Can People Change? Here's My 2¢

Talking with a friend about Greta Thunberg( the teenage girl who took the United Nations General Assembly to task for betraying the environment while only “talk[ing about…] fairytales of eternal economic growth”), he indicated that the problem is getting people to change and opined that the key is getting them to want to. I responded: “It's definitely a component but I don't think it's the key, because it's really not a tricky thing at all. If you think it through, it's relatively straightforward that most people do want to change, or at least they're completely willing to change themselves in order to change the things they don't like about their lives; look at the prevalence of[…] goal-setting techniques and apps, New Year's resolutions...”.

I've been reflecting lately on one of the most profound examples of a change I've personally witnessed, and the role I played in it:

When I was a little boy, my mother, in addition to her in-home psychotherapy practice, worked one day a week in a clinical setting some 20–30 miles from home, close to the city. So on Tuesdays, because my father shouldn't be trusted to prepare items intended for human consumption, the three of us always ate out. As a result, despite that I don't easily make eye contact, "please" and "thank you" to people I don't know for the services they perform became ingrained, and this was reinforced by the discussion around tipping and constant open acknowledgement by my white-collar parents( both from blue-collar childhood backgrounds) of how hard people work in service industries.

So when I wound up in drug rehab, despite my distress over the completely inappropriate situation( I wasn't actually using drugs at all by that time), from the first time I went up to the cafeteria counter to get a plate of food added to my lunch tray, I naturally said "thank you" to the workers behind it. I was slightly taken aback by the lack of a response, but knowing I mumble sometimes, I decided to use my trained ability to project my voice and make sure that I was heard the next time. At dinner that same day, I was definitely heard—a row of heads jerked up from looking down at the food and stared at me like I had three. So I smiled at them and went to sit down. Over the next several meals they got used to me saying it. Maybe they even talked about it after the lunchroom cleared, who knows? Sometimes, there was no response, sometimes they mumbled without looking up.

Finally, about three or four days after I arrived, they were serving something with a choice of side, so when they asked me “[A] or [B]?” I said “[B] please.”, and a hearty thank you after the worker scooped what I suspected was an extra-large helping onto my plate. And she looked me full in the face, smiled back and said "You're welcome. Enjoy!". You could almost hear the dam breaking, and never again did silence meet my thanks.

On any given day, at least 85% of the people eating in that cafeteria don't want to be there. I can understand that a lot of them have trouble feeling or expressing gratitude in a situation like that, and some of them are petty or serious criminals, so I also get why staff are wary. There are always staff members st the entrances and exit of the cafeteria keeping an eye on the "clients", including next to the kitchen entryway by the counter window. The one guarding that door that day and helping to hand out dessert also smiled and put an extra cookie in my bowl, and later I heard him talking to a clinician about how strange and encouraging it was to see the invisible wall breaking down between the kitchen and the dining room since I had come. Even though I didn't need to be there for the given reasons, it's one reason to be grateful for the experience.

I was stuck at the Men's Addiction Treatment Center for 3 weeks, I was on the "good" ward, the one with the least behavior problems, and I commented on these cafeteria happenings to some of my friends, who started to emulate me. We were paired with the detox unit for meals, so as people in my unit left and people on the detox rotated out to other units, newcomers that I befriended over meals started coming to stand in line by me and picked up the habit. By the time I left, while not everybody was engaging, I can say for sure that the counter and window was a lot less of a quiet, get-your-meal-and-find-your-seat area than when I arrived. Clients were looking at the workers and workers were looking them in the face, exchanging thank you and you're welcome and sometimes smiles in a place that needed more smiles.

It's not something I set out to do, and it's not something that those workers or the other commited men were looking for from me. But change happened, and it grew, and that tells me that people in hard situations are willing and even happy to adapt, they just need a way to believe that the world around them can be better and they can be a part of that.