C.R. writes:

Last Friday, I had a chat with a woman I’d never met before while shopping in my nearby natural foods co-op. We talked about vitamins and diet and skin care and moodiness and winter blues…a whole bunch of stuff.

It turns out, this woman and I lived two blocks away from each other so we decided to share a car service (Brooklyn’s answer to the taxi cab) back home.

There used to be a bus, but our much-beloved Mayor cut out several bus lines, including this one, which thousands of people relied on daily.*

Anyway, as we were waiting for the driver to show up, she said to me, “I could tell right away you were from out of town. I’m right, aren’t I?”

I said “yes” and said that people generally point out that I’m a bit more polite and smiley than the average Brooklynite. Well, it’s been nearly ten years, so perhaps I’m not quite so smiley or polite.

She said, “Oh, no, that’s not really what I meant. It’s just you seem so nice. I’m sure you get stepped on all the time—I bet people really take advantage of you.”

Huh? Not sure where this was heading so I said: “Well, perhaps, but certainly not all the time.”

“People are generally so nasty, though. So out to get something from everyone else,” she said. She looked sad.

“But people can change,” I said.

My new-found friend laughed hollowly and said, “People NEVER change.”

I was stymied. On the one hand, I felt bad for her, maybe she’d been hurt a lot and her experiences left her jaded or bitter. On the other hand, who hasn’t been hurt or had rough times? In fact, many of us, if not most, have had plenty of challenges, obstacles, pain, and so on. I know I have.

But people can change.

You see, I used to be pretty grumpy and not-so-nice. Prickly, even. I was kind of sharp-tongued (what I believed to be “witty” or “clever”).

At the same time, I had been seeking true spirituality for many years, trying a variety of paths, but sarcasm wasn’t anything any of these paths ever addressed. Then, over a decade ago, after committing to my spiritual development via the path of traditional Judaism,  I learned, among other things, that we need to really work on ourselves. And that sarcasm isn’t really humor, it’s a symptom. (Of bitterness, unhappiness, anger, really).

Now, I’d tried “chasing my bliss”, and “being in the moment” and “feeling good about saying no” and “getting involved” and “being authentic” and so on.

But working on my character? Changing one tiny little character trait for the better? Never heard of it, at least not in as detailed a manner as the Jewish sages taught.

But I wanted to try so I started with this one tiny character trait (I have a whole bunch that I’d like to see improvement on by the way, so give me a pass sometimes, please!)

It was something I thought was going to be simple: I was going to try to smile and be pleasant to others, as helpful as possible, whenever possible and even when it wasn’t easy.

And, as part of this, I was going to throw my old “witty”, bitingly sarcastic personality under-the-bus, so to speak. Except on occasion, like when I needed a touch of sarcastic humor when writing for an article or book, see comment about my beloved mayor and the bus, above.

Simply put: I was going to be nicer, kinder.

After over ten years I can say: Improving a character trait isn’t easy. But it is worth it.

I discovered three things along the way that are groundbreaking, shocking, even. (To me).

As I made a conscious effort to be nicer, sincere-nice, not phony-pretend-nice, I discovered something amazing. Being nice felt a bit like returning to my true, real self. I even began to have memory flashbacks—the good, warm and fuzzy, kind. I remember when I was about four, loading my little red wagon up with my dolls, teddy bears, books, and other playthings and carting them about the neighborhood, leaving a present on everyone’s doorstep. (To my parents’ dismay). I remember taking all my money (probably not much, I was six), and buying a present for my grandmother for no reason at all (I think it was soap or something).

I bet if you search your own memories, you’ll find many, just like these. Some moments where all you did was live to give and live to love. Is love perhaps our default state? Have any of you had these experiences of yourself?

It’s not quite like “paying it forward.” We just do that kind thing or smile that kind smile or help someone because well…that’s what having a human soul is all about, if we’re willing to believe.

2. People can change. Maybe not overnight (I’ve been trying to say and do kinder things for over ten years, with real effort, and I’m not all the way there yet, perhaps not even half-way). But it can be done. It’s like the old joke:

How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?

One. But the light bulb has to really want to change.

My tradition says most of us may very well be able to improve a character trait without even seeing a therapist.

3. Lots of people keep telling us it’s okay to be ourselves, and they are right! But I feel they’re only half-right.

Being your best, true, self takes work.

I think for many years people had to stuff and repress and suppress a lot of who they were, and the pendulum needed to swing really far the other way (psychologically and socially speaking). But now, perhaps some of us are kind of stuck at the far end of the swing where we are all authentic and real and in agony;  and we can’t get back.

If everything’s okay, if every expression of self is okay, then aren’t we as buried under one set of expectations as we were in the old repressed days? Back when good-old repressed manners were really empty husks many of us seethed beneath? When it was all form and no substance? Are we now substance without form?

I believe I can change and that when I do, these changes are perhaps even more “me” than the me that was before. I’ve become more aware. And hopefully kinder, too.



*Lame example of sarcasm. I won’t even pretend to call it wit.

Smiling Baby Photo: Ben Earwicker Garrison Photography, Boise, ID www.garrisonphoto.org