Two popular songs in the second half of the twentieth century have influenced entire generations, to this day, with a message we can call at least provocative: “Non, Je ne regrette rien” (“I do not regret anything”), crooned to us by Edith Piaf, and “My Way“, Frank Sinatra’s melodic boast.
But, beyond the emotion and stirred memories, the nostalgic, peaceful, or defiant experiences, and beyond the artistic recognition of these performances, some questions arise: If we were to start our lives over, would we really not want to change anything? If we are to be honest with ourselves, do we really love all our traits and actions to the point where we should never change?
In various social circumstances, among friends and colleagues, at anniversaries, I’ve heard this well-intentioned exhortation addressed to others and, several times, it has been addressed to me as well. Although I smiled, I became impatient on the inside: why should I “never change”, when it’s so obvious that I’m always making an effort to improve myself as a person?! I don’t even perceive myself as the same person I was ten years ago. Am I the only one that sees that I’m in a state of constant change?
Still, most people change, at least in some stages of life. Their personality is different from one stage to another. In fact, we are actually waiting for these staged changes: for the superficial young boy who spends his time playing games on the tablet to become a student responsible for his status and role, building a destiny; for the rebellious teenage girl who dreams of her own “independence day” to become a mother, concerned with the care and education of her children; for the novice teacher or the intern doctor to become experienced professionals who are useful to society.
Life shows us, therefore, that change still happens, but it tends to be for the worse—if we do not exercise intentional and diligent concern for change to be for the better.
So, in all these cases, not only is change to be expected, but it seems inevitable, due to circumstances. The exceptions, in the case of those who want to remain the same even though much around them is changing, are downright strange.
For example, it would be strange for the anti-system hippie student to keep their a priori beliefs and defiance, although the system itself has changed; or for the dashing city biker, covered in black leather from head to toe, not to notice that decades have passed since his first “banging ride”; or for the imitator of some extreme philosophers, who had promised himself that he would never work for others, not to realise that he was approaching retirement age with a non-existent pension, and so on.
Self-image and experience
I have met teenagers and young people who have told me: “It’s too late for me to change!”; “I don’t read what others have written so as not to influence me.”; “I don’t know what to say about myself… I don’t know what my highest goal in life is”, “I don’t admire anyone…” More often than not, the most significant personality changes happen in adolescence. That is why it’s preferable to make the most of this stage and be as realistic as possible in the development of our self-image.
No matter how good or bad our impressions are of our own physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual traits, and no matter how much we self-worship or belittle ourselves, we should wake up in time so as not to miss the chance that our life itself represents. We should wake up from narcissism or the clutter of complexes and reduce the area of self-ignorance, which, indeed, can be vexing at any age.
We can develop realism as we accumulate life experiences, with advancing age, through interactions with our peers, if we reflect enough on what is happening to us, we can extract the lessons and apply them. We can develop it by reading, travelling, or interacting with experienced, wise people from whom we can learn. In some situations, we can ask a psychotherapist for guidance, get a “coach” to motivate us, encourage us, and empower us. From them we can access an essential degree of realism that acts as an interface between the inner world and the surrounding world.
Another kind of realism
Still, realism in self-image development has two dimensions and it would be a fatal mistake, or blindness, to reduce it to one. There is the dimension of immanent, concrete, visible reality, which we seek to integrate into and be happy within, and the dimension of transcendent, abstract, unseen reality, in which we also aspire to integration and happiness, but with other means and forces than our own.
If we become aware, no matter how late in life, that the “equipment” of our own personality is ill-fit for adapting to that higher world, then we will decide that it is time to let ourselves be changed by the One who has this power, and has prepared for us both The Way and The Life. Only God does not change (Malachi 3:6) because He is perfect; but we must change, if we want to get close to Him—if we aspire to a kingdom so wonderful that our imagination, in our fallen nature, is unable to imagine it.
Comparing the two dimensions of realism in life, we can understand that often the purpose of adaptation to the immanent world can affect the aspiration to transcendence. Here is the crossroads of our choices: according to which destination do we want to be changed? What matters more: the appreciation of others, satisfying pride, maintaining appearances, or genuine change for heavenly citizenship?
Only then does the struggle with our ego begin: with defects that seemed to be qualities, with qualities that seemed to be defects, with temptations, mistakes, falls, recoveries, sins, good deeds, uncertainties, isolation, maladaptation, frustration, reward, punishment, opinions, a lack of communication, self-deception, revelation, restlessness, stillness, peace, and finally, His peace.
From this distance, looking back to the “times of ignorance,” you can truly perceive yourself as another person who has had the opportunity to look into a heavenly mirror and perceive their “filthy rags” (Acts 17:30; Isaiah 64:6). How exactly? I can only talk about the method I have experienced: that of giving myself a year to correct, one by one, my character flaws, my bad behaviour, or to cultivate a quality or behaviour God urges us to adopt.
Honesty towards ourselves and towards the whole universe forces us to strive to do everything in our power to separate ourselves definitively from the person we used to be.
As I became more aware of my negative traits (pride, the judgment of others, laziness, gossip, impatience, harshness, superficiality, and so on), I struggled to understand and internalise their opposite. A one-year interval—meaning 365 occasions—seems generous for achieving these goals, but the end of the year gives you the opportunity to contemplate your nothingness and vanity; to find that the years of your life are not enough for how many changes you have to make.
The results are, to this day, still unsatisfactory, but that does not mean that I would ever give up using the years I have been given for this purpose. There have been, and still are, countless failures, deceptive solutions, a loss of attention and focus on the proposed goal, neglect of my own weaknesses, the downplaying of challenges, and even a downplaying of divine help.
But, each time I learned that the moment of awareness of our own helplessness and unworthiness coincides with the moment of awareness of the greatest value of our being—that which is given by the incomprehensible love of God for each person. From there we must nourish ourselves to live now and to live in the unseen world. Only His appreciation and “compliments” are truly valuable because they bring Him joy: “Well done, good and faithful servant!… Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21, 23).
Corina Matei questions our desire and willingness to change, or be changed, depending on our self-image. Change must not be at random, but for the better, and not only for the world around us, but also for our transcendent, final destination.