Why people change

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In July 2020 I wrote the following:

Two reasons people change:

  1. “Mugged by reality.” Someone’s experience creates an irreconcilable rupture with their previous beliefs. At this point they either double down on the previous beliefs and ignore experience or they change.
  2. Participate in the universe’s ongoing process of change. This requires a disciplined openness to reality. This does not come naturally; rather, it is spiritual work. It may be, in part, what the Taoists meant by wu-wei.

I’d like to add one more, via a story about Samwise Gamgee. In Book One, while Frodo, Sam, and Pippin are headed east toward Rivendell but before they leave the Shire, they encounter a group of High-Elves. Sam had been hoping to meet Elves. After spending the night with them and sharing in their trippy, midnight feast, Frodo asks Sam what he thinks about them now that he’s met them:

“They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak,” answered Sam slowly. “It don’t seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected—so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.”

Frodo looked at Sam rather startled, half expecting to see some outward sign of the odd change that seemed to have come over him. It did not sound like the voice of the old Sam Gamgee, that he thought he knew. But it looked like the old Sam Gamgee sitting there, except that his face was unusually thoughtful.

“Do you feel any need to leave the Shire now—now that your wish to see them has come true already?” he asked.

“Yes, sir. I don’t know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way. I know we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, that I want—I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.”

Three reasons people change, an incomplete list:

  1. “Mugged by reality.” Someone’s experience creates an irreconcilable rupture with their previous beliefs. At this point they either double down on the previous beliefs and ignore experience or they change.
  2. Participate in the universe’s ongoing process of change. This requires a disciplined openness to reality. This does not come naturally; rather, it is spiritual work. It may be, in part, what the Taoists mean by wu-wei.
  3. Encounter with the numinous. Some encounters can be so disorienting or paradigm-shifting that they (sometimes instantaneously) re-order or even expand our affections. These experiences are by definition non-rational and can include things like an experience of natural beauty, religious conversions, and near-death experiences.
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