Friday, October 2, 2015

Can people change?

Fiction teaches you that people change. History, experience, and poetry all teach you this is a lie.
Mark Winegardner, "The Visiting Poet," That's True of Everybody

I tend to sit up a little straighter whenever a writer of fiction inserts some broad statement or generalization into a story. Often these aside comments are very good, and I sometimes take note of them, but they can leave me wondering. Whose opinions are they? The story's narrator? A character's? Or the author's? And are they, in fact, true?

Here are a handful I have come across over the years:

"It's like marriage. The race there is between total knowledge of each other and death. If death comes first, it's considered a successful marriage." - Peter S. Beagle, A Fine and Private Place

"Feelings so powerful they could have come only from God lead some to those acts most strongly condemned by His word. It is useless to tell others that the commandments are simple only for those who fail to see why they had to be set down." - Judith Rossner, Emmeline

"There are certain modes of unhappiness with far more style than happiness." - Joyce Carol Oates, Marya: A Life

"It's odd ... how sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even more than sharing a faith. The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference; the doubter fights only with himself." - Graham Greene, Monsignor Quixote

"All men are moral. Only their neighbors are not." - John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

And so we come to those lines by Mark Winegardner in his short story "The Visiting Poet." The story is about a poet who teaches at one college after another, on each campus starting affairs with his most beautiful students. Will he, the story asks, ever change and become a man worthy of the love of any woman, including his own daughter? The point the author makes in his aside is that in fiction, people do change. Stories, in fact, are about change. If characters didn't change, stories wouldn't be very interesting. But do people change in real life?

My movie discussion group tackled this very question two weeks ago tonight. The movie was Groundhog Day, that now classic film about a shallow TV weatherman, Phil Connors, who relives the same day hundreds, probably thousands of times, until he finally gets it right, acting not out of self-interest but because he sincerely loves and respects every person he meets. The fact that it takes Phil three days just to avoid stepping into the pothole filled with icy water shows he is a slow learner, but eventually he does become a better person. But is he really changed, we wondered, or may he eventually go back to being the kind of man he was on that first Groundhog Day?

Yet whatever Winegardner or his narrator thinks, people do seem to change in real life. Often this is simply because of maturity or advancing age. There is usually a point in the criminal justice system where repeat offenders become just mostly harmless old people. Youthful playboys sometimes become faithful spouses. From what we know of the Apostle Paul and former Watergate villain Charles Colson, religious conversion can also change people.

Even so, for many of us to change dramatically, it would take more than a few thousand Groundhog Days.

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