Monday, August 30, 2010

Because You Never Know

One thing is for certain: nothing is for certain. The people from whom you expect the most sometimes sputter and fail. The losers from whom you would never expect anything find the missing components for the jumble of parts that they heretofore have called a brain, and overnight they go from dunces to geniuses. The least-likely-to-succeed passes the most-likely-to-succeed, or vice versa depending upon your perspective. Pigs fly. Cows return. Hell freezes. Accountants sing.

You just never know.

And yet... we tend to set our expectations as though we do know. In effect we condemn people to life sentences: That Joe! he'll never amount to anything... Poor Mary, she just keeps trying as though she's somehow going to succeed... Old Harry sings so loud, I swear he's go no clue how bad he is. Why doesn't he just give up... Susie doesn't have a creative bone in her body... Jack can't do math to save his life...

We condemn people to life sentences being who we've known them to be. Ultimately, despite all the hyperbole, despite all the self-help books, despite you-can-do-it infomercials, we actively do not believe that people change. Even when we see evidence to the contrary, we deny or dismiss it as transient. Sure, he looks like he's changed, but you know what they say, "Once a thus-and-such, always a thus-and-such."

But the thing is, you just never know.

In those infrequent encounters with someone who seems to have changed, we test it. We look for holes in the story, fissures in the facade. Some take a wait-and-see attitude. Others actively poke at what they believe are the buttons that will cause the flood gates to open and the old person to come spilling out. We don't trust change. We actively seek evidence to the contrary. And, when we look long enough, we find it. It may be just a hairline fracture or just a whiff of the person who was, but we find it. And because we've been looking for the counter-evidence, no matter how small or insignificant it may be, it outweighs everything else, largely because the evidence supportive of change has not made it through our highly-honed, counter-change filters.

But the thing is, you just never know.

You never know who's going to be who they've been forever and who's going to break out and reinvent themselves. You never know if the change is going to last a minute, a year or forever. You never know who's going to continue changing and who's going to regress. You never know.

So, seeing as you never know, you can believe the "best" or you can believe the "worst" of others, of yourself. Despite euphemistic endeavor to the contrary, there is actually no middle ground here. You may articulate it any way you like, but in the end the net effect is that you either believe the best of others or you believe the worst of others.

Even though, you just never know.

Believing the worst is often more subtle than believing the best, largely because the best-believers tend to stand out in a crowd. Believing the worst is certainly more chic. There are so many forms of worst-believing: ranting, cynicism, depression, anger, fear, anxiety, worry. No one ever goes to a comedy club to listen to a best-believer. No one tunes into the evening news to hear all the best things of the day. Best-believers just aren't that interesting.

And yet, you just never know.

The most subtle worst-believing takes the form of expectations calibrated on experience. I've never been able to do thus and such before. Every time I try thus and such, the phone rings... one of the kids screams 'mommy'... we get an unexpected bill in the mail... I just can't seem to focus... We pile up truckloads of evidence so overwhelming that the possibility of change doesn't even occur to us. Our de facto mantras are those of stasis.

And yet, you just never know.

Even when we overcome our penchants for stasis and become cautiously optimistic, we limit the scope of our expectations. We don't go for winning, we just go for not losing. We retreat quickly from any expectation that might lead to disappointment.

And yet, you just never know.

Who are you actively expecting never to change? What is it that they'll never change? Perhaps you're hoping for change, but you've got your fingers crossed and emergency disappointment avoidance plan well rehearsed. What are you afraid would happen if you just started believing the best? What would change if you did?

Happy Monday,

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