What do advertisers, psychologists, clergy, bosses, teachers and moms have in common? They want you to change. Change your actions, surely, but also your thoughts, beliefs, outlook and habits. Advertisers want what’s good for them, not for you. However, most of the other people who are working with us or on us sincerely want us to change for the better.
Changing human behavior is one of the most difficult things we can do. Getting to the moon was simple compared with restricting one’s diet or quitting cigarettes. My work associate and I were talking the other day about the need for people to exercise better discipline by cutting out the junk food so commonly available. No less than a half hour later, under no duress whatsoever and with several good apples just steps away in the fridge, I gobbled down two large sugar cookies at an office birthday celebration. Was that even the same person in both scenarios?
Most of us get 75 or 80 years of life so we can make those necessary changes. For all its vaunted glories and notwithstanding the best efforts of millions for whom prolonged youth is a talismanic treasure, regaining youth is overrated. Far, far more valuable to me are the good habits and routines I developed, mostly in young adulthood during a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and college. That self-discipline revolutionized my life. It stabilized me. It put me in prudent control of my time, money and commitments. It is a blessing to work, sleep and exercise when one should and to apply one’s time by thoughtful choice to productive activities. Will Rogers had it right: “One of the many things no one tells you about aging is that it's such a nice change from being young.”
With middle age, we typically tackle more of the really important things, such as getting our marriage and/or other relationships on solid footing by eliminating conflict and healing old wounds. We learn to listen to the significant people in our lives about our bad habits and tendencies. Meanwhile, the vanities of youth, the fripperies and excesses, get laid aside like heavy furniture from a pioneer’s overburdened wagon.
As we shed a teenager’s indulgent preoccupation with self, we learn that listening to others and helping them will bring some of life’s greatest rewards and blessings. Indeed, a stable, disciplined life is the optimum platform from which to employ our time and resources in making a difference in other people’s lives.
C. S. Lewis spoke of change this way in his book "Mere Christianity": “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently, He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage; but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself."
Whether you call it repentance, involving God, or you simply decide to improve and become a better person, change is a fundamental requirement of an enlightened life. While it can be very difficult, improving oneself is the stuff of character. Facing and mending one’s weaknesses is the very mission of life. Just when we think we’re pretty polished, life will soon show us the great amount of polishing there is left to do. But it must be done.
We must ban from our lips the sayings “That’s just the way I am” and “I'm too old to change.” These nostrums are not true. They are cheap fakes. They obscure the great purpose of life to ever change for the better.
Greg Bell is the former lieutenant governor of Utah and the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.