Can a man change, or are his personality traits so fixed that external circumstances are incapable of adjusting them in any significant way? This is a question that finds enthusiastic advocates for both answers. The cynics–or as they prefer to be called, the “realists”–tell us that personality does not change. Our knowledge contracts and expands, but the core of our being remains immutable. We may become more polished in our presentations, or more adept at concealing our intentions, but in the end it is still the same old “us.” We are here, and we have not changed.
The idealists take a different view. They say that, while it is not common, it is possible for a man to change if he truly wants to change. External circumstance, some transformative trauma, or the force of will can cause this to come about. For my own part I do believe it is possible for a man to change in fundamental ways, but that it is not very common. I remember an amusing tale told by Aesop, which makes this very point. Before relating this story, we should note that in ancient times, domesticated ferrets were sometimes kept as pets in Greece. Cats were far less common as domestic pets than they are now.
A female house-ferret, Aesop says, once became infatuated with a certain young man. The ferret pleaded with the goddess Aphrodite to change her into a young girl; and the goddess, amused by this request, granted it without delay. The young man laid eyes on this new creation and became enthralled with her. He decided to take her home with him. When this passionate couple made their way to the bedroom, Aphrodite decided to toy with them a bit. The gods, of course, love to do such things to us humans. She wanted to see if this newly anthropomorphized ferret really had changed in its nature, or whether it was just the same being with a different skin. Aphrodite released a mouse in their bedroom to see what would happen. The newly minted “girl,” immediately upon seeing the mouse scurry across the floor, leapt at it aggressively and began to chase it around the room. The shocked young man could do little more than gape in amazement as this took place. Aphrodite was now confirmed in her theory that people do not change, and elected to turn the girl back into a ferret.
Aesop is making a point, and the point is well taken. But changes to personality can take place: they may be rare, but they do happen. The impetus for such change seems to be a traumatic event of some kind. My favorite example along these lines is Ignatius Loyola. He was born in the Basque region of Spain in 1491 and occupied his youth with soldiering and brawling. These frivolous escapades came to an end in 1521 when a cannonball shattered his leg during a French attack on Pamplona. Incompetent medical care left him nearly crippled; one leg was now shorter than the other. He was forced to undergo a long period of rest and recuperation in a castle, during which time he consumed his hours with reading and reflecting on how he had lived his life. A powerful sense of guilt overcame him. As Fate would have it, there were only two books in the castle “library”: a life of Christ, and a collection of short biographies of saints called Flos Sanctorum. His first reaction in reading these books was contempt and boredom. But then, over time, he began to see things in a different light. The stories grew on him. He began to see that these warriors of religion could be just as brave, and just as self-sacrificing, as the lance-wielding knight. He would eventually forsake his earlier ways and become a soldier in the service of God, and he would go on to found that most influential of religious orders, the Jesuits.
Now I know that there are some who will say that Ignatius had not changed at all, but had simply redirected his impulses in new directions. But is this not the essence of change? What is wrong with a man channeling his energies in new ways, and for nobler purposes and goals? To deny that change is ever possible is to deny the possibility of redemption. There is a scene of dialogue in the 1997 David Mamet film The Edge where Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, both trapped in the wilderness, discuss whether it is possible for a man to change. Hopkins asks Baldwin whether it is possible for a man to change. Baldwin replies with something to the effect of “why would it not be possible?” Hopkins then makes the point that he never knew anyone who actually did change their life, but that if he ever made it home, he would start his life over.
While there may be arguments both ways on whether a man can change, I am very sure that a man can grow into a great responsibility. What I mean by this is that a man can rise to the occasion that Fate places on his shoulders. My favorite example of this is the life of Abraham Lincoln; the biography by Ronald C. White has been especially instructive. One can never read enough about him, or see enough documentaries about him. His life is filled with an unlimited amount of practical guidance: the struggles of his early youth, his burning ambition to make a name for himself as a lawyer in Springfield, his mastery of local and then national politics, his dismay at being caught up in the most shattering war in his nation’s history, his struggle to articulate his views on slavery, and his agonized attempts to bring the war to a swift conclusion. One begins to have an immense respect for his masterful ability to blend caution with boldness, and decision with patience.
Lincoln’s views on slavery, for example, evolved greatly during his life, as is recorded in Eric Foner’s excellent The Fiery Trial. Like many of his generation, he saw slavery as an evil, but he did not quite know how to deal with the problem. He danced and danced around the issue, as did many of his contemporaries, hoping that it would somehow go away. He tried to occupy the moderate middle ground, promising that his only goal was to “preserve the Union.” But the problem would not go away. Sometimes Lincoln’s efforts to deal with the issue (e.g., the now-embarrassing “colonization” proposals) expose his shortcomings; but they at least give us a window on a mind struggling to find solutions to a problem that no one before him had been able to solve. As the war ground on, and as the casualties mounted, Lincoln took greater solace in his reading and reflection. He could see that there would be no going back to the old system. The war had now come to stand for something else. He came to see himself as an agent of change, and that the only answer to the slavery question was permanent abolition by constitutional amendment. The old nation could never be returned to: the war had changed everything. A new United States, a new nation, would arise from the ashes and ruins of the old.
The growth and development of Lincoln’s views on slavery and many other questions are fascinating objects for study. As I see things, his career proves that a man can grow into a role. A man can rise to the occasion and achieve greatness by mastering his environment. It is not an easy process, of course; it can come about only when the greatest humility collides with the greatest external shock. As these two opposing forces collide, something new, something pure, is finally born. In an address to Congress on December 1, 1862, at a time when the outcome of the war was not at all clear, Lincoln challenged his colleagues to set aside their old ways and think in bold, new terms. Victory was impossible, he told them, without letting go of the “dogmas of the past”:
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.
Herein lies the secret of change. A man must rise to the occasion in which he finds himself. He does this by showing a willingness to set aside those “dogmas of the past” that are no longer applicable.
We cast off the old, and collide with the new: and out of this violent fusion is born a new man, and a new Ideal.
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