent by God, named Ananias who restores his sight, immediately baptizes him and then introduces him to the Christian community of Damascus.
During his time with the Christians Saul begins to understand the teachings of Jesus. In what he learns he hears the voice of Christ and he knows that he cannot persecute him any longer. Soon he is preaching the Good News with the same fiery passion that used to inflict harm upon the followers of Christ. Part of the message that Paul, as he is now known, preaches is that people can change. There is hope for conversion, change is possible.
Granted, our biology and hard wiring make us very prone to hanging on to well-developed patterns of behaviour, even when they don’t do us any good. Ask an addict in the depths of their illness whether they think they can quit and you are likely to only get a blank stare masking the hopelessness that resides inside their withering minds. But even these can find their way back if they find their blinding light.
For an addict sometimes that light is a near death experience that brings a clear sense of the future, for others it might be the birth of child that stirs a protective instinct. And for some it is recognizing the true presence of God. The first and second step on the twelve step journey asks those in the throes of an addiction to recognise that they are helpless to end their addiction and that only in recognizing a higher power will they find the strength that they need. By doing this many discover the strength that they never knew they had and are able to kick the addiction which had owned their life.
But did Paul really change? Some might say that Paul did not change at all. The same zealousness with which he bragged about persecuting Christians was still in him, but now it had a new focus. Instead of killing, Paul was now preaching the Good News. Instead of persecuting Paul was healing. The psychologists might be right, perhaps our personalities are more or less set by the time we are a young child. But with God’s help we can see the world differently. We can open our eyes and see.
As for holding on to my faith when I am working with challenging people; I realize that the biggest conversion needs to be in me. Whether someone in need is willing or able to change doesn’t change the fact that I am called to see them through the eyes of compassion and love. They don’t need to change to be loved by me. I am the one who needs to change.