People Don't Change. They Do Grow.

Andrew Young and MLK
Andrew Young and MLK

A couple of years ago Andrew Young, the famed Civil Rights leader and former Mayor of Atlanta, spoke at my husband's staff meeting.  I wasn't there, but heard about Mr. Young's talk from several people who were in attendance.  Everyone was greatly impressed by his humility, approachability, and, most of all, his wisdom.  One story in particular was repeated by several friends. When Mr. Young talked about his experiences with MLK Jr. and his fellow Civil Rights leaders, he described their team as a group "with a long fuse."  They weren't naturally wired to be angry or tempestuous men, but they made extra sure not to become that type in the face of many who were.  He said that they didn't take offense easily, and they certainly weren't quick to display anger.  He believed that for the Civil Rights "non-violent" movement, anger wasn't something that should be fanned. Instead, their primary work had to rely on a persistent, consistent display of patience.

An important gift of King, Young, and other Civil Rights leaders was their powerful insight about human nature.  One of those understandings deeply impacted me when I heard it. Mr. Young tells a story about his patience with a belligerent prison warden, and he made this statement that stuck with me:


"Don't expect people to change. People don't really change. However, people DO grow."

Too often, we want people just to change.  As in change Right Now.  We don't want them to go through the long process of growth.

We all like the image of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly in a couple of weeks time, don't we?  There's something compelling about transformation coming quickly and ending beautifully.  Too often, my image of change is someone seeing the error of their ways and then making an instant 180-degree turn to put themselves on the right path.  I hope for a dramatic shift in momentum that results in visible, speedy change.

When I think about Andrew Young's talk, I realize that he was getting at something more profound, more gradual, and more realistic.  People don't usually change because they have some epiphany about their behavior.  If people are going to change, it will happen over time, through a growth process - not in leaps and bounds, but in inches.

People grow the way the tree grows -  slowly.

Think about something that has changed in your life (and, by default, changed you), for better or worse.  How did it happen?

Did you get in shape (or gain weight) because of something dramatic, or did you make a bunch of little decisions that made you into the shape you are today?  What about your relationships?  Are they in their current condition because you had one great talk, or are they instead built on hours and hours of conversations (or things that went unsaid)?  What about your biggest regrets or successes in life?  My guess is that they didn't happen overnight.  For the most part, our current situations are the sum of  decisions that we made over a great deal of time...and will take the same amount of time to "undo."

If actions express our priorities, then we need to realize that every day people make little decisions to act and become who they are (for better or worse).  In most cases, change simply doesn't occur overnight.

So what's the point?

Think about this.  How quickly do you expect change to happen in yourself?  Fast?  If so, why?  Do you expect change to happen quickly with others?  If so, is that even a realistic expectation?

Expectations wield GREAT power, and if you expect change when what you should be looking for is growth, you're almost always going to end up frustrated.

Mr. Young's wisdom reminds me that I'm more likely to extend grace to others (and to myself) when I stop expecting change to be dramatic, beautiful, and quick.

Instead of expecting the fleeting beauty of a butterfly, I am waiting for the growth of the strong and resilient tree.

I'm working on my patience.