Yeah, so basically what I want to say is that people do change. This is an open letter addressed to my former self/any undergraduates/someone in their early twenties/anyone who can sense the end of the beginning or the beginning of an end in some part of their life. And my message, as I stop and take stock, is that people do change.
I’m about to complete my degree which feels very strange. It provides a handy way of bookending the last four years of my life. A lot has changed. I see the world very differently then I did way back when I was starting. For one I’ve gone brown bread. To any alarmed cockneys out there I am still alive, but what I mean is I’ve grown to appreciate brown bread. I’ve grown to appreciate taking the time to experience the genuine article when it comes to loafs and I hope in other aspects of my life too. I drink coffee as I talked about here. I’m also closer to being vegetarian than I’ve ever been in my life. And I’m a fully paid up cyclist. I cycled about 30 miles today! Even a fortnight ago that would have been pretty hard to picture.
From my vantage point it is clear that I’ve changed a lot. I started uni as a scruffy wannabe hipster. I leave uni as a less scruffy, houmous scoffing, ukulele playing, kindle reading, confirmed hipster. The people I’ve had the pleasure of spending the last four years with have changed too and it’s been a joy spending time with them and I look forward to seeing the weird and wonderful directions they’re going to go in! Time is strange, it takes fixed points in order to apprciate how much I and others have changed. It feels like aeons ago that I was matriculated at Glasgow university - that it would take radio carbon dating to pinpoint when my student ID card was printed. Yet on the other hand, it seems all I’ve done is blink since I was there tentatively holding a pen signing the UCAS form wondering what was ahead of me… But now four years has past and what have I learned? A bit about theology, a bit about comedy, quite a bit about life. And I’ve learnt that people change.
My message here to you in this open letter is that people do change, and I’d urge you not to listen to claims that people (or ‘some’ people) ’don’t change’. Because people do. The last four years of my life give me a window to see how life when examined reveals change in everything, in people’s attitudes, convictions, hopes, fears, humours. I think that people who seem really set in their ways are in fact constantly changing. The only way that they are able to appear so consistent is through constantly changing to match a world which always changes. We constantly impute new information and our response necessitates a changed outcome. It saddens me when you hear the sentiment often bitterly expressed that ‘people don’t change’ - that people have a true nature, a real nature that some external force like alcohol, or stress or tragic circumstances will suddenly reveal when their guard is down. In this view there is a core of a person that lurks through the good times and either steps up or crumbles in the bad times.
After the last four years that doesn’t ring true.
I do believe that there is some kind of an individual essence, that is individual to each individual. But the idea that this essence is something readily visible if a person is put under strain, I’m not so sure of that. The essence of who someone is, their exact calling, their vocation, what they actually are and could be is something I think that is clearly and necessarily just beyond our grasp. When people say that ‘people don’t change’, it’s understandable because we are often hurt by the changes other people make in our lives and it’s comforting to feel there are distinct categories of people. We can navigate towards the ones that don’t hurt us and away from the ones that do. But in my experience the interplay of hurt is much more complex. We can’t excuse the pain people cause us as simply a component of the way they are and use it as a grounds to rule them in or out. Just ‘the way things are’ shouldn’t determine ‘the way things have to be.’ People have to find a way of forging a common life together, a life that is constantly changing and evolving populated by networks of individuals that are themselves constantly changing and evolving.
People adapt because the nature of life is one that is always changing. Probably the most constant thing about a person is their name (although even that is not immutable). When a person’s name changes it tends to be rarely and then only slowly. Marshall McLuhan uses a quote from James Joyce’s Finegann’s Wake (“Who gave you that numb?”) to underscore the fact that “…the name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” This is an evocative, bittersweet way of thinking about a name. My case here is that names are powerful and therefore only change slowly, but everything else is readily changeable. How that name is deployed for instance is up for grabs. That name, that numb, what’s in it? What’s in a name?
In the second year of my course I met a fantastic, highly engaging lecturer who goes by the name of AKMA. He is only ever known by his initials A.K.M.A - AKMA. He made a special point on the first day of our class to memorise the full name of everyone in the class (almost 30) by repeatedly addressing us each by name throughout. There was a wonderful warm atmosphere and by the second class he knew every student’s name off by heart, every single student. Some feat. I asked him once why he made the effort to memorise everyone’s names so quickly in the term. He replied that it was a sign of respect - if he wanted us to listen to him and get to know him - he wanted to listen to us and get to know us. This really struck me two years ago and it still strikes me now. What a great way to think about teaching. They say that interested people make for interesting people and that was certainly the case here. In his act of taking the courtesy to remember all of our names, AKMA has become a name I’m never going to forget.
As I stand on the precipice, writing this open letter, I’m thinking a lot about names and what it is to change n’ all that. At different points in life our names can be altered we can gain letters and lose letters. This can be through marriage, education, knighthood or even deed poll. In each instance the process is exceptional, incremental and gradual but - change happens. Even the numbing blow of our name can be changed. There are constants within which and through which we interact but we can always change. Kind of liberating huh? We can always change. Thanks for reading and all that remains is to ask you - what’s in a name? And perhaps - more specfically - what’s in your name?