A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Real Change

I got an email out of the blue the other day from an old friend from grad school. We brought each other up to date and he told me a little about his career changes, messy divorce and a bout with cancer. He’s out of academia now but he still gets up and works on philosophy from 6:00-8:00 every morning before starting for work as an executive in a software company. He kept up the same schedule during the cancer treatments never missing a day of work. I had to smile a bit to myself that he hadn’t changed a bit—still the same tough son-of-a-gun I knew back in grad school. It confirmed a thought that I have long held: people usually don’t change very much over the course of a lifetime. And it got me to wondering if he had changed in any way for the better.

This constancy is partly a good thing. My friend’s toughness is surely an admirable trait and it would be a shame if this part of his personality changed. But the sad thing is that our personal defects seem to be equally resistant to change. Intellectuals, like the two of us, will often deceive ourselves into thinking we have changed for the better when all that really changes is we come up with new, more sophisticated rationalizations for who we are. The measure of real change can be found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Are you really changing? Don’t tell me about the latest realization you have come to. Look for the fruits of the Spirit. Do you manifest more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? If so, great. If not, stop kidding yourself. Most people’s friends and families are not fooled by our self-congratulatory talk, but they tend to go along anyway. Why don’t they puncture these rationalizations more often? Why do they play along? Perhaps it’s because they judge correctly that we “can’t handle the truth,” or putting the same point less dramatically, we just don’t want to listen to unpleasant truths. My family does a pretty good job in holding up a mirror to my faults and I’m thankful for that. Being made aware of your faults doesn’t mean that you will overcome them, but without that awareness real change is virtually impossible. And for reasons that I surely do not understand it seems to me that suffering is another necessary condition for real change. You can learn to talk a better game without any suffering but no genuine change of heart occurs without at least a little cross-carrying.

Even so, however, awareness and suffering are not sufficient to produce change. This is no automatic or mechanical process. Suffering is an inevitable part of human life and part of the mystery of life for me are the ways that suffering opens up opportunities to change. But the fruits of the Spirit only come when we open ourselves up to change. I hope to see my old friend face to face soon and I hope that when we meet both of us will be able to truthfully see some positive change has come from the past thirty years of living. But if not, I hope both of us will have the courage to say so


Blogger Leon Basin said...

This is a great post! Thank you for sharing.

5:34 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...

glad you liked it. Thanks for stopping by.

7:01 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

"Why don’t they puncture these rationalizations more often? Why do they play along?..."

My own answer to this is that modern American culture has led us to believe that we are not to interfere in each other's lives, with the possible exception of if one is in danger.

And sometimes I have fun asking myself, Why don't I play along...?

A few years ago, when I had the opportunity to share with Friends my journey into Quakerism, I took a moment at one point and explained that being part of a covenant community meant something to me, and that I would in fact be putting my nose into other people's business.

I've approached attenders who have made an unkind remark in the hallway before entering meeting; I've had one-on-one's with Friends who seem to be straying from gospel order; and I've asked partners awkward questions about how their marriage is doing at times when their relationship seems more ouchy than loving.

I'd like to think that I've been careful and discerning when I've opened up these conversations. Sometimes, I've fallen short.

In addition, truth be told, I wish more folks would take the risk to say difficult things to me, for the reason you lift up, Richard:

Through such mutual accountability, we can grow into greater Light, greater Love.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

10:10 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...


As a philosopher I'm inclined to ask the follow up question: "And why does modern American culture led us to believe that holding people accountable is 'interfering' in some objectionable way?" The answer I'd give my own question is that a general skepticism about moral truth has infected American culture.

Anyway, let's hope that this idea of holding each other accountable continues to catch on among thoughtful people.

7:12 AM  
Blogger Tom Smith said...

I appreciated the post very much since it spoke directly to a major event, and some minor ones, in my life that has stayed with me for far too long.

As I have looked at the situations, it seems to me that at the root of almost all of the instances have occurred as a result of "capitalism," "love of money," putting physical positions above people and what I would call moral behavior.

One instance involved the Head of a Friends School who insisted that the primary focus of the school was Business, education, respect for individuals and the concept of "Friends" were secondary in essentially the descending order as I listed them.

I firmly believe that the answer "capitalism" as the root of the betrayals in my case is an over simplistic and possibly too easy of an answer. I guess I can't get the image of the camel and the eye of the needle out of my perspective.

6:45 AM  
Blogger Tom Smith said...

OOPS. I forgot to mention that when I have been tempted, and probably done more than I care to attempt, to "fudge" on an agreement or come up with an excuse that it is often because of physical comfort or wanting to spend time doing something else. I think there is a great deal of truth in the statement "Time is Money."

6:49 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...


Yes, I think there are some Quaker schools that have about as much to do with Quakers as the famous breakfast cereal! Hey, it makes sense. Our image is marketable. More than a little ironic don't you think that the image which is marketable here is an image of people who care for truth and integrity and don't give a hoot about image.

What we need is to get back to the reality from which this image springs. Doing so requires being able to say "no" to worthwhile projects and to listen to God when it comes to using our time. Sometimes we listen to well-meaning people who try to use guilt to get us to volunteer for things we don't have time for. Other more worldly folk try to appeal to our pride. Our use of time is very important and we need to consciously keep our schedules a little sparse so that there is time all throughout the week to listen to God.

7:13 AM  
Blogger forrest said...

Saying hello, would have emailed if I'd had your address handy.

I seem to need a Quaker philosopher at the moment; probably I need that philosopher to be ME, degrees or not! But reading your stuff brings some clarity to understandings I keep needing to remember! (And some of Chuck Fager's postings have likewise been a help, but not of the same sort somehow.)

Okay, I'm going offline to resume writing all this up. It's to some extent about integrity, and weakness, matters that keep coming up in your pieces. No, probably it's entirely about those things--as well as why I've always felt drawn to the Quaker thing, & always felt reservations. Later. I thank God for the help you are.

8:36 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

Thanks for your reactions to my post on 'Unexpected insaights' - that's whow I prefer my gradens, too! Much more interesting ;)

Good luck with the meeting with the Provost - I shall be thinking of you. Let me know how it goes. If you would like to use email, mine is heather dot cawte at gmail dot com.

6:52 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...


I look forward to hearing from you soon.


The meeting with the Provost went well. The plan is to continue to push forward with the project despite the tightening budget. They are even going to assign a graduate student to work with me on the technical stuff.

6:08 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home