Young to Old – Do People Really Change?

It is a perennial question:  Do people ever really change?  The other night we watched Odd Couple II, a good but inferior sequel (1998) to the original movie (1968) based on the wonderful play by Neil Simon.  Neil Simon also wrote the movie versions.  The whole basis of the sequel is, of course, that Felix and Oscar have not changed over all these years.  They have made small adjustments to life, and life has had to make large adjustments to them. This all makes for good comedy.  But, of course, this is just a movie.  Do real people ever change? Are old people different from their younger selves?

People do make major changes in their exterior life.  They change careers, spouses, location.  They give up drinking, take up religion.  But do they really change?  We have all seen many dry drunks and unmerciful Christians.  Is there an age after which our personality loses much of its plasticity?  Everyone has friends who married people hoping to change them – often with disastrous results.  Change is not easy. 

If you have occasion to meet someone after many years (think of class reunions), you might converse with them as if it were yesterday, and remark – as if it were a compliment – that they “haven’t changed a bit.”  High school reunions are full of women who still act like beauty queens long after their looks are gone, and former athletes who have dropped the habit of exercise but retained the bravado of the football field.

Novels have been written about characters who only appear to change.  In Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge, the mayor starts out bad, appears to reform, and ends up in the despicable state in which he started.  Shakespeare’s characters seldom change – Iago is Iago until the end, regardless of the consequences.  In Marilynne Robinson’s Gideon novels, the character Jack is a winsome man who makes other people suffer.  Such he is as a child and such he is until the end.  Jack is sorry sometimes, but he does not change.

There is some literature in which characters change – there is even a word for such characters in writer’s jargon.  They are called dynamic.  Some examples might be Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations or Eliot’s Silas Marner.  We like these stories (or the Hallmark versions of them) because we want to believe that people can change, that we ourselves can change.

I have often thought that in old age certain characteristics refine and crystallize themselves.  A frugal man becomes a tyrant over the purse strings and won’t permit so much as a tablespoon of mayonnaise to be wasted.  A woman who has spent most of her life worrying about how she looks, indulges in plastic surgery and spa treatments as the sags.  Worried young people become fretful elders.  I have a number of friends I have known since they were young; few have changed much and for that I am mostly grateful.

The brain is an amazing instrument.  In it are trapped all we have learned, all the tracks of our habits, and all the memories of the pleasant and painful.  If you have loved anyone with dementia, you know that the brain can change, personality can change – all without the consent of the individual.  AA says that sometimes drunks have to hit bottom to change.  Saints often changed after some kind of mystical experience.  Near collisions with death have known to be effective. But how much change can we control?  Interesting question.

I’ve written many stories about change, including a series modeled after the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which people literally change into other beings based on their just desserts in the minds of the gods.  The introduction to those stories is here; an example is my tale “What Crime is There in Error.”   Most of my stories, though, do not assume that the people change; characters often have realizations about themselves and others, but there are no miraculous conversions on the road to Damascus – or the road to old age. 

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