I had the good fortune recently to catch up with a couple of close friends from my university days. Over time, my frequency of contact with them naturally reduced, such that by the time of this recent meeting, we worked out that it had been over seven years since we were all last together in the same room. We rapidly exchanged news and slipped back into the old familiar modes of chatting to each other. I enjoyed myself greatly, and I feel confident they did too.
It struck me on the journey home that it was remarkable that while we’ve certainly changed physically – a few grey hairs here and there, alas – and in our personal lives – varying relationships, children, career paths – we were still able to talk to each other smoothly and comfortably. I like to flatter myself that I’ve grown wiser and not just older over the years, but how much can one really have changed if it is so easy to slip back into old patterns?
Fortunately for all three of us, life has generally treated us well, and long may that continue. Is this part of the reason we hadn’t altered our fundamental patterns of engagement?
I suppose that much of this consistency comes down to the fact that by the time one graduates from university, one’s personality is well-formed. Personality is commonly defined as an individual’s set of enduring mental and behavioural characteristics. These develop as one matures, and by adulthood are fairly deeply engrained. Knowledge can be added, and decision-making can be refined in light of that new information, but our essential individual modus operandi to life is pretty well set. There is a whole field of psychological & psychiatric research and practice devoted to understanding what happens when these characteristics are unhelpful, though controversy exists as to how “unhelpful” in this context should be defined.
What is less controversial is that altering personality is a very challenging process: these characteristics are formed so gradually and over such a long period of time that it can take an equally long period of incremental effort to alter them. It’s akin to changing the course of a river that’s formed through gradual erosion; the odd viaduct or dam can be put in place with some significant effort but altering the entire course of the river requires a more fundamental reorganisation. Still, there is evidence that such exceptionally difficult change is possible.
In the end, I suppose that my friends and I have been fortunate that our own riverbeds have formed along favourable paths. A key life challenge is integrating new knowledge into these pre-existing patterns in such a way as to add value (wisdom? happiness?) rather than risk altering the fundamental trajectory by generating stress.
I’m curious as to what the general feeling is… do you think you’ve changed over time, on a fundamental level?