The Older Dad

The wise and older parent

Changing Ourselves to Change the World

We are not doomed to repeat the past, and neither is the world.

Psychologists often say that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. We all see the truth of this maxim: we do what we know—or do we? Is it possible that we know many ways to react? Do many of us feel as if we have no choice but to fatalistically repeat the past?  Fatalism, as an attitude, forces us to repeat what we think and do. But, what if we could break free of fatalism? Can we change the world by first changing ourselves?

Why Fatalism Is So Seductive

All of us experience an unseen controller from our biological make-up. We seek to spend as little energy as possible as we build more and more routines into our lives. The routines that function best (to reward us and lower our discomfort) become well learned as we grow up and age—and people conserve the energy to learn new patterns by applying their routines to more and more situations. And, as we become adults, people tend to assimilate new circumstances into existing patterns of life. We change as little as necessary, to fulfill the biological need to minimize spending our physical and psychological resources. Our attitude of fatalism develops to serve this drive for "homeostasis."

But, many of us pay a price for fatalism: unhealthy lives that do not adapt. More than ever in history, the demands of our world change at break-neck speeds. Our patterns from childhood no longer work--because partly, we learned what our parents' modeled (based on their past),  and partly,  we developed patterns to cope with the world of our youth (a world which has morphed exponentially). As we force the world to fit our routines, stress builds while we function less well in these new contexts.

Resisting the Siren's Call of Fatalism

In mythology, sirens on large rocks called to the sailors, so seductively that the ships would crash trying to reach them. Fatalism sings such a song, but we can resist our own attitudes through several changes--but we must deny the homeostatic drive through spending energy to change.

A New Attitude of Routine Change:  Our beliefs always shape our reactions, so we can change our patterns best when our thinking fits an attitude of change. To do so, we harness the drive to routinize by creating a belief that change is the routine. Most of us will require frequent practice of this new attitude--we must repeatedly think through the belief that the best routines are patterns of adaptive change. As routine change, not routine maintenance, becomes a new attitude, we will find ourselves looking at life with less anxiety.  We will become hopeful as we are empowered by this new idea about life.

Living in the Now: As we adopt the  "Change is Routine" attitude, we will change the way our brains process our environment. We will no longer filter out inconvenient factors in our world. Instead, we will experience much more of what exists in each moment, allowing us consider different ways of behaving than our past would otherwise dictate. We will see the richness of our ever changing world.

Creating a New Past:  Our new belief, in change, provides freedom from the past by giving us control, over our future. We often limit our understanding of the past to things that already happened. But another past exists: the one in which today becomes the past when tomorrow arrives. Each day now provides ways to create a healthier "future" past. As we more fully “live in the now,” our awareness of each moment gives us more control over exposing ourselves to various triggers to our old routines. We can also better master the ways our actions are rewarded. As each day becomes tomorrow’s history, we craft a past that reinforces healthy behaviors and limits exposure to unhealthy triggers. Our “future past” serves our needs; it allows us to adapt to an ever changing world.

The Book of ________: Take a moment and place your name in the blank. Our lives create our identity, in the same way an author writes a book. We weave a thread of coherency into our narratives as we shape our lives around the sense of our "me-ness." Sadly, many of us experience our identities as an unchangeable, as we passively live inside the character others (in our past) wrote. But,  by 1) adopting an attitude of routinized change, 2) being present in each moment, and 3) mastering our creation of the "future" past, we can shift the storyline of our earlier life. Rather than being a character in a story, we write the story, as the author.

The Final Word: Parenting for Adaptation

As parents, we prepare our children for the world of today....and tomorrow. Parents struggle to teach kids to change and adapt—it’s a challenge to do as a parent, let alone teach the skill to children. But we, as parents, will do best to remember that the best teacher is how we show our children to live by example. As parents, if we model flexibility in our routines, we can teach adaptation. Through our struggles and successes, our children learn to welcome the challenges of an ever changing world. We show our children that the problems facing our world can be managed through innovation and empowerment. Our gift to our little ones is the belief that they can handle whatever may come. Instead of "Yes we can," we can help them to live by the motto "Of course we can."

Kevin D. Arnold, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., is the Director of the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy of Greater Columbus and a Clinical Faculty member in the Dept. of Psychiatry at OSU.

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