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Excerpt from Endgame

People Don't Change (p. 89)

From chapter "Listening to the Land"

I think for the most part it’s not only abusers who don’t change. Most of us don’t. Sure, sometimes somebody or another may have an epiphany, like Saul of Tarsus did in the Bible. But let’s be honest about that one, too: after he saw the light of God and got knocked off his ass, he may have changed his name to Paul, but he was still a domineering asshole. It’s just that now instead of persecuting Christians he used Christianity as a vessel for his pre-xisting rigidity, making certain the reasonably new religion mirrored his hierarchical perception of the world.

Most often, change, at least on a social level, occurs the way Max Planck described it: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Years ago I read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. It’s a long book, from which I really remember only one image. I think Spengler would be pleased at which one. A culture is like a plant growing in a particular soil. When the soil is exhausted—presuming a closed system (i.e., the soil isn’t being replenished)—the plant dies Cultures—or at least historical (as opposed to cyclical) cultures—are the same. The Roman Empire exhausted its possibilities (both physical, in terms of resources, and psychic or spiritual), then hung on decadent—I mean this in its deeper sense of decaying, although the meaning having to do with debauchery works, too—for a thousand years. Other empires are the same. The British Empire. The American Empire. Civilization itself has continued to grow by expanding the zone from which it takes resources. The plant has gotten pretty big, but at the cost of a lot of dead soil.
I think the exhausted soil metaphor works for individuals, too: they don’t generally change until they’ve exhausted the possibilities of their previous way of being.
Last year I received an email from a woman who said that my work had saved her life. She had many times tried to kill herself, and was contemplating suicide again when she came across a passage in my work describing part of the reason this culture’s death urge manifests the way it does, in the widespread killing of humans and nonhumans, and in the killing of the planet. This death urge is partly a simple desire to die to this way of living that does not serve us well, but because we in this culture have forgotten that the spiritual exists, and have devalued the metaphorical, we do not understand that this death does not have to be physical, but could be transformative. Dying to one way of being so you can be reborn transformed is the oldest metaphor in the world, one the world is built on. But we forget, and so we build daisy-cutters and depleted-uranium shells, and we kill without ceasing. The woman said her own death urge might not have to manifest in the taking of her own life. Maybe she just wanted to transform. We corresponded a bit, she asked if we could take a walk when she was passing through town, and I agreed. It was a good walk, through meadows of thick sharp-edged grasses perfect for ground-nesting birds, into a sandy-soiled scrub pine forest near the ocean, and along the ocean beaches themselves. She was a good woman, smart, dedicated, knowledgeable about wild things. She was also in agony. Her agony derived partly from the aftereffects of the horrendous violence her father visited upon her as a child, and partly from her sensitivity to the similarly horrendous violence our culture perpetrates on the natural world. She said that instead of killing herself, she was going to spend three months alone in the desert, talking and listening to coyotes, clouds, ravens, rabbitbrush, and a cool, clear river. She hoped to return a new person.
She wrote me briefly when she returned, and then again a couple of months ago. She seemed to be doing well.
And then yesterday I received the letter. Evidently other people got the letter, too. It began, “Dear Friend, By the time you read this I will have done something that will come as no surprise to many of you. I will have committed suicide.” The letter went on to describe her attempts to overcome her pain, and ended with her arrangements for what should come after her death. She expressed regret that the law would not allow her to become food for wild animals.
After I got over my shock and had begun to move through my sorrow over the death of a good person I did not really know, I began to feel a stirring that within a few hours became the understanding that people usually don’t change. She may have thought she changed when she read my work, but she didn’t. She continued to daily ask the question of whether she should live or die until finally the answer came up die.
I know that I, too, carry scars both physical and emotional from my childhood that will never be healed. I know also that I will ask the same questions when I am old as when I was young. And I have to ask (the genesis of my question in no way negating its current relevance or importance): how much did my early experience of my father’s violence lead me to ask the question I’m asking now, about when is counterviolence an appropriate response to the violence of a dominator? Similarly, my mother is the same person she was twenty years ago, only wiser, and more tired. Most of my students at the prison love drugs—or at this point love writing about them—as much as they ever did. Often I only have to mention blunt, dub, heroin, crack, crank, and they’ll reminisce and laugh as those possessed. And even though they hate being imprisoned with an intensity I’ve rarely seen matched, and even though in many cases it was drugs that got them there, when I ask if they will use again when they get out (or for the lifers, would and if), most say yes. Statistics on addicts remaining sober (much less free of craving) are fairly dismal, and run from a low of ten to a high of 40 percent, with one writer commenting, “Chronic relapse is part of the etiology of addiction.”
But of course I’m overstating when I say people don’t change. They do. I did. I could have turned out like my father. I could have remained a scientist. I could have—god help me—remained a Republican, as I was in my teens, or just as bad, a Democrat, as I was in my early twenties. People do change. But change takes hard work, luck, and some treasured reward on the other side; even when these are all present, it still doesn’t happen often. And that’s only on the scale of one person, with only one lifetime of momentum built into that trajectory. How much more difficult is it to expect change when we have six thousand years of history, as well as space heaters, major league baseball, tomatoes in January, strawberry cheesecake, and the capacity at any time to bid on 1,527,463 products (“most with ‘NO RESERVE PRICE’”) at ubid.com? And how much more difficult than that when those in power have prisons, guns, and sophisticated surveillance technologies at their disposal? And how much more difficult than that when those in power have television, newspapers, and compulsory schooling to promulgate their perspective? And how much more difficult than that when we promulgate it ourselves?