What is it about change that we hate so much? Especially when it’s change in other people.
After writing our Soul issue, I received a Facebook message from an old friend of mine.
I grew up in church with this person, a good guy who often inspired me and who I still respect and get along well with. But after reading what I’d written on this site, and seeing some of the obvious changes in my beliefs, he’d gotten (understandably) upset.
One question that he asked really got to me, and I’ve been thinking about it again this morning. He asked me about the past, back in my Welsh days when I led worship services on the keyboard. He asked me whether that was all an act to please people, or if I now believe that I was greatly mistaken.
I answered: neither.
I wasn’t acting: I was honestly doing what I believed at the time to be the right thing to do. I was following my heart and my beliefs and what I had been taught, and I was happy.
And I don’t now believe that I was greatly mistaken: I just think that my understanding and way of thinking has changed. If I behaved today exactly as I did 15 years ago, I’d be worried: because obviously I would not have changed in any significant way, and that’s pretty scary to me.
But I can see why he asked. His message wasn’t rude, but I could feel the pain in what he wrote. We haven’t remained close for a good few years now, but in his mind I was probably still the person that I had been when we were teenagers. Back then we had similar viewpoints, beliefs, and shared experiences. He couldn’t understand why I was now writing these things, and what had happened to bring me to this point.
I guess it would be like reading only the first and last page of a book, with no context in between. Or watching the first and last episodes of a show like Breaking Bad with no explanation for why the mild-mannered cancer-suffering chemistry teacher is suddenly *spoiler spoiler spoiler spoiler* and his *spoiler* is *spoiler spoiler* with a machine gun.
Actually, Breaking Bad had a great quote in the very first episode that summed this whole theme up:
‘You see, technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change: Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation. It’s fascinating really. It’s a shame so many of us never take time to consider its implications.’
Evolution is natural. Change is normal, good, healthy. It’s a sign of life. If you’re changing, it’s a sign that you’re learning, growing, and expanding. On the other side, if all of your perspectives and interests are the same as they were five or ten years ago, it’s a sign that you’ve probably stopped learning and are just surrounded with what you already know.
But it’s so easy to forget that. And there can be so much pressure from other people to JUST STAY THE SAME. Our friends and family can be the worst people at this. It’s so hard to make even small changes sometimes. Often we’re met with laughter and piss-taking from the people around us, whether we get a new haircut or start our own Youtube channel.
What a weird, frustrating response! I wonder if it comes from some inbuilt defence system in our reptile brains, a way of neutralising the potential risk of something unfamiliar. Who knows.
We love to categorise people: to label them, put them in boxes. We all do it. I guess it comes from some need to have control over life. I’m not immune to that: I have the same impulses, that I desperately want to overcome. Every time I see that tendency in me, it feels ugly and embarrassing.
The weight of the labels people put on us can feel SO FREAKING HEAVY. At least for me, I’ve always struggled with how certain people expect me to behave or look or think. Especially when you grow up in church, surrounded by leaders and older Christians who you’re supposed to ‘be accountable’ to.
Sometimes we can only grow when we get away from those familiar faces… when we finally get a bit of room to breathe.
Some of the best times in my life have been travelling alone. I remember flying out to Sweden for a friend’s wedding a few years ago, and feeling such an insane, addictive sense of freedom and confidence that I hadn’t felt for a long time. I was staying with strangers, and I just felt total permission to be myself. I knew nothing about these people, and more importantly they knew nothing about me: I wasn’t subconsciously trying to impress or live up to a standard. I was really able to relax and be comfortable in my own skin.
I would love to feel that way all the time.
It’s so weird how difficult this stuff is. I still struggle with letting people know that I’ve changed. It’s difficult not to fall into old behaviour around certain people: mostly because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable. I don’t describe myself as a Christian anymore, but that is really hard to admit, especially to anyone who knows me from church.
I guess it’s because I understand the pain of seeing someone change. When I was a full-blown church man, I felt the pain of seeing friends turn and leave the church behind. It’s really tough. You worry about the person, but also don’t want to get too close in case their change affects your own beliefs. It feels a bit like a betrayal, and you tend to write it off as that person having a lot of struggles, and then you label it as ‘backsliding’ or ‘falling away’: all language that suggests a backwards change, a descent into something worse. But honestly, this is just another defence mechanism that we use to deal with the fact that someone is not the same as they once were.
It’s weird being on the other side of that. You realise a few truths about anybody who goes through a change that big – and this doesn’t just apply to church, but to any major shift in a persons life.
#1 – People don’t normally leave on a sudden whim, or without a lot of thought and time.
Leaving church was one of the hardest things I did. I never thought it was even an option for me, which is a pretty obvious warning sign now. But I thought about things for a long time, and even when I first left, I fully expected to be back.
I seriously worried about how people would feel. I still have ‘church dreams’ pretty regularly, where I’m called back in to play keyboard at one more service, or where an old friend admits to being totally depressed and in pain because I left. It was such a major part of my life that I guess it’s normal to have those feelings.
I’ve heard people say that someone just leaves church to ‘go do their own thing’ or so they can break the rules for a while. And while that might be true for some people (and honestly, maybe there’s nothing wrong with that anyway) for me it was the end result of a long, gradual learning and growth process.
#2 – People who leave aren’t necessarily ‘doing bad’ or ‘going through a lot’.
I was actually doing pretty great, and many people I know who have gone through a similar thing were in good places too. Actually, I felt that being at church didn’t fit me anymore: like trying to slip into clothes that you wore ten years ago, they were great at one time but now feel awkward, like they belong to someone else.
In fact, I’ve seen a lot of people who have changed dramatically for the better since leaving church behind. Church had become an unhealthy place for them, and they are happier and more fulfilled in life since they left.
#3 – People who leave don’t necessarily hate the place they’re leaving.
This is so important, because I still have great friends who are committed Christians. I don’t hate the places I’ve left. I don’t think that everyone should leave church, or that people there are deluded or dumb.
I grew so much from my experiences of church. Actually, without some of the teaching from my last church, I probably never would have had the courage to leave (kind of ironic I know, but true – and I mean it as a compliment). I learnt to start to think for myself, to not be defined by the group I was a part of, and to be interested in other people, just to name a few things.
I still support my friends who make that a part of their life. There are some parts of it that I don’t like, things I think are wrong and harmful and inhibit growth. But that’s a separate issue. I may not believe a lot of the same things anymore, but I have respect for many people who do.
In the end, it’s as simple as this: I changed.
So I guess my point is this: I understand why my friend sent me that message. Especially when you throw in the religious angle, and the idea that I could be going to hell now, there’s a lot of pain involved in watching someone go in a different direction to you.
But you have to follow what you’re learning. Even if that leads you totally away from familiar places: you have to follow the road. Don’t intentionally hurt people, but don’t keep lying to yourself either. Anything else is just dishonest.
I hope I keep changing. I hope I never stop growing, challenging my own ideas, and evolving as a person in ways that I could never expect.
I also hope that I give other people in my life permission to change. Not to control them: but to simply allow them to evolve naturally, however they need to.
That’s pretty much the definition of something being a whole lot easier to say than to do.
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