Growth & Maturity Archives - The School Of Life

Part of the pain of growing older is that we can start to see how much, at certain points, we misunderstood ourselves, what the costs of missing self-knowledge were and how beautiful it could be if we could just build ourselves a time machine and go back and correct all our mistakes.

It’s because – at the age of seven – we had no idea about standing up to an adult that we let ourselves get trampled upon by a parent and then grew up as a target for bullies for much of our lives.

It’s because at seventeen, we were so uncertain about our value that there was no way we could seduce someone we liked and wasted what might have been some of our most promising years in loneliness and self-hatred.

It’s because at thirty, we couldn’t understand how our romantic tastes had been formed by our family histories that we embarked on an incautious relationship that spoilt multiple lives.

The better responses, when we do finally achieve them, are so simple as to be almost insulting. But something can be no less crucial for sounding ‘minor’: a missing screw can, after all, bring down a 55 tonne airliner. We may realise – far too late – that we need to believe in ourselves, overcome the snobbishness of our parents, correct the distorted images we have of figures of authority, stop worrying what others think, live by our own values and be free.

If only we could land our elegant time machine next to our younger selves and whisper them such advice: we’d have left home with our dignity intact, we’d have had the love we craved, we’d have spared ourselves relationship agonies. It’s so tantalising, no wonder we often stay up late fantasising about being able to go back in our time machine knowing then what we know now.

But not picking up key lessons wasn’t a casual oversight. Wise lessons were around, but we weren’t ready. Our inattention was inevitable rather than accidental. We might have laughed defensively if someone had suggested going to psychotherapy aged seventeen. We would have called emotional intelligence ‘psychobabble.’ We were wedded to our illnesses. 

We might try to be kinder to ourselves by recalibrating how easy certain emotional steps ever really are. They can certainly be summed up to sound simple. But there is nothing at all simple about correcting mental unwellness. It can legitimately be the work of a lifetime, and the achievement of which we are by far the most proud, to one day be able feel fundamentally content with ourselves, not scared all the time, reconciled to our careers and holding the hand of an ordinary kind clever person who loves us and whom we love. That only ever looks easy; in reality, there’s nothing more complicated in the universe.

It’s an enormous privilege to have an adolescence — and, to an extent rarely spoken about, not everyone gets the chance to have one. Adolescence isn’t just a particular time of one’s second decade, and it won’t unfold automatically simply when one reaches fourteen or seventeen and three quarters.

Adolescence properly understood is a state in which we’re able to explore — with courage and newfound independence — who we might be outside of the projections and mental dictates placed upon us with enormous ingenuity and great force by our parents.

Photo by Louie Castro-Garcia on Unsplash

Parents are the greatest propagandists that any of us will ever meet with – and part of their genius is that we rarely know what they are up to. Below the surface they are engaged in a ruthless and ongoing attempt to sell us a version of reality: to tell us what we are ‘really’ like, what we actually need, what life is truly about — and who they have been and what their motives are. It goes without saying that some of their ideas will be eminently correct but the function of adolescence is to take a good long look at, and deal with, the ones that aren’t.

Adolescence is an initially inarticulate and then gradually more discerning protest against everything that has come to feel false, ill-fitting and superfluously applied to our identities since we were born. We may realise, as we progress through adolescence, that we really aren’t interested in particular sides of the workplace that our parents have held in high esteem, that we don’t care about a given approach to morality or vision of politeness and goodness and that we would prefer to join the circus – or Goldman Sachs.

Good parents are secure enough not to mind, they can accept that their child may have turned into that always rather remarkable thing: a separate person. They can even take it if their children are furious for a while, try to kill them in their imaginations and see all their incompetence and stupidity without a filter of sentimentality or fear: what clever people they are to be able to perceive things so distinctly! What a tribute to one’s parenting to allow such loathing to play out!

The difficulty lies with the parents who brook no such opposition; who are too vengeful, depressed or anxious to tolerate dissent and force us to disown bits of ourselves in order to retain their love.

