True Change

Several years ago, my mom hosted a wedding shower for my cousin, who was going to be married a few months from then. Mom had asked several of the married women in attendance to share some short advice. I don’t remember most of the suggestions, but I’ve never forgotten what one of the ladies said in the midst of discussing how to make a marriage work: “The only person you can change is yourself.” That phrase still strikes me as incredibly profound, and here’s why.

I have always been the type of idealistic person who ascribes to the philosophy that each of us has the ability to change the world. Maybe it’s not the whole globe; it could be just the little corner that we live in. We can influence people and “leave the world a better place than the way we found it”, as Elizabeth Gaskell said. Ultimately, that is the most important thing we can do in life, as George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life” (one of my favorite movies) discovered. We might have big dreams of things we personally want to do and see and learn, but in the end, what matters most is the lives we touched and made a little bit better.

I still believe all of that, but I confess that sometimes it seems like an intimidating responsibility. And it is, if you think about it in terms of having to make other people change. What if they’re stubborn? What if they don’t want help? What if they never quite get to the place that you wish they would? If you don’t change enough people or don’t change people enough, have you failed in life? You can see the constant stream of questions and uncertainty that results from this mindset.

That’s where that wonderful phrase comes in: “the only person you can change is yourself”. It’s simple, but difficult for us to grasp. Are we really that helpless that we can’t change anybody? Well…yes. Think about it: we can certainly influence people’s thoughts, actions, and beliefs, sometimes unintentionally. We can help other people by giving advice, offering suggestions, and lending a hand. In mentoring roles, we hope to help shape a person through ideas, insight, and encouragement. Leaders get to direct the general actions of their followers. And parents have the awesome responsibility of training up their children in the way they should go, which involves all of the above plus some discipline in cases that require “behavioral adjustment”. But none of these things are actually changing the person – guiding them, yes, but not changing them.

To prove the point, there are many variations of the phrase “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” The essential message of this is while you may be able to change everything around a person, you can’t change what’s inside them. You can tell someone what to do, but you can’t make them do it. You can tell someone what to think, but you can’t literally change their mind.

This is both frightening and comforting. We can’t control nor change anyone else. This leaves us with only one thing we can control and change: ourselves. In a sense, this is a really good thing. It tells me that what really matters is not how other people act, but how I respond to it. I can’t control what they’re going to do or say or think; I can control what I do, say, and think. And since I’m stuck with me for the rest of my life, I get to improve myself as much as I want! Such infinite possibilities lie within that that sometimes I get excited.

For me, there are two important messages inside this whole idea. The first is that since I can’t change other people nor is it my responsibility to do so, my task in life becomes a whole lot simpler. All that’s left for me to do with other people is to love and bless them. Sometimes love means confronting, giving advice, mentoring, and speaking the truth gently but firmly, in the hopes of influencing people. But because I can’t control their response to any of that, the pressure of feeling like I have to change someone else disappears.     

Secondly, as egotistical as this might sound, sometimes the most loving gift you can give someone else is to be the best “you” possible. By this I mean that as you work on yourself, changing and rearranging things in your life, dropping bad habits and developing good ones, and lightening your general attitude and responses to situations, other people will be blessed. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” This is just one of many examples in which our response can help soften someone else’s.

I think it’s fair to say that everything you do to better yourself will eventually turn around to better someone else. You decide to become more organized? That probably means you become timelier and more efficient in everything you do, and that you follow through on your word more consistently. You stop procrastinating? When you’re no longer faced with loads of last-minute work, you have more time to do things with and for others. You start getting more sleep, exercising regularly, and eating right? You’re going to be healthier and feel better, which means you’ll be a more pleasant person to be around and you’ll be able to live your life more fully with others. You become a better steward of your finances? You have more money to give to your church, charitable causes, and anyone in need. You choose to not get involved in casual, purposeless, futureless romantic relationships? You save someone else from an emotional roller coaster and a broken heart. The list goes on and on. Even things you wouldn’t think might directly affect someone else, like striving for better grades or improving your self-esteem, can influence someone to make positive changes in their own life.  Each of us is probably a role model in some sense to more people than we would ever think. That’s why we have to be constantly careful of how our choices not only affect us, but also how they might affect others and influence their actions.

This goes back to the whole idea of change on a larger scale than just you. There’s a great quote that goes, “I’m changing the world…starting with me.” What you do with your own life has the incredible power to bless and influence other people. While you cannot directly change others, the continually positive changes in your actions and words  can inspire others in turn to change themselves. If each of us made a commitment to become the best person that we could be, the world would be a very different place. It all starts with you and me making ourselves our next big improvement project. And what a thrilling project it can be!