January 10, 2007

Why Is It so Hard to Change?

1501 page29 capalzburg is a charming town nestled in the Austrian Alps. A river divides the town, old from new, and bridges join these two halves. It’s a peaceful thing to choose a bridge and stand in the middle, elbows resting on the railing. On both sides, the homes and shops are graceful slices of yellow, pink, and cream. Seagulls swoop and call, their bodies white against the blue sky; and in the river, the occasional duck carves through the water.
Interesting people cross the bridge. I once saw a woman pushing a dog in a buggy. I saw Chinese athletes wearing their Olympic jackets and taking pictures. But if you stand on the bridge long enough, your eyes will be pulled to the water below, to the constant flow, the certain movement from here to there.
Salzburg is not a bad place to find oneself—especially if you like chocolate, Mozart, or mountain climbing. As it happens, I am partial to these and to more—to art museums and trains, to apple strudel and arugula. Yet when I first arrived, I was not as pleased as I expected. I was jolted to be in a place where I knew no one, where I didn’t speak the language, and where even riding the bus was complicated. I was jolted by change.
As we begin a New Year, many of us try to transform into better versions of ourselves—versions that exercise three times a week, drink eight glasses of water a day, or carpool to work. After a week or two of effort and good intentions, most of us return to the traditional versions of ourselves. After several years of this experience, some of us give up altogether. New Year’s resolutions become a punch line, not a serious consideration.
1501 page29Why is it so hard to change for the better?
The simple answer is that change goes against habit; and we are creatures of habit. Students tend to sit in the same seats each week. Shoppers buy the same groceries. People return to the same vacation spots. The known is more comfortable than the unknown.
Positive change also requires energy and time, two scarce commodities. It is easier to do the known—to go to the same restaurants, to spend your evenings the same way, to stay at home. And sometimes the unknown seems undoable. We feel overwhelmed before we even begin.
Every Friday I meet with a group of writers, friends I’ve made at the university. We eat lunch and talk about our lives. Once, I was describing my inability to mingle.
“Sari,” Marge said firmly. “I don’t believe you.” Marge is a wonderful, gregarious woman. She and her husband seem to know everyone in Minneapolis.
“One, you’re outgoing,” Marge said. “Two, you must force yourself to mingle. It’ll get easier, believe me. I used to be shy.” We all laughed, but she didn’t. “I’m serious. I hated all the functions I had to attend, but I attended them, and I mingled and it got easier. So Sari,” she said and looked at me. “Mingle!”
That’s what it comes down to—first, making the choice, then acting on it. To change, we must first do.
I think of the Jordan River and how the Israelites crossed on dry land. God could have parted the water as He did at the Red Sea. But this time, He asked the priests to first step into the water, then He parted it.1 God didn’t need human action, but He insisted on it.
When we give our problems to God, we aren’t giving up accountability. God asked Naaman to dip into the Jordan River seven times, then cured him of leprosy.2 Jesus asked the servants to draw water and serve it to the master, then He turned it into wine.3
As I think of New Year’s resolutions, I think of standing on that bridge in Salzburg and watching the water flow beneath me. The water was moving, changing. What a contrast to water that goes into stagnant ponds to become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and disease.
It’s not good for our lives to be stagnant. January is half over, and some resolutions have already been abandoned. But today is the day to change. Today is the day to go jogging, to call a homeless shelter and ask if it needs volunteers, to eat a carrot instead of carrot cake, and yes, even to mingle.
1See Joshua 3.
2See 2 Kings 5.
3See John 2.
Sari Fordham is working on a postgraduate degree at the University of Minnesota.