The good news is that it’s never too late for an adolescence. We can start to have one as soon as we realise our right to define ourselves away from parental laws. We can even do it in secret. Without spots to give things away, no one will have to know the critical task that is at play beneath our sober middle-aged facades: a belated search for our true selves.

Perhaps the finest way to develop a loving attitude towards other people is to recall, in the face of their difficulty, that we are, in the end, all children.

The claim is an odd one. Adults are clearly not children. They have powers of reasoning that quite outstrip those of younger people, they have options and a sound grasp of right and wrong, they are capable of causing serious damage; they should know better. 

Children, on the other hand, are well-known for their powers to melt our hearts. Partly this has to do with their physical appearance: with their unusually large eyes, their full cheeks, their unthreatening statures, their tiny fat fleshy fingers. But ultimately, the child attracts our tenderness because, when they act in ‘bad’ or tricky ways, it tends to be easy to work out why they have done so: they hit their little sister because they were feeling left out; they started to steal things from the other children because their parents were going through a divorce; they ran away from the party without saying goodbye because they were panicked by a sense of unworthiness.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Overall, when it comes to the psychology of children, we discover a surprising and hugely gentle truth: that ‘badness’ and difficulty are, invariably, the result of some form of pain, discomfort, hurt or wound. The child does not start by being dreadful, they become so in response to injury, fear or sorrow. 

With adults on the other hand, confronted by nasty or terrible behaviour, our thoughts do not – for understandable reasons – generally turn to imagining why it might have occurred. We’re satisfied with nimble and compressed reasons: because they’re an arsehole, because they’re crazy. This will do for now.

And yet it is always open to us to wonder why someone acted as they did – and here we are liable to stumble on an always provocative and properly revolutionary idea: the reason why little children and big people do wrong is – despite the differences in age and size – exactly the same. One category may be no bigger than a chair, the other can be gigantic and able to carry guns, post lengthy screeds online or start and bankrupt companies, but in the end, the psychology of blunder, meanness and anger is always the same: evil is a consequence of injury. The big person did not start off evil, their difficult sides were not hard wired from the start, they grew towards malice on account of some form of wound waiting to be discovered.

It is work of extraordinary patience and humanity – it is the work of love – to go in search of what these wounds might be. To search is morally frightening because we too easily imagine that it might require us to wind up thinking well of behaviour we know is abhorrent: it doesn’t at all, we can remain appalled while simultaneously tracing a path back to the true catalytic factors. The work can also be practically frightening because we imagine that it might require us to leave someone at liberty to cause us or others yet more pain: but again, we can keep the wrong doer safely behind very high bars, even as we sensitively explore the origins of their violations.

Once the full stories of our trespassers become known, our perspective may swiftly rework itself. The bully who pursued us online had once worked as a porter, then been fired some years back and fallen into depression and was facing the bankruptcy courts. The angry populist politician was remorselessly belittled by a powerful father. The sexually impulsive person used their addiction to calm themselves down from some unmasterable anxieties related to early emotional neglect. Our judgement on behaviour never has to change; our sense of why it occurred can be transformed.

The discipline of psychotherapy has been central in helping us to chart the sometimes unobvious or contrary connections between a symptom and its genesis. Boastfulness may have its roots in fear; anger can mask terror; hatred can be a defence against love. The haughty air of the grown up can take hold as a way of compensating for invisibility. A satirical manner can be a shield against an exiled longing for sweetness. 

The prison system in most countries tends to place people below the age of eighteen in separate young offenders’ institutions, which treat inmates with a degree of kindness and hope – in order to delve into the psychology of transgression with a view to understanding and overcoming its causes. But after this age, for the most part, prisoners are locked up in bare cells and the key is – metaphorically – thrown away. They should, after all, have known better.

And yet we are all, as it were, young offenders, however old we might actually be; in other words, we all need our crimes to be treated with a degree of sympathy and empathetic investigation. It is an exquisite feat of mind to be able to imagine them as always still, at some level, infants in a cradle.

