“Why can’t you just… be a better person?”

This was an old joke between my first wife and me, when a discussion or argument that had reached the point where one person wanted to shout “Why can’t you just do what I’m telling you to do?” – the other would pull out this line and defuse the situation (obviously not foolproof as you may infer from my use of the phrase ‘first wife’).

But it’s a good question, why can’t you just be a better person? Why is personal growth so hard?

Why do we have to grow at all? Can’t we just carry on where we are? Well, no it appears not. Even the most stagnant relationships and work situations don’t last forever. We end up having to change in one way or another and we can either do it consciously or unconsciously. No scrap that, it’s not either/or, it’s a matter of degree of consciousness – my experience has been that for every epiphany as a result of conscious work on myself there are a hundred little growth spurts that I don’t recognise as such until much later on.

So what is this conscious work? It’s a kind of growing up, it’s a way of building good character, it’s dealing with the unconscious triggers that result in disturbance (/me being a dick). Most spiritual traditions and teachers have a way of doing this and for me it boils down to a few steps:

    • Admit that the disturbance is in me. Not that the outside world is perfect and I’m wrong, but that the thing causing me the most pain is not outside of me, it’s within.
    • Accepting the thing I’m doing is part of me and likely has been around for a while (ie it’s not just a product of this situation). This is tough. Who wants to admit that they’re habitually self-centred, self-righteous or dishonest?
    • Remembering that just because it’s a (perhaps quite old) habit doesn’t mean that it’s the ultimate truth about me. I am fundamentally honest and I’m mostly capable of enacting that but there are times, when I feel under pressure, that I say things that aren’t true.
    • Forgiving myself for doing it one more time and forgiving those that I’d associated with my disturbance.
    • Doing something to express that forgiveness to anyone I’ve harmed through the disturbance – this requires a couple of careful steps, one is assessing who has been harmed (it might only be me!) and the other is how to do something about it without compounding the original harm.  Finding someone else who can help you see the right path through this bit is invaluable.
    • Get on with doing something helpful and useful for someone else.
    • Rinse and repeat as required.

I’m not done, by the way, I have no illusion of my own perfection, but it helps, it really does.