Kaleb Rogers is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in Atlántico, Colombia.
I’m sitting on the bus with my headphones in, pushing just enough air past my vocal chords to feel the sensation of singing without actually producing words. It’s not that it matters; nobody on this ostentatiously decorated death machine would understand the lyrics anyways. My ancient iPod nano’s shuffling algorithm pauses before starting the next song, those brief seconds of anticipation “what’s going to come next?” Broken Bells’ “Vaporize” starts to play, and as the lyrics Common fears start to multiply pour into my ears, I find myself in the back seat of a maroon Chevy Impala, the then iconic car of my childhood friend, Alex. He has to remind my flexible friend Ruth to keep her feet off the ceiling while we’re driving, something you only have to tell goofy ex-gymnasts and goofier future yogis.
Back on the bus, the smell of burning brush seeps through the cracked window, the only thing standing between me and a sweat-soaked button-down. The scent carries my mind once again. I’m eight years old, roasting hot dogs from a pitchfork at my grandpa’s annual fire. My dad is younger — nearly younger than I am now — and wearing a tie-dye Grateful Dead tee-shirt.
These memories, ever-shifting in my mind, raise thoughts of the human condition. Can people change? Really change? Have I changed from the person I was in these fuzzy recollections? Or am I just a bigger, more jaded vessel carrying around different manifestations of the genes and socializations that I always have? Some people yearn for change, crave it, without ever actually realizing it. Others coldly decree that “people don’t change,” perhaps as a world-weary perspective of life, perhaps as a subconscious rationalization to turn away from the endeavor themselves.
The answer is of course — yes, people can change. But they have to want to. That sounds cliché, but it’s true. To find evidence of change, look no further than those who have returned from seeing combat overseas, or immigrants who migrate and assimilate to new cultures as young adults, or returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Humans are adaptive creatures.
They are also social creatures. As my uncle once told me, “as you get older, you find more and more narrowly tailored pockets of like-minded people.” Most people don’t change, not because it’s impossible, but because it’s uncomfortable, even inconvenient. People surround themselves with the familiar. They read books by people with comparable perspectives, they find and assimilate comparable people into their friend groups (who recommend more like-minded media for them to consume), and they find spaces (whether tangible or online) to occupy. They dig in. And throughout this process they become more and more themselves. A simple example might be someone who tries and fails to start a new healthy lifestyle while surrounded by friends that celebrate indulgence, manufacture excuses, and even resent those that try to break from their comfortable bean-bag mold.
Leaving a Miami hotel for the airport almost exactly one year ago, a Peace Corps employee told me and my new cohort of idealistic volunteers that we would not come back the same. She was right. I am astounded each day by how different I am now than I was one year before. The feeling is so profound that I often find myself clinging to the word “radicalized,” though wishing there were a more positively-skewed equivalent.
Yes, I have changed. In many ways I have become less idealistic. I have realized the change I seek to bring through my service is more obdurate than the change I seek within. I have become more forgiving of individuals, realizing that centuries of culture manifest to produce each individual action that I observe and from which I attempt to derive meaning. I have realized that people are almost entirely a product of their environment. I have realized that the matter-of-fact, logical solutions that I see through my small lens of American privilege may not occur or even apply to those who do not have the benefit of this lens existing in their lives. I have become more critical of American opinions, those I see from friends on my Facebook feed. After realizing how narrow my perspective was (and likely continues to be), I can only imagine the small window through which some of these people view events, people, and perspectives that reach far beyond the borders of the familiar environment in which they have always resided. Being wrong or even ignorant is okay, but not being aware of the possibility of one’s own ignorance is not.
Winston Churchill is often misquoted as saying “If you’re not liberal when you’re 20, you have no heart. If you’re not conservative when you’re 50, you have no brain.” Ignoring that this quote is narrowly tailored to the wealthy, white, and socially mobile, it suggests that the young believe that the world is capable of change and the old do not. The birth of this quote, however, comes from a misunderstanding of the observation it addresses. It is not the inability of the world to change that the quote is observing. Quite the contrary — it comes from the ability of people to change. When one is young, being liberal is more of a benefit to you. You’re poor, you’ve been raised in another generation’s world, and — if educated — you have all the tools to criticize the old world and attempt to change it. Thirty years later, you’re living in a world you’ve become accustomed to — a world you helped craft. You’ve left your college dorm and have an income of your own. You work with people in comparable situations. You’re comfortable. You haven’t realized the world is incapable of change, you just don’t want it to anymore. You don’t believe racial inequality still exists for the same reason you don’t ‘get’ iPhones or think hats are only meant to be worn forwards. The new has stopped being exciting and has become inconvenient. You have changed.
So what is one to derive from all this talk of change? Well, first and foremost — change is possible. Whether its within soldiers, PCVs, or aging WASPs, change occurs in human beings. Next, change needs to be radical. People say change comes from within; that’s not enough. Change needs to envelop you. It needs to come in the people you regularly see, the books you read, and the movies you watch. Third — change is good. Provoking change in oneself is what makes one realize their former (and current) ignorance. Serving in the Peace Corps has made me realize how arrogant, ignorant, and fragile I was before. Moreover, it has taught me that I likely still carry these and other unknown weaknesses. Change shows you how others live. It forces you to mingle with the other side, to add a small puzzle piece to the never ending whole picture, and to understand more clearly what it means for both yourself and others to be human. Change makes you face the music.