For a long time, we may cope well enough. We make it to work every morning, we give pleasant summaries of our lives to friends, we smile over dinner. We aren’t totally balanced, but there’s little way of knowing how difficult things might be for other people, and what we have a right to expect in terms of contentment and peace of mind. We probably tell ourselves to stop being self-indulgent and redouble our efforts to feel worthy through achievement. We are probably world experts in not feeling sorry for ourselves.

Decades may pass. It’s not uncommon for the most serious mental conditions to remain undiagnosed for half a life time. We simply don’t notice that we are, beneath the surface, chronically anxious, filled with self-loathing and close to overwhelming despair and rage. This too simply ends up feeling normal.

Until one day, finally, something triggers a collapse. It might be a crisis at work, a reversal in our career plans or a mistake we’ve made over a task. It might be a romantic failure, someone leaving us or a realisation that we are profoundly unhappy with a partner we had thought might be our long-term future. Alternatively, we feel mysteriously exhausted and sad, to the extent that we can’t face anything any more, even a family meal or a conversation with a friend. Or we are struck by unmanageable anxiety around everyday challenges, like addressing our colleagues or going into a shop. We’re swamped by a sense of doom and imminent catastrophe. We sob uncontrollably.

We are in a mental crisis and, if we are lucky, we will know to put up the white flag at once. There is nothing shameful or rare in our condition; we have fallen ill, as so many before us have. We need not compound our sickness with a sense of embarrassment. This is what happens when one is a delicate human facing the hurtful, alarming and always uncertain conditions of existence. Recovery can start the moment one admits one no longer has a clue how to cope.

The roots of the crisis almost certainly go a long way back. Things will not have been right in certain areas for an age, possibly forever. There will have been grave inadequacies in the early days, things that were said and done to us that should never have occurred and bits of reassurance and care that were ominously missed out on. On top of this, adult life will have layered on difficulties which we were not well equipped to know how to endure. It will have applied pressure along our most tender, invisible faultlines. 

Our illness is trying to draw attention to our problems, but it can only do so inarticulately, by throwing up coarse and vague symptoms. It knows how to declare that we are worried and sad, but it can’t tell us what about and why. That will be the work of patient investigation, over months and years, probably in the company of experts. The illness contains the cure, but it has to be teased out and its original inarticulacy interpreted. Something from the past is crying out to be recognised – and will not leave us alone until we have given it its due.

It may seem – at points – like a death sentence but we are, beneath the crisis, being given an opportunity to restart our lives on a more generous, kind and realistic footing. There is an art to being ill – and to daring at last to listen to what our pain is trying to tell us.

It is a characteristic temptation of the mind to declare things to be either very very good or very very bad. Nuance is not our species’ strong point or natural resting place.

It was the singular achievement of the mid-twentieth century child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein to trace this problem back to early childhood. For Klein, infants and small children are inveterate dividers of the world into opposing camps of the brilliant and the awful and they act in this way from the moment they emerge and have their first feed at the breast. Klein proposed that a newborn has no clear idea, at the very start, that its mother is even a whole person. She is just, at the outset, a pair of breasts from which stem the source of all life and goodness. Sometimes, when a feed is going well, when the milk is flowing strongly and nourishingly, the breast is a source of delight and perfection, it is impeccable and superb, it is scrupulously good. But at other points, when it’s hard to latch on to the nipple, when the milk is resistant, the frustration is intolerable. The baby deems the breast defective, vengeful, useless and definitively bad. And so, in a mental process that Klein famously termed ‘splitting’, the infant ends up dividing the mother into nothing less than a good and a bad breast.

