I remember reading, some time ago, a tweet from a journalist I follow. He was about to turn thirty, and another journalist had given him this counsel: “Before you turn thirty, you’re full of promise. After you turn thirty, you are who you are.” William James, the eminent psychologist, said it another way: “In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” I remember sitting back at the time, a bit stunned–I was 28 at the time–wondering: is this true? Am I set, doomed to live what what I’ve got–a decent personality mixed with some pretty big character defects?
Another memory. On my mission, a prominent Seventy came to our mission. In a talk on agency and responsibility, he made an offhand comment that a missionary will never rise above the level of commitment and dedication they show on their missions, after their missions. The “never” really stunned me, as I didn’t consider myself the best missionary. But could I change? And would I ever change, if I didn’t now?
Both of these memories suggest that there may be a time in our lives when our character is somewhat cemented. (“Cemented”–what a word to use when describing our own nature.) And both memories have stuck with me, cemented in my mind. I’ve mostly refused to believe the latter quote I heard on my mission–after all, for the last decade I’ve been home from my mission, and I’ve refused to believe I can’t change! But now that I’m about to turn thirty (next month), the former quote has been weighing on me. Am I set in my ways? Am I fundamentally no longer “full of promise”? And what does that say, if anything, about the project of self-improvement–and the hold the Atonement ought to have over me?
Perhaps this last question is the scariest source of my anxiety: not only is there a concrete sense of anxiety that comes from an awareness of still deep flaws, flaws I’d really like to eliminate; but there’s the more-abstract-but-no-less-real question of, am I too set in my ways for the Atonement to have a fundamental hold on my character?
The answer to these questions are, I think, yes and no. And as thirty looms, this has been really important for me to come to terms with as I think about who I want to be in a decade. I want to make three points explaining my feelings.
First, agency is circumscribed. This is something I’ve become more and more convinced of: we have agency, but we cannot choose to change everything about ourselves, and what we can choose to change about ourselves.
First, what limits us? Think about all the things:
- Habits. For better and for worse, they’re difficult to break. This can be anything from mental habits (every time it’s crowded in the subway, I get frustrated) to physical habits (going to brush my teeth first thing in the morning), and much else besides.
- Genetics. There are genetic things that influence us (some would say determine us), like how the lipostat in our brain governs our weight. Weight’s easy to grasp, but things like happiness, our openness to new things, and even our political dispositions might be inheritable.
- Environment. We tend to “follow the scripts” set for us by the family we grew up with, our “family of origin.” For example, I’ve noticed that when I drive, I tend to mirror my dad in wanting to make comments about how bad drivers are. But knowing about our environment growing up can predict whether we believe in God, what our political party likely is, and how vulnerable we’re willing to be. And of course, our peers growing up, and our peers and environment now, can all influence us.
- Deep-set beliefs coupled with biases. What do we believe? How much do I believe that I control my own fate? (This is something scientists call the “locus of control.”) What do I think is involved in self-change? What do I believe about learning, about society, about religion, about people? Along with our basic beliefs, there are dozens upon dozens of cognitive biases–shortcuts that our brains make, that can trip us up if we’re not careful.
- Culture & Norms. Closely related to our environment, our society’s culture and norms can impact what we believe, and how we act. It’s difficult to act agains the norms, even if it’s healthy. For example, if our family has a culture of eating out indiscriminately and often, it can be difficult to break bad habits of eating.
The above list isn’t comprehensive, just suggestive. And the points overlap. But I think the overall point is clear: mortality is a mess. Some people are “luckier” in this constellation of environment, culture, beliefs, genetics, and habits than others. Some aspects of ourselves are probably more amenable to change than others. (For example, we might be able to change some habits, but not our entire personality.) And I think that warrants care when we set out to change ourselves and others.
