Tag Archives: behaviour

Identity, change and consistency

I can tell you a story of my life in terms of change. What I was not able to do as a child that I can do now. What I was able to do in my teens that I can’t do now – all those late night things, and coping without sleep. I can tell you stories of constancy, how things from my childhood are still with me, how things that I consider integral to myself have been with me a long time. All of those stories would be true. It’s like observing light as a wave or a particle.

Every experience I have lived through has influenced me in some way. Every opportunity, every setback, every person I’ve interacted with. I’ve changed, year on year. Some of that change was good, and some of it has taken me years to unpick and recover from. As those experiences shape and shift me, I behave differently, react differently, feel differently and that in turn forms part of how the world seems to me. My own behaviour and responses shape the world I inhabit – for years now I’ve been getting faster at removing myself from drama. If I find someone exhausting to deal with to no good purpose, I step away. I say yes, emphatically, to activities and people that make me happy. As a consequence my life is calmer and richer than ever before. I feel more secure.

At any moment, who we are can seem like a substantial thing. Pressure to change is often threatening. There’s good reason to be wary of anything or anyone that demands you change against your will. Being asked or told to be what you are not is seldom good news. However, the opportunity to grow, stretch and change is usually a blessing. Given room to be more than we were, we can evolve on our own terms. We can flourish. That kind of change often comes slowly and feels more natural.

We are all full of potential and possibility. If life gives us scope to explore those possibilities, we can grow into identities that feel more real than where we started from. We are born into contexts of stories, history, opportunity or lack thereof. We are born into other people’s ideas about who we should be. Given time, space and opportunity we may find we aren’t the person we started out as. That can be a great relief, a shedding of unwanted and restrictive skin. Each choice we make can set us on a new path – and there is always scope to come back and change direction.

It’s when you’re changing that you can most easily see what doesn’t shift. We may label those qualities as virtues and vices, styles of being. “I’m a kind person with a strong work ethic.” “I’m easy come, easy go.” “I’ve got a short temper, I’m wild and passionate” and so forth. These are interesting things, but I think fairly superficial aspects of self. I don’t have a language to talk about my sense of inner self, any more than I have language to talk about the essence of a flame or a river.

I know there are some traditions that identify the core self as absence, emptiness. I don’t experience it that way. For all that I change and flicker, grow taller or smaller, changing shape in response to breezes, the quality of my flame remains flame. Or whatever it actually is. If I explore something new, I soon know what is for me and what is not. I know what fits me and what does not. I know what I respond to. It’s not something I can express in words, although I can dance it, and sometimes I can find tunes that reflect it.

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Modelling Behaviour

Children copy what they experience – most especially what they see their adult primary carers doing. Patterns for behaviour, a sense of place in the world, ideas about self, family, community and life are absorbed unconsciously early on, and often taken in through that act of mimicry. However, there’s not an age at which this entirely goes away. We’re primates. Monkey see, monkey do.

Affirmation and a sense of belonging follows from doing the things we can see other people doing. It’s one of the reasons clothes fashions and counter culture clothing are so powerful – they identify us with our people. There’s no inherent reason why we see suits as smart and jeans as scruffy, that’s just a consensus to help us fit in with the company we’re keeping. If the convention was to wear jeans to the office and suits for lounging around in, we’d do it that way instead. Neither being that physically comfortable.

When people encounter expressions of anger, hatred, violence and prejudice, some will respond by wanting to repeat that behaviour. Obviously it has to tap into personal attitude, but the more visible it is, the more comfortable it feels to be part of it. When the majority are calm, pleasant, cooperative and friendly there’s real pressure on people who tend to hate to fit in with standard behaviour.

Many people aren’t comfortable with standing out from the crowd.

This is why, for those of us who can and will buck the trend, it’s important to keep modelling the kind of behaviour we want to see in the world. Be calm. Be reasonable. Avoid aggressive and abusive language. Avoid shouting back. Model something better. It has a real effect. On the other hand, if we’re lured into expressions of rage and violence, what we do is fuel the rage and violence that we were trying to oppose. There’s an allure in verbal and physical violence – it can make us feel powerful, it can allow us power over others, and if we feel self-righteous, knocking the ‘idiots’ down can feel exciting, and that’s a trap to avoid, because at that point, we’re just a bunch of people attacking each other and the values we thought we stood up for are likely lost in the mix.

Situations of self defence aside, the ‘fight’ here is first and foremost at a conceptual level, it’s about what kind of people we are and how we think people should be, and the best way to achieve this is to keep demonstrating it.