Eventually the child develops a capacity for more integrated and complex thoughts. It makes an astonishing realisation: that the breasts actually belong to a full person. And more importantly, that this person happens to be (strangely) both good and bad, both helpful and frustrating, both gratifying and maddening. Furthermore, a lot of people seem to have this dual nature; they can be fun and interesting one moment, then really very irritating at another. Far from reflecting some rare deficiency, this duality is part of every human being, not least itself. The child begins to accept that it too is a mixture of the good and the bad – but that this is no reason to hate or give up on itself. Life can be lived in shades of grey.

Klein was under no illusion about how easy these realisations might be to reach. She suggested that surrendering a black and white view is so hard for children that doing so will throw them into a period of melancholy thoughtfulness and contemplation that she called ‘depressive realism’. In this mournful state, they will shed some of their uninhibited early liveliness and process grave and difficult thoughts as to the ambivalent nature of everything. They begin to recognise that the world has nothing entirely pure to offer them – but then again, to compensate, that there are far fewer utterly horrible things as well. Mummy is very nice but also deeply annoying; daddy is funny but properly idiotic. Nursery isn’t constantly great, but it isn’t hell either.

In the course of her therapeutic work, Klein realised that not every adult has managed to go through the stage of ‘depressive realism’. A huge number of us are still stuck somewhere deep in the ‘splitting’ phase. That is, we continuously imagine that people and situations are completely pure and wonderful or appalling and detestable. Someone who doesn’t agree with us politically is, for example, immediately a thorough villain: corrupt, hateful and deserving of total infamy. An ex partner who has frustrated us must be a monster guilty of heinous behaviour and the worst motives. Someone who holds us back at the office is evidently entirely nefarious. The person we met on a dating site two and a half days ago is wholly beautiful and sensational to the core. The world contains one or two true goodies, and a lot more complete baddies waiting for justice to be served.

Klein’s insight was to associate maturity with a rejection of all divisive ‘split’ positions. To be a proper grown up is to realise that there are no paragons and monsters, no deities and total reprobates. There are only people somewhere in the middle, trying to act well, making mistakes, striving to say sorry, hoping to do better – and always full of regrets, embarrassment and a longing for forgiveness. Little babies are very sweet, but splitting is anything but. It lies at the heart of the most noxious forms of totalitarianism, vengefulness, intolerance and political oppression; there is an angry splitting toddler inside the general who orders the extermination of prisoners and inside the revolutionary who coldly has their victims eliminated. One of our greatest of all achievements is a melancholy and essential realisation: that everyone, not least ourselves, is a mixture of devil and angel and that therefore tolerance and forbearance are truly non-negotiable features of a bearable world.

Some of the reason why adult life can be greyer and more miserable than it should be is that our earliest years are generally made up of a prolonged and highly formative encounter with the idea of obedience. Throughout childhood, there is little doubt that the path to maturity must involve doing a litany of substantially unpleasant things demanded of us by figures of authority whom we cannot question. No one asks if we would be particularly interested in learning about the angles of triangles or what a volt really is, but we obey in any case. We give over our days and much of our evenings and weekends to complying with an agenda elaborated for us by people whose concern with our happiness is at best highly abstract. We put on our blue or grey jumper and sit at a desk and study the plotline of Macbeth or the chemical properties of helium – and trust that our boredom and distaste must be substantially wrong.

We then become inclined to extend this attitude into our dealings with the wider world. We assume that what we particularly want should never be the important factor. We opt for a career on the basis that – to others – it looks like the right thing to subscribe to. At parties we’ll be able to answer the question what do you do? in a way that – by consensus – is unobjectionable or somewhat impressive. At the same time, we learn to see freedom as both appealing and, in a way, absurd. We’ll be free, we feel, when we don’t have anything else to fill our time with: on Saturday mornings or when we’re retired. 

In the process, we become highly adept at rationalising our frustrations. We tell ourselves that we have no option. We have to stick with a job that we resent or a marriage that has grown stale because (we say) we need the money or our friends would be disappointed or it’s the kind of thing everyone like us has to do. We become geniuses at elaborating excuses that make our unhappiness look necessary and sane. 

