Saturday, May 28, 2011

She can't take him the way he is

By coincidence to my last blog “Take Me the Way I Am”, I got a phone call from a relative (I’ll call this relative Jill), complaining about her spouse (who I’ll call Jack). Jill just can’t take the way Jack is any more.  Jack has always been that way.  Almost certainly Jack always will be pretty much that way, with perhaps some minor peripheral improvement.  Jack has a significant flaw (don’t we all).  Jill wanted to hope she could somehow reason with Jack to get him to change.  I made it clear to Jill that Jack’s flaw is in fact a mental illness, which Jill cannot hope to change by reasoning with Jack.  By definition, Jack’s problem is irrational and unreasonable.  They have been married for many years.  It’s nothing new.  It has always driven Jill crazy (and quite rightly and understandably so). 

Jill, of course, has her own “issues,” and she is aware of that.  Jill says Jack once admitted that when they married, Jack thought he could change Jill.  Jill bitterly resents that.  She wants to be taken the way she is.  She knows she has problems, but she resents anyone else telling her she needs to change.  She, on the other hand, cannot take Jack the way he is.  She has decided, for what must be the 300th time, that she just can’t take his problem any more.  I can sympathize. I couldn't either.

So, what are the options.

Main principal of life:  You can’t change anyone but yourself.

Corollary:  You probably can’t much change yourself either.

If you decide you just can’t take the other person’s flaws any more, refer to Main principal.

People are who they are.  Personality transplants have yet to be perfected.  Therapists seem to have some degree of success in helping people make small improvements.  I’m not entirely sure how much they can accomplish.  I’ve tried it myself – quite a bit of it actually.  I’m still not sure how much it accomplishes.  Perhaps, some people’s personalities are more malleable than other’s.  Perhaps, some people are right on the cusp and a little nudge in the right direction can make a big difference.  I think the main thing I have learned from psychologists is about ways to learn acceptance of others; ways to adapt to the flaws of others; how to deal more cheerfully with what I cannot change.

While you may have some slight hope of changing yourself, trying to change someone else is pretty much futile.  They are who they are:  Deal with it. Except that, “dealing with it” implies changing yourself, which is really, really hard to do.  Learning to accept the (currently) unacceptable means changing what you can and cannot accept, which is not something anyone wants to do.  Change is hard enough when you really want to change: when you are seeking to acquire a virtue or an appealing or admirable quality, which seems really desirable and worth great effort to achieve. But, when change means accepting something undesirable, it is by definition something you don’t want to do.  And if you don’t want to change, you almost certainly aren’t going to.

So, what are Jill’s options?

1)  Accept the unacceptable.  Change herself to learn tolerance or to somehow draw boundaries.
2)  Take the option Jill has pursued for the last several decades, which is beating her head against the wall, trying to make Jack change, in the futile hope that the wall will yield instead of her head.  All she gets is a headache.
3)  Leave.  She’s tried that too.  It has pros and cons.  It could be viewed as the only solution, or it could be viewed as deciding there is no solution.  Trouble is, where ya gonna go?  Spouses can’t be traded in for a better model.  They usually get traded in for worse ones.  Singlehood has definite downsides.

You might well ask, where is Jack in all this?  Does Jack realize he has a problem?  Has Jack tried to change?  Yes, Jack knows he has a problem.  Yes Jack has tried to change. He’s spent decades trying in various ways, including therapy.   Jack has decided that having tried futilely to change for decades, that he can’t.  He is the way he is.  Take him the way he is, because he’s tried to change and he has decided that it just ain’t gonna happen.  He has pretty much given up trying to change. 

It is not clear just how Jack sees his problem – whether he sees himself as having a serious and debilitating mental illness, as just a little eccentric, or perhaps that his “problem” is only a problem because Jill and others think it is.  His view is probably a mixture of all of those, and probably varies from time to time.  I can tell you that he longs to be taken as he is, warts and all.  He would prefer to view his issue as a virtue rather than as a vice.  While he sees the downsides to his problem, he also finds a certain degree of happiness in it.  It is how he wishes he could be left alone to live.  Call his problem eccentricity.  Call it idiosyncrasy.  Call it idiocy.  Call it insanity, neurosis, psychosis, whatever. He is what he is; what he has always been; what he always will be.  Take him as he is, or don’t take him at all, those are the choices.

