The paradox of change
Mark was 39, homeless, and had been sleeping on a bench near the track at Brooklyn’s McCarren Park for the past few weeks. I met him after I took a seat at the other end of his bench prior to my typical Saturday morning run, waiting for a friend.
“You’re gorgeous, “ he said, turning to face me. “Fuckin’ gorgeous. I bet you have nothing to worry about, ever.” He was sitting with his hands folded in his lap. He was wearing a clean-looking, navy Nike sweatshirt, shiny black track pants and sneakers that appeared almost new. But Mark’s face was red and he smelled of alcohol. He didn't seem like he was there for the track.
And so began my careful conversation with Mark, who, I soon found out, had a lot to worry about. Mark turned out to be an alcoholic on probation. His wife had kicked him out of the house after he was laid off, and he’d been sleeping in the park because he didn’t know where else to go. Mark had kids, too. He wanted to visit them but his wife wouldn’t let him.
I use the word “careful” to describe my conversation with Mark for two reasons: First, I was much younger at the time, and I was used to being approached, some of the time in a way that felt uncomfortable to me. When you’re a young woman used to being approached, sometimes in an uncomfortable way, you learn how to maintain a non-committed conversation just well enough to avoid upsetting the guy on the other end until you can bow out gracefully. Mark seemed like he could be easily upset. So maintaining my distance would have to coincide with maintaining a non-committed conversation until my friend arrived. Second, as Mark continued sharing in this one-sided way, his fragility became clear. It also became clear that he was sharing because he wanted help, but no one was interested in helping him. I wanted to try to to at least say something that might end up being helpful.
So I told Mark that I’d been laid off, too. I shared with him that I kind of thought it was exciting—it's scary to not know what's going to happen next but that's also kind of exciting. I told him that it was an opportunity to embrace change and turn something negative into something great. And Mark seemed pleased with this. He told me the he, too, was ready to embrace change.
Soon my friend arrived and I used her as my excuse to politely exit our conversation. I left Mark with a cheerful wave as my friend and I headed off to start our run.
Two hours later, I saw Mark again as I sat with more friends in a popular neighborhood bar and brunch spot across from the park. We were ordering lunch. Mark was at the bar drinking, enabled by a laughing hipster dressed in black. “I’ll be right back, man,” the hipster said. “I have to go get some more cash.”
Things turned ugly quickly. Mark began shouting at the female bartender, pounding his fists on the bar. He was clearly drunk and she didn’t want to serve him any more. After promising to serve him once his paying friend returned, the bartender disappeared into the kitchen and Mark returned to sitting on his stool. He sat there silently for a few seconds, swayed, and then toppled over onto the floor, out cold.
It was a neighborhood spectacle as the police and an ambulance arrived. They took Mark away and I remember this feeling of sadness wash over me as I thought about his kids. Instead of embracing some sort of positive change, Mark faced the possibility of landing back in jail.
California physician and psychotherapist, Arnold Beisser’s Paradoxical Change Theory says that change begins when you cease trying to be what you are not and begin being what you are. Beisser wrote:
… change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is—to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.
You can’t force change to occur. You can only create the conditions for it to happen. And when we're talking about personal change, those conditions are created when we accept ourselves for who we truly are, the good and the bad.
Mark was a man who’d made many mistakes in his life. He knew his own limitations well—he told me so. For 10 minutes on a park bench in Brooklyn I became the first person to actually listen to and empathize with him in a long while. I didn't run away from him. I didn’t yell at him for being an alcoholic. I didn’t shame him for losing his job, his wife and his kids. Instead, I told him that he had an opportunity. It was my ambitious hope that my chance meeting with Mark would be a catalyst to help him create the conditions for his change.
We forget this simple theory so often—that the best way to encourage change is to first allow the person or group we want to change to get comfortable with being who and what they already are. Help them to see and own what they might not be seeing. A little attention, and a little acceptance can go a long way. This can apply to businesses, too. Change can only come after we uncover and allow for problems. Let people talk about what's making them unhappy. Let them bring areas that aren’t working to light, even if they don’t yet see a solution. The light itself may very well be the catalyst for a solution and inevitably, change. This implies that managing paradox is an extremely important skill for managers and leaders in organizations.
But for every person willing to provide that attention and acceptance, there is another who won’t or doesn’t see the problem in the first place. And when other people talk about their problems or open up to us about their lives we become uncomfortable. That's not for me, we think. And we send them the message that their opening up is unwelcome.
So then, what went wrong with Mark? He could have ended up anywhere after our conversation. He ended up at a bar. And because he ended up at a bar, he faced the possibility of ending up back in prison.
Mark knew his limitations well, and he said he wanted to change, but he didn't really want to change at all.
More to come from me on this, because I'm working on linking Beisser's theory, organizational change management, creativity bias and our propensity for the status quo in order to come to some creative suggestions for how to best help others within a social group or system to change when it is proven that change is both necessary and crucial to their own wellbeing. This is all just me thinking. Change is so important, but not just any change. Some things changed for Mark in the two hours after I left him. There was a change in scenery. A change in location. Those are both changes but hardly the sort of changes that would have mattered because the new scenery and location weren’t good choices. So I would say that regarding the kind of real, full change I'm talking about, choice, and accountability are inextricably linked.