The mid-twentieth century British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott encountered many patients – often high-performing and prestigious ones – who were in acute distress because they were, as he put it, ‘too good.’ They had never felt the inner freedom and security to say no, largely because their earliest caregivers would have viewed the expression of their authentic feelings as a threatening insurrection they had to quash. Winnicott proposed that health could only come about from counteracting this tendency to subordinate too quickly – and too trustingly – to the preferences of others, including people who might claim to care a lot about us. Being ‘bad’ in a salutary way in Winnicott’s vision wouldn’t have to mean breaking the law or becoming aggressive; it would mean finding the inner freedom to do things others might find disconcerting on the basis that we, our authentic selves, have a sincere wish to explore them. It would be founded on a very profound view that others can never ultimately be the best custodians of our lives, for their instincts about what’s acceptable haven’t been formed on the basis of a deep knowledge of our unique needs.

We tend to fantasise about freedom in terms of not having to work or of being able to take off on long trips. But if we dig into its core, freedom really means no longer being beholden to the expectations of others. We may, quite freely, work very hard or stay at home during the holidays. The decisive factor is our willingness to disappoint, to upset or to disconcert others in doing so. We don’t need to relish this – we may by nature be inclined to get on well with as many people as possible. But we can live with the idea that our central choices might not meet with general approval. At the party, we can risk someone not being at all impressed by what we do, or regarding our living arrangements as unorthodox or our opinions as odd. But we don’t mind too much – because we’ve become free. Our sense of what our life is about is no longer so confused with the notion of meeting the expectations of others.

To be free, ultimately, is to be devoted – in ways that might be strenuous – to meeting our own expectations.

It’s natural to think of ourselves as a single person. We have – after all – only one body and answer to only one name. But inside our minds, we are in truth far more like an assemblage of voices or – as we might put it at its starkest – of ‘people.’

We could picture our minds like a theatre, much of it sunk in darkness, with a brightly illuminated lectern and microphone at the center of the stage. At different moments of our days and nights, contrasting characters will seek to step up to speak and interpret the world unfolding before our eyes. Sometimes, it will be the panicker, a prominent figure alarmed by everything, someone who has always known it will all go wrong and quickly resorts to weeping and wailing in the face of even minor difficulties. Sometimes it will be the self-flagellator, the one who speaks very sternly, insists that everything is our fault and berates us that we don’t, ultimately, deserve to exist. Sometimes it is the depressive, who knows that existence is an appalling error, that hope cannot survive and that our direction is towards doom and catastrophe. What unites these characters is that they are, in their diverse ways, very keen to speak and very very unhelpful.

But we need to keep a surprising idea in mind, that we all also have – though we are not quite aware of the fact and therefore rarely do anything to encourage them to come forward – an adult inside us. The adult may be lingering in the wings, they may be in a seat at the very back of the theatre or in some dark winding corridor backstage. But they are there. We have – over the course of our lives – all had just enough experience of other kindly, impressive adults, for this character to have taken shape and developed a capacity to interpret life, even if only in somewhat tentative form.

When we can allow them on stage, the adult brings some key virtues to the microphone in our minds. They are, above anything else, resourceful. In the face of trouble, they look for solutions. They know there can be some way through. They don’t despair at the first hurdle. It might be hard right now, but things will work themselves out eventually; they always do. What’s more, the adult is kind: they extend compassion to us for our difficulties: they know our troubled histories and how easy it would have been for anyone to slip up in our position. They can bring perspective to bear on questions: in the wider scheme, something may be of only miniscule importance; the adult applies distance to problems. They have a sense of how long life can be and how much time there is for us to recover. They are practical too: at moments, they will simply but authoritatively tell us to go to bed, not to think about it till morning and to make sure we are eating properly.

The good news is that however unused we are to hearing the adult speak to us on the stage of our minds, they can – with patience – be coaxed into doing so far more regularly than they do right now. We can develop how often, and how loudly, the adult inside delivers its verdicts. And what’s more, encouraging this adult voice requires no particular technical skill or arcane practice. All we need to do – at important moments when our other inner characters will be rushing to get to the microphone of the mind – is to hold them all back purposefully, breathe deeply and ask ourselves one simple but categorical question: what would the adult say here?

