If our culture didn’t believe so much in tales of redemption, what would Hollywood have left to make movies about?
You’ve seen that movie. You’ve read the book. They boy mistreats the girl. He doesn’t appreciate her. He takes her for granted. He has some serious weakness — an addiction to booze or pills or work or sex or ego — which causes him to risk everything he has.
Then something happens. It might be a dramatic speech. It might be the pain of losing the girl or his family. In some variations, it’s a religious experience. But the dramatic thing happens. He’s at his lowest. He realizes he’s been a terrible person and hurt people. In the climactic scene — frequently in front of many others as witnesses — he confesses what a wretch he’s been. He promises to change. She takes him back.
Cue the dramatic music. Roll the credits. It’s another happy ending.
This is the story we want to believe, because we’re desperate to lie to ourselves. We want to believe we can treat people badly and have those people forgive us and take us back — if we just promise to change. We want to believe the people we have loved will suddenly become what we’ve wanted them to be — if they’ll only promise to change. We want to believe we can make terrible decisions and then have life magically change to deliver the Hollywood ending we’ve been promised. We want to believe there are no tradeoffs. We want to believe we can have it all.
But it’s all a lie. The truth is that human beings rarely change in fundamental ways.
I’ve been thinking about this because the wife of someone I know was recently sent away — again — for rehab from an addiction to pills and alcohol. She casually used recreational drugs when my friend met her in high school. It was common in their circle of friends and it wasn’t considered a big deal.
They married and had two little girls. She gave up the drugs and alcohol, but she kept sliding back toward them. Over and over again, there was a pattern. She did something to get herself into trouble — financially, physically and legally — and she would promise her husband she had learned her lesson. She would never touch any drugs again.
But she’s back in rehab after another experience and more promises to change.
Am I cynical when I say I don’t expect her to change this time? No. I’d love her to make it this time, for the sake of her husband, for herself and mostly for her precious daughters.
But the evidence I see suggests people almost never change. That includes me — and it includes you.
Redemption is the central story of much of our culture. It’s true of pop culture and it’s true of our religions. Commit yourself to change and you’ll get that Hollywood ending. God will save you. Love will envelop you. Peace can be yours. All because you promise to change.
Does this mean there’s no hope for any of us?
I think we can find redemption, but it doesn’t work the way we’re taught it works. It’s not magic — and it involves far more than words. Most of all, it involves confessing what we are and making realistic plans to live in new ways while our flaws still exist inside.
The most dangerous people are those who won’t admit they have a dark side. They’re the people who don’t admit to any substantive flaws or dangerous desires. Those who truly believe they’re “good people” are easiest to lead astray, because they make excuses for themselves — no matter what they do.
The other extreme are those who say, “This is just who I am, so you have to accept it.” These people know they hurt others. They know they hurt the people they love, but they excuse their behavior by simply saying they can’t change. They know they have darks parts inside, but they justify those things and give themselves permission to indulge those dark desires and habits.
So is there no alternative?
I think the only solution is simple to understand but difficult to implement. It involves honesty and vulnerability — with ourselves and with someone else — about what our flaws and temptations are. But it involves putting pride aside and saying, “I know I’ve hurt you and I know this part of me is wrong to lead me to act this way. This will always be part of who I am inside, but with your help, I want to learn to act in more loving ways — ways that will express love and caring as you need it — even though the darkness will remain.”
Most people who go through counseling never change. Many people are there strictly because they want to avoid a partner leaving. Or because they want a therapist to accuse the partner for them. Many people are in counseling to find a way to force the rest of the world to change — so they can remain exactly as they are.
People don’t change. Their basic personalities and ego and dysfunction are settled early in life — for the most part — in my observation. But people can learn adaptive behavior. They can learn how to know themselves better. They can learn to be honest and vulnerable. They can learn to quit being so combative with those they claim to love. They can learn how to interact in emotionally healthy ways which allow them to get the love and intimacy they need.
Focusing on changing who you are at the core is doomed to failure. You’re not going to change. I’m not going to change, either.
But we can learn how to interact with each other. We can learn how to stop hurting each other. We can learn to put our pride aside and trust the people we love to walk through this process with us.
Even though we’re never going to really change — we’re all always going to have darkness that hides inside — we can find redemption. We can save the relationships that matter to us. We can live a life filled with love and meaning.
Don’t aim to change who you are. Don’t aim to change who someone else is.
Instead, choose a partner who is as committed to love and emotional growth as you are. Grow together. Learn how to adapt. Learn how two people can gently and lovingly help each other to overcome hidden darkness that will always be there.
You’re not going to change, but with the right love in your life, you can find peace and meaning and understanding. In a very real way, you can find redemption. It just won’t look anything like a Hollywood ending.