Can someone change?
Our understanding of the universe is both of evolution, constant change, and of predictable continuity. Our understanding of human nature is similarly bifurcated, into common sense that says you ‘cannot teach an old dog new tricks’, and stories of people who have a complete transformation of character. So if it is possible to change why can some people do it and others apparently cannot?
The Greek word metanoia may provide a clue. The Oxford Dictionary offers as its meaning, “Change in one’s way of life resulting from penitence or spiritual conversion.” It gives the following example, ‘what he demanded of people was metanoia, repentance, a complete change of heart’.
This could be applied to the way Jesus of Nazareth confronted those he met. I remember being taught that one way to think about this was to imagine turning completely around. This ‘repentance’ is more than just saying sorry, or hoping that it will not happen again. It is a deliberate and continual determination to act differently.
I think this thought was triggered by the new song from the Young‘Uns. It was composed after talking to the person who features in it. This was a new step for the group of three folk singers from Teesside. Previously they had written powerful songs illustrating the life of someone, either because they had been asked to do so, or having had the idea they had approached the person or their close family and friends afterwards. One good example is, ‘Be the man‘. But this was the first time they had risked asking someone if they could write a song. Part of the risk being that the person might refuse. Another risk was that they might not be able to actually write a suitable song. Sean Cooney, who is the main writer for the group, has a wonderful gift and it did not fail him this time. He wrote about Richard Moore, who as a young boy was blinded by a rubber bullet fired by a British soldier. But the song was not about the tragic loss, but about the forgiveness Richard showed.
I found myself thinking, “Why ask someone to repent if there is no possibility of them changing?” This does not immediately follow from that story, but showing forgiveness rather than living with resentment is a powerful counter to what is normally assumed. There are lots of stories of people who have turned away from their previous pattern of life. Often religious communities tell these stories to point to the power of faith. But I think other factors can also lead to a complete change of heart, a metanoia.
It may also be the case that small elements of our life need the same kind of deliberate and continual determination to act differently. Giving up a destructive habit for example, or being kind rather than bullying, or spending time caring for others rather than seeking pleasure for oneself.
I can think of a lot of people I wish would have a metanoia. But, more to the point, maybe I need to as well!