For example, in the course of a difficult conversation with a partner, our question to ourselves should be: what would the adult say…? When we’re feeling low and dejected, we should know to ask: what would the adult say…? When someone hasn’t called us, we should interrupt the panic and whisper: what would the adult say…?

We can thereby, with a little practice, come to see that we invariably have a choice about who speaks inside us. Of course the panicker, the depressive and the self-hater will always be offering their services to make lengthy speeches to us about our failings and our dark prospects. But we have an option to call time on them and request someone else to take to the stage. We may need to search for them a bit more assiduously, we may need to do a certain amount of persuasion and training to help them find their way up the steps in the semi-darkness in good time. We might have to implore them to come up right now. But it can be done. At any moment of difficulty, we can simply say: What would the adult me do here?

And miraculously, there will always be an answer in our minds, because however difficult our past might have been, we’ll have banked enough experience of adulthood to put this character together. Now the challenge is regularly to check in and ensure that the adult has as much of our airtime as possible. It’s entirely within our remits to shape the running order of who speaks to us and when. The adult is already inside us, now we need to give them the stage – and ensure we listen to the wisdom they, and therefore we, already well know about how to lead the rest of our lives. 

One of the more puzzling aspects of the way we’re built is that our emotional development does not necessarily or automatically keep pace with our physical growth. We can be fifty-five on the outside and four and a half in terms of our impulses and habitual manner of communicating – just as we can be on the threshold of adulthood physically while an emotional sage within. 

In order to assess our own and others’ emotional development, we can make use of a single deceptively simple question that quickly gets to the core of our underlying emotional ‘age’.

When someone on whom we depend emotionally lets us down, disappoints us, or leaves us hanging and uncertain, what is our characteristic way of responding?

There are three methods which indicate emotionally immature behaviour (we might grade ourselves on a scale of 1-10 according to our propensities).

Firstly: we might sulk.

That is, we simultaneously get very upset while refusing to explain to the person who has upset us what the problem might be. The insult to our pride and dignity feels too great. We are too internally fragile to reveal that we have been knocked. We hope against hope that another person might simply magically understand what they have done and fix it without us needing to speak – rather as an infant who hasn’t yet mastered language might a hope a parent would spontaneously enter their minds and guess what was ailing them.

Secondly: we might get furious.

Another response is to get extremely, and disproportionately angry with the disappointing person. Our fury may look powerful, but no one who felt powerful would have any need for such titanic rage. Inside, we feel broken, at sea and bereft. But our only way of reasserting control is to mimic an aggrieved emperor or taunted tiger. Our insults and viciousness are, in their coded ways, admissions of terror and defencelessness. Our pain is profoundly poignant; our manner of dealing with it a good deal sadder.

Thirdly: we might go cold.

It takes a lot of courage to admit to someone who has hurt us that we care, that they have a power over us, that a key bit of our life is in their hands. It may be a lot easier to put up a strenuous wall of indifference. At precisely the moment when we are most emotionally vulnerable to a loved one’s behaviour, we insist that we haven’t noticed a slight and wouldn’t give a damn anyway. We may not simply be pretending: remaining in touch with our wounds may have become conclusively intolerable. Not feeling anything may have replaced the enormous threat of being fully alive.

These three responses point us in turn to the three markers of emotional maturity:

Firstly, the Capacity to Explain.

That is, the power – simple to describe but a proper accomplishment in practice – to explain why we are upset to the person who has upset us; to have faith that we can find the words, that we are not pathetic or wretched for suffering in a given way and that, with a bit of luck, we will find the words to make ourselves understood by someone whom we can remember, deep down, even at this moment of stress, is not our enemy.

Secondly, the Capacity to stay Calm.

