After being a heavy smoker since she was 13, my grandmother quit smoking in her late 60s, suddenly, and with a carton of cigarettes in her pantry.  She hasn’t smoked once since then and it’s been over ten years.  She’s still living, so I can’t be sure, but I will not be surprised if she never smokes again.  When I asked her how she did it, she said, “It’s easy.  You just decide to never smoke another cigarette and then you never do.” She overcame a pattern of behavior that is typically difficult to overcome.  That seems clear evidence to me that in this sense, behavior change is possible.

Looking at her whole life, though, I can see that she has a bigger pattern of accomplishing things, of being successful: She was born poor and became wealthy.  She was a state-ranked tennis champion.  In her social circle, she is completely proper and respected.  She wins the games she plays, always.  I can see her quitting cigarettes as one of her stronger habits overcoming a weaker one.  This idea complicates the question. Does it matter? Does it make the behavior change less real or legitimate if there was no free will involved? Does the level at which the change occurs matter? Is the underlying question here whether the very root of human nature can be changed? I think it is not.

I’m more interested in answering the question in terms of development.  In this sense, my experience has been that, between the development of consciousness—the ability to apprehend and appreciate the world—and the development of skills, change is constant and usually permanent.  I used to crawl around all the time, and then I learned to walk.  That’s likely a permanent change in behavior.  In my late twenties I learned about passive-aggression and practiced eliminating it, constantly, for several years.  I’m way less likely to be passive-aggressive now and way less likely to get hooked by it in others, and it seems permanent.

My clearest examples of behavior changes based on consciousness development are in how I have thought about and related to my parents.  I first noticed a shift in our relationship when I started comparing them to my friends’ parents, in high school.  I realized that they trusted me, whereas many of my friend’s parents seemed to be strongly focused on trying to keep their teenagers ‘on track,’ paying close attention to grades and curfews and grounding them if they fell short of expectations.  There was a similar shift in my appreciation for my parents as I’ve gotten to know about their childhoods.  I’m continually amazed at how my parents were able to be so conscious about raising me when their own childhoods were in comparison so confusing and painful.  I also seem to be able to be more and more of a support to them.  Through most of my twenties it hardly occurred to me to wonder how I could best support them, and now it’s automatic and unforced.  And there is still room for growth.  I can see places that we can and will be closer, so I don’t imagine that that process will stop or even slow down.

The relationships I have with my brothers might be a more dramatic example, even.  I used to fight with them a lot—especially the ones close in age to me—and now we are best friends.  They used to be my competitors and are now my creative and intellectual collaborators.  This shift was more abrupt.  I quit hating on my brothers more like my grandmother quit cigarettes; one day I thought, “Hmm. Actually, my brothers are pretty cool,” and befriended them.

What’s the big deal with that? It’s just growing up, right?  Yes.  That’s the point.  While the changes have been momentous for me, they are just the result of growing up, becoming more aware, gaining new skills.  It’s not that it’s a big deal, but growing up means my thought processes, emotional reactions and behavior patterns keep changing.  And if it happens in me, then it probably happens in other people too.

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