Don Quixote and the Woman in the Mirror

For us to transform as a society, we have to allow ourselves to be transformed as individuals. And for us to be transformed…we have to allow for the incompleteness of any of our truths and a real forgiveness for the complexity of human beings.
ANGEL KYODO WILLIAMS

I wasn’t going to write about this. But the subject keeps coming up for me: this idea of a fixed personality.

In my Facebook feed today I saw two articles with tips for identifying psychopaths – one for doing so on a Zoom call. Another article about recognizing narcissists. I think it’s funny that I see these almost immediately after listening to a podcast about how people tend to weaponize “critical thinking” skills (e.g. logical fallacies) when they learn them – rather than applying the knowledge as an exercise in self-reflection.

Critical thinking becomes nothing more than a tool to win an argument.

I’m not sure what one wins by labeling people on Zoom calls as psychopaths. I didn’t read the articles, because I still have a tendency to assume everyone apologizing for their own behavior is doing so to gently reprimand me for mine. When someone says, “Oh, I’m sorry I interrupted,” I immediately assume that I interrupted them. I might be paranoid. I might also have been hanging out with a lot of passive aggressive people over the years.

But I have to admit, apropos passive-aggressive people: it is so difficult not to get sucked into finding fault in others. It can give me a sense of purpose and a sense of security. Not to mention the personal satisfaction of having a nearly supernatural ability to know how the minds of other people really work.

I can feel like a medieval priest exposing the devil in the heart of the congregation’s wisest crone, wealthiest man, beautiful young mother. Righteous. It is weirdly comforting to see enemies all around.

It’s also exhausting raging at windmills.

I suppose there’s an irony in the fact that I believe people throughout history have not changed, yet I believe people themselves do. I believe we are what we do, and that habits are hard to break – but not fixed. There are so many studies on personalities, but how many people in the world have picked up and left an established life to begin again in an entirely new context?

Confirmation bias. Negativity bias. Unreplicated results. Cultural myths.

Don’t get me wrong: I accept science. I believe in the value of accepting (and acting upon) our best knowledge of the mechanics/logic/patterns of our universe at our point in time/context/space. But I believe we may not even have the ability to objectively observe other creatures, much less our own species.

I also believe in change.

After 22 years together, my ex-husband told me, “I am who I am.” He said he didn’t want a divorce, but he also said he didn’t believe he could change. It felt like I was simultaneously being accused of having an unstable personality, while expected to adjust it to align better with his.

My ex is a loving and kind man. This is not an assignment of blame. But surely over those 22 years we both made choices to change or not to change our habits as the context of our lives changed. It is one thing to say, “I’m not the kind of person who eats broccoli” and another to say, “I am choosing not to eat broccoli because I didn’t like it in the past.” I don’t think self-awareness means having to dismiss previous life experiences out of hand, but it does mean taking responsibility for the reality of choice.

It’s a cliche, after all: not choosing is in itself a choice. Conscious or not. I consciously chose to end a marriage. Not everyone does.

I read once that prisoners in America often find God – whether they do or not – because many of the people in charge of determining their sincerity in terms of “rehabilitation” don’t believe people can change but by divine intervention.

I often wonder how much leaving my family of origin has changed me. How much leaving my country, my culture, my language has changed me. I know that the way I speak changes my personality so drastically that my ex was once furious with me for being “so fake” when we hung out with a woman I met who also came from Southern California. He claimed it wasn’t just my accent – it was all of me that changed. But, while he accused me of putting on an act, I was completely unaware of even picking up the very old accent I’d once used habitually. I have no idea what other habits I may have picked up again in those moments – no doubt that some of them were ugly. I have compassion for who I once was, but can’t say I liked her much either.

It’s easy to slide into old habits. But that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. It is possible to grow through the discomfort of stopping and choosing.

And there is something very comforting about knowing that the man I married at 27 wouldn’t have been attracted to the girl I was at 13.

For so many reasons.

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