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>>>> Character and self improvement (I).
28/10/2011

• The window for a change.
• A change of perspective.

 

The window for a change.

The kid was 14 years old and we could easily say that he was a total disaster. He had a very bad character and he was incredibly apathetic about everything. He barely paid attention in the classroom, and at home he opened the books even less. It seemed he did could not get excited about anything. His parents were desperate.

I remember that his teachers were very worried about the situation, the toughest challenge they faced in the classroom that year. He almost didn’t listen to the advice they gave him, and nobody knew what to do with him. Everything suggested the kid had a very dark future in front of him.

The school year finished. Life goes on and I didn’t know anything about him for a long while. But seven years later we saw each other in a cafeteria on a very rainy September afternoon.

I was happy to see him smile. He had just turned 21 and he was about two feet taller. Meeting him was just a coincidence. But I am used to seeing grown men who were my pupils, and I generally invite them to chat afterwards. When we sat down at the cafeteria, I asked him how life was treating him.

My first surprise was to learn that he was going to be a senior in college in a tough university where he was studying a career which was not easy at all. He had not repeated a single school year, and he had pretty good grades. While he was talking, I was remembering those long meetings in the teachers’ room. Even I said sometimes that only a miracle could save the kid from not finishing high school.

Well, the miracle had happened. His life had changed completely. It was not just a little change, but a complete one. His life was totally different. It really seemed that I was talking with a different person. The only things that survived from those past school years were his first name and his last name.

I was intrigued to know how the changed had occurred. I told him: “Look, you have to explain to me what happened to make you change that much. I am astonished.”

The question caught him a little off guard. He stopped talking for a couple of seconds, trying to put some order in his thoughts. He turned more serious and finally he started explaining his story, and he did it slowly but firmly.

“Look, everything happened on a given day,” he said. “Maybe you would think it is a bit strange, and maybe it is, but it happened on a given day, during the morning. I had been awful for a couple of weeks. Well, to tell you the truth, for a couple of years. For a very long while, I had been listening to the same, coming from my parents, my teachers, from everybody. Always the same - that I was a disaster, that I was threatening my happiness, that I was going to be a disgraced if I kept following the same path… and all those things old people always say.”

I interrupted him for a moment, because I was a little curious to ask him what he was thinking when old people were telling him all those things.

“Well, I don’t know how to tell you,” he added. “All of that just came and went. I did not pay attention at all. I was kind of tired of listening to the same advice all the time.”

“It is not that I did not understand the explanations they were giving me, but I was just simply not paying attention to them. I had been told the same more than a thousand times, and when somebody charged again with them, I just disconnected and faded away from the conversation. I had built a mental wall to protect myself form all those things. I just preferred not to think about it, so all the advice was like listening to the rain falling down.

“Well, let me go back to that given day. I remember it as if it were yesterday. We were all preparing ourselves for exams and we did not have to go to class so we could study. Of course, I didn’t care much about studying. I was anxious about the exams, but I was also anxious about not studying for the whole year, knowing I was going to fail the tests again.

“I was very sleepy, and I was seriously thinking about going back to bed. The course was really bad, so going back to bed meant a sure failure, and things would get uglier than they already were.

“I had woken up pretty early and I had this idea going over and over in my mind. I was saying to myself if I thought I was going to be like that for my entire life. What about when I would be 50 or 60? It just could not happen, something had to change. I realized I could not stay like that for the rest of my life.

“Maybe I had a moment of clarity or maybe it was because I really pictured myself later on in my life if I continued in the same path. Therefore, I took the chance to think about some serious things, on things until then I had never, ever thought about.

“I couldn’t get excited about anything. I was consumed by laziness. Honestly, it was a pretty anxious feeling. I didn’t know where all of that could take me. It was like falling downhill in the dark, going faster and faster each time, and more and more out of control each time. You end up realizing that you never know when everything is going to finish.

“I started thinking that my life was a failure, giving credit to everything I was told by so many people. But this time it was different. No one had said anything. It was me talking to myself. And I changed. Just like that.”

He raised his eyes, thinking how to summarize the whole thing, and concluded: “Since then I know one thing - good advice gives you the opportunity to change, but nothing else. If you do not interiorize them, if you do not make a serious commitment, they are just simple words. Advice can be as good as you want it to be, but if you do not make it yours, it could even backfire, especially if you listen to it a thousand times.

“Listening to something is completely different to taking it on board and making it yours. To really improve, the only way is to individually tell yourself the things you did not want to hear.”

While I was listening to him, I was remembering some other similar cases. I thought in those boys and girls that we see crawling through life. We tell them all those things they should say, they should do, and we get mad about their apathy and their indolence. Probably, we have not realized that they have a much deeper problem: that have not decided to take their own life under command.