So, Jack and Jill have both fallen down and broken their crowns trying to change themselves and each other.  Take them the way they are.  Or leave them.  When it comes to trying to change another person, failure is not merely an option, it is pretty much inevitable.  That's not meant to seem defeatest or depressing.  It's about learning what can and cannot be changed and learning how to deal most happily with what cannot be changed.  Happiness is not about the external situations, but about how we deal with those situations.

I can tell you one thing, though:  It’s a heck of a lot easier to accept people the way they are if you don’t have to live with them.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Take Me The Way I Am

A popular song that is one of my favorites right now is Ingrid Michaelson's "The Way I Am"
If you were falling, then I would catch you.
You need a light, I'd find a match.

Cause I love the way you say good morning.
And you take me the way I am.

If you are chilly, here take my sweater.
Your head is aching, I'll make it better.

Cause I love the way you call me baby.
And you take me the way I am.

I'd buy you Rogaine when you start losing all your hair.
Sew on patches to all you tear.

Cause I love you more than I could ever promise.
And you take me the way I am.
You take me the way I am.
You take me the way I am.

The words strike a chord with me:  The concept of love being two people who take each other the way they are.  We want acceptance in spite of, or better yet because of, our faults.

The quirky line in that song, expressing the strangeness of modern romance:  "I'd buy you Rogaine . . . " shows that while we want to be accepted for what we are, part of the reason is that we actually aren't all that happy with how we are.  We don't truly accept ourselves The Way We Are.  We want to be different; and better (with more hair, at the very least).  We want someone who will love us, even when we don't quite like just how we are.  The only reason we would long for someone to accept us as we are, with all our faults, is that we recognize that we are far from perfect, and think we are perhaps difficult to love.

If I felt that being the way I am is perfectly OK, I would feel no need for acceptance of my faults.  It is because I myself do not accept myself the way I am that I wish for someone else who would accept those things about me that I don't like but have been unable to change.

Introspective people spend a lot of time looking at their own faults and trying to change them, almost always unsuccessfully. Changing personality or character is almost impossible.  We are what we are.  We may struggle with trying to improve in various ways, but most of us make little progress at it.  I lost a lot of weight, but the factors in my personality that caused me to gain weight in the first place are still there, struggling to put it back on.  I may have changed my body, but changing my mind and behavior is something else entirely.  I don't think I am now an inherently thin person.  I still am what I was - what I am.  Perhaps a "recovering" heavy person.

But if someone else could accept and love me with my faults, then it could make me feel better about those faults.  If they can accept those faults, then maybe so should I?  Which might relieve some of the guilt over my lack of success at self-improvement.

Can we change?  Is change impossible, or just very, very difficult?  Little changes are perhaps only a little difficult, but big changes may be so difficult as to be, for practical purposes, impossible.  Changing enough to be able to accept ourselves the way we are may be too much to ask.

Much of what makes Christianity both appealing, and unappealing, is its promise of acceptance, but also its promise to change us, and its demand that we change.  We long to be changed, because changing ourselves, well, we've tried.  Lord knows we've tried.  Must we change ourselves in order to be changed?  Lord, take me the way I am.  Will you really?  Because, if I need to have more faith, well, I have what I have.  If I need to be a better person to be saved, then well, I am what I am.  Is God alone allowed to refer to Himself by that title (I am what I am)?  Does God take us the way we are?  Did God in fact make us the way we are?  Does God demand that we change? Yes, Yes, and Yes.  The Bible seems conflicted about that.  Dear Lord, take me the way I am. And then change me.  But please don't ask me to change myself, because, well, that's just the way I am.  (At this point, please avoid digressing into theology, or argument about faith vs works).

Yet even as we wish for acceptance, we may try to hide the very things we wish could be accepted.  We want to be accepted for what we are but we dare not totally reveal it, because we don't accept it, and we don't think it can be accepted by anyone else either.  I won't tell you about those flaws I wish you could accept, because I think you would judge them, not accept them.  But I wish you could magically perceive throught the eyes of love the unlovable person I know I am, and yet love me and love my faults.

Often, I would like to say to someone:  "I do accept you the way you are, I just wish you could believe that and not be so defensive all the time!"  They don't think they are lovable that way, even if I do love them.  And I don't quite totally believe they could accept all of the flaws in me either, so I can understand.

Could it be that we are not merely the person we are, but also, to some degree, we are the person we wish we were?  The fact that we have higher ideals than we are actually able to live up to, doesn't just having the ideals count for a great deal?  Perhaps I'm not really just "the way I am".  Perhaps, maybe, I am partly the ideals I admire, whether or not I manage to live that way.  I hope so.  Because I'm afraid you just have to take me the way I am.