Is it possible to undergo a profound personality change when you’re all grown up?
I mean the kind of change where you recover some former part of yourself that you lost and you didn’t know was gone. Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m talking about when you draw a straight line between 14 year old you and 22, 27, 33 year old you and the contrast slaps you: “Hey wow, I’m not right anymore.”
Have you ever woken up to an ugly personal truth like that? I have. And I’m not talking about the loss of innocence or the gradual understanding that comes with time. I’m not wishing I was more vital or feral.
I’m talking about something deeper. About the original design for my character. Like, if you picture my character as a young oak tree which was supposed to evolve tall and leafy, except that my particular tree got struck with lightning and a portion of it stands rotting while the un-dead portion grows at odd angles, leafless, like a spire against the sky.
I wonder if that kind of arrested development happens to lots of us without us paying attention to it.
A few days ago a forgotten memory returned to me. I was 16 at the time and it was an ordinary school night. I was laying on the couch playing a game on my graphing calculator. My mother came into the room and told me to put down the calculator and look up at her. Her face was pink-cheek stern. She said I was no longer the sweet, selfless boy that I used to be. That my attitude was no good anymore and would get me nowhere and that I might be able to hide it from my teachers and friends but no way I could hide it from her and I’d better take a serious look in the mirror and then get down on my knees and do some repenting.
If I’d known then what I know now I might have taken it to mean that my Oak Tree needed some attention. But I bagged up that moment with the morning trash and I took it outside. When it came back last week I remembered everything- even the brown couch fibers against my angry skin. But what I really remembered was my reaction to my mom. How I attributed her complaint as an overreaction of her feminine nature. “Oh mom,” I thought, “you’re soft. If I let you you’d turn me into a woman.” And that’s the first time I remember using a secret monologue to build a fence around my broken little tree.
If I had been a tree, and my mother a careful gardener, she might have been arriving after the thunderstorm, she might have been suggesting a procedure to keep me growing toward the sky. If so, I swept her out of my circumference and never let her back in.
I’ve been thinking about personality change because I keep hearing about it in the 12 Step meetings I attend. They promise a “profound personality change” as a natural byproduct of sobriety. These folks with 15, 25, 30 years of sobriety keep giving personal testimony to the transformation they’ve witnessed as the spiritual aspect of the program takes hold. They claim to be less selfish fathers, less angry mothers, more friendly bosses, more connected to God and God’s will. They claim to have recovered what was lost in the spidering corridors of their addiction. They explain it in different words but the common thread is the reclamation of an integral part of their character, their personality, which had faded from view without them noticing how ugly they’d become.
That idea has been facing me like a portrait of Dorian Gray. And I’m starting to remember who I used to be. I used to be sweet. I used to carry hope in my wide open eyes and I used to offer it, with or without words, to anybody in any condition. Even in New York City when I drew scowls on the sidewalk, it never bothered me because I was too busy caring about whatever pain was prompting the scowl and how the God I believed in could surely soothe it.
Yet I was already withering inside only nobody knew it yet- least of all me. What I needed then and what I’m finding out now is that I have a deep problem and I can’t fix it. I think I’m talking about sin. I think I’m admitting that sin has poisoned my roots.
And I guess the only reason I’m willing to talk about it is because I keep hearing about the hope of transformation. As if maybe I could get back to growing green and tall like I was born to do. And I know that not everybody is ripe for a 12 Step program but I often wonder if the idea still applies. Maybe you’re coming awake through a different set of circumstances but maybe we both could experience a “profound personality change” as we allow The Gardener in.
My hope for a change like that is anchored entirely on the conviction that I have grown crooked and that I can’t fix myself. If that’s you too, maybe we’re both at some sort of strange new beginning. God, help us.