The mature person knows that robust self-assertion is always an option down the line. This gives them the confidence not to need to shout immediately, to give others the benefit of every doubt and not to assume the worst and then hit back with undue force. The mature like themselves enough not to suspect that everyone would have a good reason to mock and slander them.

Thirdly, the Capacity to be Vulnerable

The mature know, and have made their peace with the idea, that being close to anyone will open them up to being hurt. They feel enough inward strength to possess a tolerable relationship with their own weakness. They are unembarrassed enough by their emotional nakedness to tell even the person who has apparently humiliated them that they are in need of help. They trust – ultimately – that there is nothing wrong with their tears and that they have the right to find someone who will know how to bear them.

In turn, these three traits belong to what we can call the three cardinal virtues of emotional maturity: Communication, Trust and Vulnerability.

These three virtues were either gifted to us during a warm and nourishing childhood or else we will need to learn them arduously as adults. This is akin to the difference between growing up speaking a foreign language, and having to learn it over many months as an adult. However, the comparison at least gives us an impression of the scale of the challenge ahead of us. There is nothing to be ashamed of about our possible present ignorance. At least half of us weren’t brought up in the land of emotional literacy. We may just never have heard adults around us speaking an emotionally mature dialect. So we may – despite our age – need to go back to school and spend 5 to 10,000 hours learning, with great patience and faith, the beautiful and complex grammar of the language of emotional adulthood.

‘Can people change?’ The question may sound somewhat abstract and disinterested, as if one were asking for a friend or for the universe, but it is likely to be a good deal more personally – and painfully – motivated than that.

We ask, typically and acutely, when we’re in a relationship with someone who is inflicting a great deal of pain on us: someone who is refusing to open their hearts or can never stop lying, someone who is aggressive or detached, someone who is harming themselves or managing to devastate us. We ask too because the one immediately obvious response to frustration isn’t in this case open to us: we’re not able to simply get up and go, we are too emotionally or practically invested to give up, something roots us to the spot. And so, with the example of one troublesome human in mind, we start to wonder outwards about human nature in general, what it might be made of and how malleable it could turn out to be.

One thing is likely already to be evident to us: even if people can change, they certainly don’t change easily. Maybe they flare up every time we raise an issue and accuse us of being cruel or dogmatic; maybe they break down late at night and admit they have a problem but by morning, vehemently deny that there could ever be anything amiss. Maybe they say yes they get it now, but then don’t ever deploy understanding where it really matters. We can at best conclude that by the time we’ve had to raise the question of change in our minds, someone around us has managed not to change either very straightforwardly or very gracefully. 

We might ask a prior question: is it even OK to want someone to change? The implication from those who generate trouble for us is, most often, an indignant ‘no’. ‘Love me for who I am’ is their mantra. But considered more imaginatively, only a perfect human would ever deny that they might need to grow a little in order more richly to deserve the love of another. For the rest of us, all moderately well-meaning and half-way decent requests for change should be heard with goodwill and in certain cases acted upon with immense seriousness. Those who bristle at the suggestion that they might need to change are – paradoxically – giving off the clearest evidence that they may be in grave need of inner evolution.

Why might change be so hard? It isn’t as if the change-resistant person is merely unsure what is amiss, and will manage to alter course once an issue is pointed out – as someone might if their attention were drawn to a strand of spinach in their teeth. The refusal to change is more tenacious and willed than this. A person’s entire character may be structured around an active aspiration not to know or feel particular things; the possibility of insight will be aggressively warded off through drink, compulsive work routines, or offended irritation with all those who attempt to spark it.

In other words, the unchanging person doesn’t only lack knowledge, they are vigorously committed to not acquiring it. And they resist it because they are fleeing from something extraordinarily painful in their past that they were originally too weak or helpless to face – and still haven’t found the wherewithal to confront. One isn’t so much dealing with an unchanging person as, first and foremost, with a traumatised one.

