Nothing changes if nothing changes

Have you ever wondered why it is we often do the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result? Maybe it’s just me. I made a virtual career out of repeating the same actions continually (with minor variations) and each time, apparently, I expected things to be different. When they weren’t, I was baffled. How can this be, I asked myself each time. I know it didn’t work the last time, but it’s the way it should be. A friend never tired of telling me in the past few years, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” What?

Here’s the problem. I spent a great deal of my life with the absolute certainty that if you’d just listen to me, your life would be a lot better. Additionally, of course, my own life would be better, safer, happier. Can’t figure out what’s not quite right with your life? Ask me. No, seriously. I’m more than happy to explain the situation to you. I’m told I’m very astute, very observant, even practical. Of course, this only applies to what you need in your life. For myself, I apparently don’t have the semblance of a clue. Here again, it’s that old doing the same thing, expecting different results conundrum. It had me absolutely stumped for a years.

Happily, lots of things have changed in the last few years. I ran across this short piece quite a while back. It’s called Autobiography in Five Short Chapters, by Portia Nelson. I’ve shared this with others many times over the years because it certainly mirrors my life. Perhaps you’ll see a little of yourself, as well.

1. I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am hopeless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
2. I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in. I can’t believe I’m in the same place, but it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
3. I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
4. I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
5. I walk down a different street.

Isn’t it amazing how often we live our lives this way? I know I’m not alone in this. Perhaps like me you’ve fallen into a hole or two more often than you’d care to admit. Like me, it was certainly not your fault – perish the thought. No, it must have been bad karma, perhaps the alignment of some constellation of stars. Better yet, it was simply someone else’s fault. That’s a wonderful old standby. Can’t even count the number of times I used that one. Remember the Family Circus comic strip and the infamous invisible Not Me gremlin? The parents ask, for instance, who tracked in the mud or who spilled the milk and the kids each chime in, “Not me!” That’s how it went for me. Of course, those I blamed were rarely invisible. No, I had a pretty good picture in my mind’s eye of you in a mug shot. And it was definitely your fault.

Like Portia Nelson, however, eventually I came to the really quite painful realization that falling into that hole was, indeed, my fault. Each time I again fell in with my eyes wide open, I felt a little more guilty about it. What, though, to do about it? Surely this was a problem that had stumped the sages for eons! Well, maybe not.

I also tried walking around the hole. Same street, you understand. Same hole. I was still on essentially the same path as before. I was now somewhat aware of the hole, but I was still headed down the same street. What’s wrong with that, you might well ask. For me, walking around that hole simply never worked. You see, I’m easily distracted. The possibility remains that I may suddenly become fascinated by some shiny object along the way and find myself falling right back into that pesky hole.

So, there must be some other way out. Now, I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty bright guy. Intelligent, even. What I found, though, was that there are times when being bright and intelligent simply isn’t enough.  Pain finally led me to do something I’d steadfastly refused to do for most of my life. I asked for help. I’d been taught I should pull myself up by my own bootstraps. The problem with doing that, however, is that you end up with both feet in the air at the same time. The only option at that point is to become a victim of gravity and fall. I’d become very proficient at falling.

But, ask for help? What were people going to think of me if I had to ask for help? I’d lived on the assumption most of my life that asking for help was weak. How could I trust someone else equally as selfish and self-absorbed as myself? I mean after all, life was about being the center of the universe. It had been about protecting me at all costs. And now I was going to ask for help?

Long story short, I asked, very tentatively, very quietly, for help. The world did not come to an end. Come to think of it, perhaps it did. My self-protective, walled-in world was beginning to crumble. It turned out that not everyone out there was as self-centered as me. It turned out some of them had come to understand that helping another was an excellent way to help themselves. I discovered there were even people out there who actually trusted each other.

How did I handle this new information? Not very well, I assure you. I spent a long time completely terrified while waiting for the other shoe to drop. See, there was one more thing for me to learn before I could walk down a different street. I had to learn to accept that help after I asked for it. That was a much more difficult thing to learn even than the initial asking.

And where did that lead me? Gradually it led me back to being part of a community. A little at a time, I began to understand that in order to trust others I had to become trustworthy myself. I learned if I didn’t want to be lied to, I would need to learn how to stop lying. I’m pretty sure I was at home sick the day they passed out the handbook of life. What seemed to come so easily to so many simply passed me by.  I hesitated to look up the word befuddled because I was afraid I might see my picture there.

But it was worth every agonizing moment of the learning process. I found out those people who said they like me really do like me. I found out the guy who pretended to be a nice guy in order to get you to like me could actually be a nice guy. It hadn’t all been an act, after all. I had to admit I wasn’t as good an actor as I’d imagined. But I had needed help to step out from behind the mask and accept that I wasn’t as good at being bad as I had assumed myself to be.

Give it a try. Walk down a different street. I think you’re likely to find a community of people with open arms ready to welcome you home.

8 thoughts on “Nothing changes if nothing changes

  1. a great beginning of your 1st book — it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that grabs the reader, pulls her in and leaves her yearning for the next page. You sweep me along the journey with you, and it feels scary and safe at the same time because I know God is guiding. (“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow…”)
    Thank you Ben. Truly, thank you.

    • Golly, you’re going to make me cry. I like sweeping! “Therefore I will trust You always, for though I may be lost — and in the shadow of death — I will not be afraid, because I know you will never leave me to face my troubles alone.” — Thomas Merton. My prayer is that I say nothing to harm. I’ve done enough of that for one lifetime.

  2. And we all say, “Good grief, Charley Brown.” We’ve all been there, done that. That took quite a bit of reading and rereading. But we see ourselves each time. Keep them coming, Ben.

  3. This reminds me of a time in my life when I would leave for work in the morning with toddlers in the car, drive several blocks to turn onto a major street, and curse and complain every day because of the bushes growing by the curb in front of a house that blocked the view of oncoming traffic. I can’t tell you how many months I did this, starting out my days on a sour note. Then one day I went one block over to street with an unobstructed view. It changed the way I started every day! I have applied that lesson learned many times in my life since then! Thanks, Ben for reminding me.

    • What a hilarious example! Sure, it probably wasn’t all that funny to you at the time, but it certainly points out that a minor shift can make a major difference. I had a physical therapist after a car accident who threatened to make me put a sign on my dashboard that read: “Breathe”.

  4. Great insights, Ben. Keep up the good work. Keep in mind, however, that there are other holes on other streets. Our task is to be constantly alert, understanding that living a meaningful life must always keep us on guard for the opportunities before us and the choices to step around the obstacles.

    • David, realizing you are one of those potholes along the road of my life, I make sure to listen to what you have to say along with trying never to sit with my back to the door. Can it really be over forty years since Barney Black and Snipe Vermin brought down the curtain at First Baptist Theatre – otherwise known as the Annex?

  5. Very true! Thanks for reminding me that we often need help in finding that new street and navigating new paths. Once we tentatively reach out lots of help is there – if we allow it.

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