The reasons for that attitude could be diverse. Maybe they received a very passive education or maybe their education was so protective that it would not allow them to grow individually. Maybe, because of enjoying a very comfortable life, they tend to hide from problems. Maybe they just do not want to pursue higher values or maybe, for any given reason, they are just not accountable for themselves. In summary, they forget they are the ones playing the game, and a very important one, the game of their lives.

That old pupil of mine woke up because he was worried about his future. He made me remember something I read years ago from Zubiri, who said that the question “what is going to happen with my life?” always ends up being the key in the ethical life of every human being.

I thought his story was very interesting, but I interrupted him again. I wanted to know how tough it had been for him to change after making that serious decision that highly profitable morning.

“You want to know it was tough?” he asked. “Of course it was, very, very tough. But I was clear about it, and that made the difference. I was tired of going downhill in the dark. I had fallen so far down, that I could not wait one more second to start getting up. So, I changed. It was hard, but it was like living a new life for me.”

“It is ironic, but it is terrible how much you can suffer when you make an option for an easy life. Now I can see clearly that living like that was like being in hell. But I just did not know other options, and I did not think that working hard for a change was worth it. I think that for finding the meaning to things, first you have to fight for them. But of course the worst part is to let yourself be carried on, riding the waves, but getting hit by everything. When you lose your balance, you just do not know where you are going to end up.”

He told me a true story and he was sincere about it. He really made me think about the change. I realized that some key decisions in people’s lives do not come from something small that happens. They come from clearly thinking, and sometimes they have their own specific day and time.

Of course it is not the same, but it reminded me of that reflection made by Victor Frankl in his tiny Nazi guardroom - in life we can really overcome those elements that condition our existence and that sometimes look like they are made to define our destiny.

Every person has an interior window for changing, a window that can only be opened from the inside. Everybody can change. The key is to be serious about your own change. The advice comes from Epicteto: nobody has more power to convince you than you.

A change of perspective.

Until it was known in depth, around the middle of the 19th century, that microbes cause illnesses, medical investigators were very worried about why people were suffering infections at hospitals.

Complications after surgery appeared too often and their consequences sometimes were very dangerous, small cuts started bad the processes of suppuration, a large percentage of women died as a consequence of infections generated after they gave birth. But nobody knew why all that was taking place.

After his very important bacteriological discoveries in the field of fermentation, Louis Pasteur announced in 1859 that the infection processes were caused by the action of a germ. But, where were those germs coming from? Until then, everybody who analyzed the situation thought things happened without reason, but Pasteur found specific microbes related to different infections. He discovered that microbes are living creatures that go from one body to another.

A few years later, English surgeon Joseph Lister found out that the way to stop infections was to use drastic antiseptic rules. For example, when dealing with open fractures, by using phenols as antiseptic products he was able to reduce the percentage of death from 50 to 15%.

Then, Pasteur discovered that those germs that cause illnesses could be isolated and cultivated. If they are placed in a very small amount in healthy bodies, they can act to immunize them. Pasteur’s finding is known as vaccine.

When the microbe theory was developed, hospital treatment and almost the whole medical science field was seen from a different perspective. The better understanding of what was happening made it possible to take huge steps forward. Just a new way of seeing things generated very powerful transformations.

This is a perfect analogy to describe how many people experience a huge change in their thoughts at a given moment of their lives. They discover a new face to reality, and this turns into a change for them in those things they defined as the keys to understand life. A discovery of this type makes us change our old keys for new ones which are on the right track.

For example, when someone has a bad accident or faces a crisis that could be a big change in his life, or goes through a painful illness, suddenly his priorities change and are seen under a different light. This also happens when a person has to face different responsibilities at work or his life role changes 180 degrees, like becoming a husband, a wife or a parent. Rapidly the way of seeing things changes completely for this person.

If we have to make little changes to our daily life, it might be enough to focus in placing a greater effort on the small things, looking to improve our behaviour and fighting against our shortcomings. But if we are looking for a bigger change, we just need to change our perspective.

As an example, Stephen Covey recommends us to think when somebody has gone into 25 or 50 years of marriage. He says we can also think when somebody finishes working in a company after many years of service. Covey says we should think of all the emotions that take place in those types of moments. He points out that we should think right now how we would like to live an experience like those ones.

Another example would be to think that you learn right now you are only going to live three more months. What would you do? Probably, the whole perspective of your life would change. Probably some values that you never thought were important would develop immediate importance.

Probably the relationship you have with your parents or your children would change drastically. Probably you would change the way you go about your marriage or friendship. Probably some things that have been so important to you up to now would lose their importance.

Of course, you cannot live life like you are going to die in three months. But this could be a good mental exercise to help us focus on things we normally do not take into consideration. This could help us in analyzing which are the key principles in our life, identifying what is really important.

Unfortunately, life sometimes becomes a heavy daily routine, and sometimes we need to stop and think exactly what we want. We cannot forget that values and principles are meant to give consistency to our existence. Therefore, they are our biggest treasure (a treasure that is safe from fire, robbery and a drop in the stock market).

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