This post is a follow up to last month’s, which discussed similarities between Buddhism and Existentialism. In that post, one of the commonalities is the belief of becoming, rather than being a finished product. In existential thought, existence, which refers to the ability to grow and change, is greater than essence, which refers to a finished product. In American culture, essence dominates what people think of personality. Most can relate to discussion of a person’s essence. When this is discussed, it refers to someone’s core. Sometimes another term, true colors, is used. However, in existential thought, this is refuted. Existential thought creates room for the person to change, to be different than they’ve been, to make choices that are different than what their “essence” would demonstrate.
This recently arose for me after seeing, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. First, I want to warn that there are spoilers in this post. So, if you haven’t seen the four Golden Globe winning picture (including Best Screenplay-Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture-Drama, Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama) then you might want to postpone reading this until you do.
The film ends with two of the main characters on a road trip to kill (at the least), someone they believe did something horrible. The end leaves one thinking about whether they actually do or not. It occurred to me the ending one believes, relates to some extent, to whether you believe, “a leopard can‘t change its spots”.
Those exact words were said to me recently by a client, who was wondering if he could really change. My writing focuses a great deal on this ability to change. It is acknowledged it is difficult and requires a great deal of effort. Although existentialism has little empirical support (for the most part existential therapy does it lend itself to laboratory study), much of psychology is moving toward the idea that a core personality does not exist.
An excellent example of this is the modular theory of mind. In this theory, it is argued that in the brain there is no central place where a “you” can be identified. Instead, the mind has connections that create an illusion of a unified self. Modules, which developed through evolution, take charge of decision making at different times, based on different needs (Wright, R.). As I wrote in, “You aren’t you at all,” the mind creates a coherent identity, but one doesn’t really exist. If a coherent identity doesn’t exist, can it be said one has an essence?
One expert on personality, Walter Mischel, argued that personality was more a combination of personality, the situation, and your mind. Though he acknowledges we have a personality, he argues it isn’t as consistent as we like to believe. Instead, the situation plays a large part, and additionally we have the ability to use our mind and change our natural or conditioned impulses. (Mischel, W.)
Even as I came up with the idea to write this post (I saw the movie a couple of months ago) the cover of Psychology Today purports, “Change at any age”. The article, “Change Artist”, offers “10 rules for reinvention” (Ellin, A.). Although I won’t list them all here, and instead suggest you read the article, they include recognizing the purpose of the problem, listing forces working for and against change, recognizing the fear of failing to meet the goal (the article goes into some detail about how this is natural), breaking the goal up into small steps, and expect frustration and discomfort (Ellin, A.). This is all sound advice.
Inherent in the advice above is the use of mindfulness. Mindfulness takes one out of conditioned responses, and allows one to contemplate how to respond. A while ago there was a popular saying in counseling: “Learn to respond instead of react.” Although not explicitly stating it, this is mindfulness. As I’ve written numerous times, mindfulness has been a part of psychology since its inception (Mindfulness and Acceptance in A.A, Everyone Has Won, and All Must Have Prizes, Psychotherapy and Meditation). Now, instead of using it being a small technique used for a specific change, it has become a mindset that is used for whatever change one wants, as well as for benefits of its own.
I’d like to return to my interpretation that the characters in “Three Billboards” deciding not to kill or otherwise torture the perpetrator they’ve decided committed heinous acts. One who believes in essence might argue that the characters are angry, hateful, and have found a worthy foe to take that out on. One could use the characters’ history of aggression to support the argument. One can also always fall back on, “a leopard doesn’t change its spots.”
I believe differently. As a therapist I’ve seen many people change major aspects of themselves. Most change begins with a crucial moment, where you are able to see yourself more clearly, possibly more objectively. You feel shame, guilt, regret, or another negative feeling that spurs one to want to change. Then one sets about the difficult task of making the change, maintaining the motivation (because it is easier and requires less energy to stay the same) and making the change a more permanent aspect of oneself.
In the movie both aggressive characters get a good look at their behavior, at how they have been leading their life, and seem regretful. For Sam Rockwell’s character, he had already begun making changes. An opportunity presented itself for him to behave more professionally, and he did (in this case, the situation played a part in his behavior, as many psychologists claim). For McDormand’s character, I would argue the death of her daughter played an enormous role in her behavior, and she resolves some of it throughout the course of the movie. Finally, I believe as a result of the empathic connection the main characters begin to form, the situation changes, having a bigger impact on their behavior than one might attribute to character. As the circumstances are changing, I believe in the characters’ power to use their mind, come out of their anger, and make a decision more in line with who they want to be, than who they’ve been.
I want to end with a quote from my favorite existential writer, Irving Yalom. In the text, Existential Psychotherapy, he writes: “Generally one’s life becomes so structured that one begins to consider it as a given, as a concrete structure that one must inhabit, rather than as a web, spun by oneself, which could be spun again in any number of ways.”
Copyright William Berry, 2018
Ellin, A., 2018, Change Artist, Psychology Today, February 2018, p. 52-59, & 88
Mischel, W; 2016; quoted in “Invisibilia: The Personality Myth” (42:18) June 24th, 2016; retrieved on 7/18/17 from: http://www.npr.org/2016/06/24/482837932/read-the-transcript
Wright, R; 2017; Buddhism and Modern Psychology; Week 4, What Mental Modules Aren’t, and, What Mental Modules Are, Coursera.
Yalom, I., 1980., Existential Psychotherapy. P. 232-233. Published by Basic Books