Do People Really Change?

Roadside Musings

Do People Really Change?


Can we truly become new people in this life? Who does the changing? An interview with an addiction expert sparks questions.

Do people really change? Can you be one person for most of your life and then will yourself to be someone else? And if you can, who is the “you” who wills this, and how does this “you” differ from the you it wills and the you it wills your current you to be? And what happens to the you you were when the new you is willed into being?

These are the kinds of questions I entertain daily. Pity me if you like, but I have fun nonetheless.

Let me personalize these questions a bit. I have been a compulsive overeater for most of my life. My parents, who were not food addicts, sent me to Camp Husky every summer and dragged me to the Husky Department at our local discount men’s clothing store each fall to buy suits for the Jewish High Holy Days. Husky was PC-speak for “fat.” I really wasn’t husky; I was fat: so fat that I was the fat kid the other fat kids picked on at Camp Husky.

For decades as the fat kid, I struggled to be a skinny kid or at least a regular-sized kid (whatever that is). I prayed to God, promised myself I would eat more carefully, and bought clothes two sizes too big to promote the illusion I was losing weight. But I wasn’t. (Today things are better: I buy clothes that are only one size too big.) Later in life I joined Overeaters Anonymous and learned how to eat more sanely. I did that and continue to do that, but have I changed? And, if I have, who changed me?

In OA we speak of turning our lives over to a Greater Power (some speak of a Higher Power) who will, through grace, lift our addiction from us. But who is it that turns my life over? Is it me? If I could turn my life over, I could turn my overeating off, couldn’t I? But I can’t. The “I” I take myself to be lacks this power. And if I am someone other than the compulsive overeater I take myself to be, who am I? And who is that fat guy masquerading as me?

These are the kinds of questions that came to me as I read Carrie Wilkens’ books Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change and the recently published Beyond Addiction Workbook for Family and Friends: Evidence-Based Skills to Help a Loved One Make Positive Change in preparation for our conversation on the Spirituality & Health podcast.

My own sense is this: I am not who I think I am. I think of myself as male, white, Jewish, etc. but the I that is aware of what I think isn’t thinking this at all. The I that is aware of the “label defined I” has no labels and is without definition. And that I is who I really am. This is the I that Hindus call Atman and Jews call Ehyeh. It is the only I there is.

Like a flowing river, this I is ever changing and yet always itself. This I isn’t husky or skinny, male or female, Jew or Gentile, sober or addicted. This I is what is: everything and nothing at the same time. Sadly, the I I think I am doesn’t know any of this. The True I doesn’t need Carrie Wilkens’ Beyond Addiction books. But the I I think I am does. And because it does, I am grateful she and her books are available to us.

Oh, yeah: Do people really change? I’m still thinking about this.

Listen to the podcast interview that sparked these questions.

Roadside Musings

In Roadside Musings, Rabbi Rami draws from the well of the world's religious and spiritual...
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Do People Really Change

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