Personal change and growth generally happens slowly. One’s political beliefs may shift over one’s lifetime, or a commitment to health and fitness may slowly be fostered. But generally these changes happen over a length of time, and in relative isolation from other changes.
Every once in a while, however, some belief that is fundamental to your worldview gets torn away. Like pulling out the bottom card in a house of cards, the rest comes tumbling down and must be rebuilt. Suddenly, change is thrust upon you, and you must deal with it. It’s at times like these that life gives you a reset button. All of a sudden, you have a fresh start to define who you are. You have a new chance to redefine yourself and cast yourself in a new light.
The Cost of Change
I’ve been doing a lot of redefining lately. In a few short years, I’ve gone from conservative, fundamentalist Christian to socialist, skeptical atheist. I’ve found no easy way to make that jump; it’s been a tedious process from start to finish. On top of my core beliefs about how the universe operates (divine intention or orderly chaos?), I’ve been required to rethink my secondary beliefs about politics, social justice issues, ethics, and more. There’s no way to change one’s viewpoint about all these issues and still remain the same person. I’ve discovered that the hard way. But at the same time, I believe that my reinvention was a shift in the right direction. I believe I’m a better person than I was before it happened.
I’ve gone through a lot of friends. I understand that this likely happens to everyone around this point in life: friends move away to different schools, they get jobs in different cities or countries, they go off and get married and have several thousand children (or so it seems from their frequent Facebook updates!). It’s inevitable, but it still saddens me to think of the friends with which I’ve lost contact. Still, I can’t help but believe that some of my friends have slowly distanced themselves from me due to my own shift in beliefs and opinions. I don’t really blame them—it’s hard to stay friends with someone who does a complete 180 on everything they formerly believed. It’s hard to stick around with a person who used to make anti-feminist remarks and now considers himself a feminist. But it’s still difficult to lose essentially one’s entire social circle and have to build it back up again. Sometimes the price of reinvention is steep.
One thing I initially thought would stay the same was my personality. After I lost my faith, I tried to reassure my friends (and myself!) that I was still the same person. My beliefs about God were different, sure, but I still had the same interests, the same (bad) jokes, the same attitude toward life. And that was true for a while. But I’ve since discovered that one cannot rebuild one’s life from the ground up and keep the same personality. I don’t think it can be done. That said, I think the change has been for the better. While my dry sense of humour has remained, my sarcastic remarks about my friends have decreased dramatically. My lack of a connection with some divine being that is always there to listen to me has only made me value my family and friends more. My outlook on life is more positive, I’m more open to new experiences, and as I continue to rebuild my identity, my confidence grows. In general, I think I’m a nicer, kinder person. I’m still a work in progress, of course, but I’m trying to keep up the momentum, to continue becoming a better person. But that comes at a cost—you must let go of security and self-assurance, because doing a wholesale reinvention of yourself leaves you with no stable self to hold onto in the interim. You learn to keep your mouth shut more often, because you no longer trust the words coming out of it. The words you’re saying are a product of your old self, and thus they may not be true! Everything must be spoken with an implied asterisk beside it: “Until further reflection and research is done on this issue, the views currently expressed are tentative and may be revoked at any time.” Such a proviso may be refreshing at times, but it does little to help with confidence in one’s own beliefs.
In a State of Flux
The higher cost of reinvention, though, is discarding one’s personal history. The self is made up of one’s past experiences and actions, so to redefine oneself is to throw that all away. Obviously, this can’t be done in entirety; my past is baggage I will always carry with me, no matter what. But a wedge needs to be placed in between me and my past, to divorce me from my former identity. At times it can be painful, but generally the feeling is something almost surreal, an out-of-self experience that calls me to acknowledge that yes, that was me, but it is not me now, but it is still a part of me, but it is no longer me. These moments happen to everyone sometimes, but in a process of complete overhaul, the feeling can be overwhelming. It is difficult to convince others that my past beliefs are no longer part of me, that who I was is no longer who I am, in a very real and complete sense. The request to “Tell me about yourself” is a nightmare. If I knew, I’d tell you, but the question of who am I? is perplexing enough even in my most relaxed and introspective state. When such a request is made, I’m left repeating the bare essentials: name, age, university major, basic interests. To go any deeper would require an explanation too long and complex to recite. And since I’m not entirely clear on it anyway, the questions about my own self get tricky. I know who I was, and I know roughly in what direction I am headed, but who am I now, here, today? Better just to deflect the question with a joke and move onto less troubled waters.
I admire the people who have a strong sense of who they are. When someone can say, “I’m a vegetarian” or “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a radical communist” or “I’m an NFL linebacker”, it’s simple. Sure, they’re certainly more complex than the three- or four-word phrase they just uttered, but there’s at least some identity for them on which to anchor. During a process of reinvention, any such phrases are disingenuous. At best, when speaking truthfully, one can say, “At the present time, I think I am a ________”. Or perhaps “I used to be a ________, but now I’m not so sure.” So I envy those people who can actually stamp their foot down and declare who they are. I wish I could do that. I hope that one day I will be able to. But for now, I’m in a state of transition. A work in progress. Under construction. And when I emerge from my cocoon of reinvention, perhaps I’ll be able to say with confidence, “I’m a decent human being.” But for now…I’m getting there.