Part of the problem, when one is on the outside, is realising what one is up against. The lack of change can seem so frustrating because one can’t apprehend why it should be so hard. Couldn’t they simply move an inch or two in the right direction? But if we considered, at that moment, the full scale of what this person once faced, and the conditions in which their mind was formed (and certain of its doors bolted shut), we might be more realistic and more compassionate. ‘Couldn’t they just…’ would not longer quite make sense.

At the same time, very importantly, we might not stick around as long as we often do. We should at this juncture perhaps ask ourselves a question that may feel at once unfair and rather tough: given how clear the evidence is of a lack of change in a certain person, and hence of a lack of realistic hope that our needs are going to be met any time soon, why are we still here? Why are we trying to open a door that can’t open and returning to a recurring frustration and hoping for a different result? What broken part of us can’t leave a lack of fulfilment alone? What bit of our story is being re-enacted in a drama of continuously dashed hopes?

And, if we are talking of change, might we one day change into characters who don’t sit around waiting without end for other people to change? Might we become better at sifting through options and allowing through only those who can already meet the lion’s share of our needs? In addition, might we become better at deploying a dash of life-sustaining ruthlessness in order to leave those who tirelessly rebuff us? We may need to rebuild our minds in order – with time – to change into people who don’t wonder for too long if, and when, people might change.


One of the most beautiful and evocative of all words is ‘home’. Folded within it are suggestions of safety, understanding, sympathy, warmth and belonging. It is to home that we turn in our minds in desolate moments, like Odysseus longing for Ithaka, when self-doubt and fear threaten to overwhelm us, when enemies insult us and confidence ebbs. 

But, at points, to our dawning horror, we may be forced to take on board a hugely disorienting conclusion: despite our intense hopes, home may not – in fact – be home. We may have a building and a circle of people to which we are committed and where nominally we belong, but our particular ‘home’ may not for that matter live up to our yearning for respite and nurture, security and growth. Though this is where we lay our head every night, we are not especially understood here. Though this is where we have devoted so much of our time and emotional ambition, we do not find sufficient connection here. Though it breaks our heart to admit it, here we are not deeply or correctly loved.

Confusingly, even very imperfect homes can feel better than the wilderness and desolation beyond, which is why we often stay around far longer than we should. But it is, in the long term, impossible to still the insistent voice inside us, the voice that reminds us that time is short and that we are dying inside a little more each day that we remain. There may be nothing and no one waiting for us out there and yet we know that we have to step out in order to try to find certain kinds of emotional nourishment that we should – ultimately – rather die fighting for than give up on.

Maybe we’re an adolescent and we realise that the family we were born into cannot respect who we’ve grown up to be. Or we’re in a group of friends that have ceased to see the world as we do. Or perhaps we are in a relationship and have slowly despaired that our partner will ever appreciate certain ideas that matter profoundly to us. 

It shouldn’t surprise us that so many of us don’t fit our homes; we never consciously chose them. We inherited them or stumbled into them, we fell into them by accident when we were too young to understand ourselves and others – and lacked the inner steel to hold out for what we would actually have required. Now the challenge is to make a home in a more conscious way: to choose the values we want to prevail in our sanctum and the people with whom we’ll have a chance of genuine understanding.

We need a lot of courage to make ourselves voluntarily homeless, to say, I am on the road, not because there was nowhere I could stay, and no one who I could have been with, but because those places and those people that were available betrayed what should rightly belong to the word home. 

It’s notable how evocative certain images of traveller’s loneliness can feel: an isolated diner in a vast landscape, a forest in the gathering darkness, a motel room at the edge of town… What such images (by Edward Hopper or Wim Wenders, Caspar David Friedrich or Stephen Shore) capture is the ambivalence of being out on the road, at once the loneliness of being without our familiar anchor and at the same time the promise that it is only via a journey that we will be able to find a better home than the one we left behind, that it is only by moving away that we will be able properly to arrive.

There are moments when we may need to keep moving until the place we live in is – at last – able actively to honour what home should always have been.