Paradigm Shifts

We have personality tenancies but (as the Myers-Briggs personality inventory suggests) we naturally shift toward the middle as we age. This can mean significant differences (young harsh conservatives become liberal in their old age as they mellow, etc) but there are more profound changes we can undergo. Steven Covey offers this example in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

He was traveling in a subway when a man got on with his two sons. They were loud, rambunctious, throwing things, grabbing people’s papers and disturbing to everyone in the car. The man seemed oblivious. Covey writes:

It was very disturbing and yet the man sitting next to me did nothing. It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let children run wild like that do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?

The man lifted his gaze and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died. I don't know what to think and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either."

Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw things differently, I thought differently, I felt differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely.

While this change of perspective could be momentary, it doesn't have to be. We are continually faced with decisions as to how we will approach the circumstances life throws at us. If we keep picking a particular familiar pathway, it will eventually become a habit. But glimpses of other trails nudge into our lives from time-to-time, reminding us of different possibilities.

Remember that piece of music you heard that suddenly lifted your spirit and changed your whole outlook in the middle of a drab day? Remember that pleasant smell that made you drift back to fond childhood memories? The times you exited movie theaters ready to change the world for the better because you had just seen someone on film inspired to do just that? What if we wedded action to those sentiments? Are we capable of taking that step in a new direction.. or are we welded inside our boxes, destined only to point at the festival and never join the parade?

"That's who I am and I can never change" is the voice of fear. Admitting that change is possible puts responsibility on our shoulders to make it happen. And that's just downright scary.

Stephen Goforth