I know a man who my family helped for a long time. This man–I’ll call him Rob–did not win the birth lottery. He was raised in a poor home; he did drugs for a long time; he had a criminal record that limited his employment; he had had several girlfriends; and was raising his son in joint-custody with his wife. His trailer was a mess, a fact I knew from spending time over there, helping clean it up. He always worked odd jobs. And he had been baptized a few years ago. We tried to help him change, and the church supported him for a while. But he kept making self-destructive decisions, no matter how much we tried to help him. I remember, as one of his home teachers, trying to explain the “Be Proactive” principle from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: the idea that he could change, that he just had to focus on what was within his influence. But he ended up, after all this help, back on the streets. Something fundamental about him could not, would not change. By thirty (or perhasp sooner), he was no longer full of promise; he just was who he was, seemingly fixed.
At the time, I couldn’t fathom why he wouldn’t change. Now, older and maybe a little wiser, I think–“there but for the grace of God go I.” Rob was born into a constellation of factors that severely limited his agency and–though it’s not my place to say–he may never be able to fundamentally change. Me? My mind has not been addled by drugs; I haven’t been saddled by a criminal past; I have a strong belief that my own actions, not my fate, determine my future; I have an introspective nature; and I believe in a God of grace. Perhaps I’m lucky: perhaps I possess a constellation of these same factors more capable of allowing change. Maybe I’m not so static as I seem. Perhaps this suggests a second point: some people are more capable of change than others. The fact that I’m sitting here, writing a blog post about it, might suggest I’m more capable of change than others. (Then again, maybe not.)
Which leads me to my third point: agency is circumscribed, but grace can transform, heal, and conquer. This is less empirical than a priori: I’m not basing this on empirical evidence as much as I’m deducing this from the theory of my own faith. But my religion counts for something, I think: I firmly believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ preaches that we can change. Maybe all the change I want and hope for will not happen in this life; maybe progress will happen in the world of spirits, and perhaps–just perhaps–we can even progress through kingdoms of glory, eternally. (There’s enough diversity of opinion among LDS leaders over time to warrant the belief.) But to whatever extent change can happen, eternal progression (and so eternal change) characterizes this life.
Is grace available to all? Well, in theory, yes: anyone can demonstrate faith and allegiance to our Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone can pledge their lives to God through covenant, and open up those wellsprings and channels of grace. But in practice, of course, there may be people–like Rob–who has been injured by mortality to such an extent that, at least in this life, they may never be able to fully reach out in faith. (Can I make that judgment call? Perhaps, perhaps not: I don’t think we should easily give up on anyone, although I’m sure there are cases where it’s for the best if we do.)
Terryl Givens likes to quote the original translation of 1 Nephi 13:32, which originally read “Neither will the Lord God suffer that the Gentiles shall forever remain in that awful state of woundedness [now blindness], which thou beholdest they are in…” Rob–and many others, including myself–are wounded. Perhaps it is our wicked environment, our injured culture, our wrong acquired habits, our genetics, and our false beliefs that inflict these very wounds. I think that, in some part, it is. And so Christ is our Healer, reaching out to heal our broken hearts and minds.
To summarize my own conclusions: our agency is circumscribed by things like genetics, environment, and culture; some people are more set in their ways than others; and yet for all of us (maybe), transformative grace and healing is within reach.
I suspect some lessons that emerge from this might be: we can change, but not all at once. We can change, but not all in this life. We can change, but not everything about us (personality–as defined by a psychologist–seems to be largely set, for example). We can change, but it takes effort and prioritizing. And we can change, but perhaps–as it was for Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”–we can’t always change what we wish we could, and some changes aren’t “meant to be” in this life.
Maybe the main lesson from all this is that we’re kind to others and to ourselves. Maybe that, and to recognize that deep and fundamental change is difficult, especially after thirty–and that any single change may require sustained attention, prayer, and thought. As I sit on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, and prepare to enter my fourth decade, I wonder what transformative leaps I can make. I want to have a better relationship with food. I want to write more. I want to learn to concentrate on my work better, and not give in to distractions. I want to learn some languages. All of these things will challenge me. But fundamentally, I believe–because of Christ, and because of His promises–that change is possible. And for that, I am grateful.