Fresh starts and new beginnings: Platform January 7, 2024 – Amy L. Miller

It was Heraclitus, an ancient Persian scholar, who coined the words “The only constant is change”, and I think that’s a reasonable thing to keep in mind around the first of the year. The Ethical Society of St Louis has a responsibility to continue to change in service of the mission and values you claim for yourselves. Samantha provided information about one path forward to holding ourselves accountable to the values we espouse as an organization .

How much additional change we want to make in the next year is up to us as a community. We set some goals for ourselves this morning in Forum, and those are for you and from you. As I said a year ago, I am merely here as a guide.

In the interest of a new year and opportunity for reflection, I thought it would be a good time to discuss change in general.

Because what better time than the new year to remind you:

You don’t always have to be who or how you’ve “always been.”

I think sometimes we forget how much authority we have over our own lives. It can sometimes feel like the world has just rolled us around and squished us and pressed in our soft places and molded us into <insert name here.> We call this “who we are.”

But. It’s not quite that simple. While the fundamental nature of a human may not change after some point of development, I personally believe that *most* aspects of who you are and how you show up CAN change, grow, evolve, and improve.

Most of the time when people refuse to address problematic behaviors by claiming “this is just how I am” they are being lazy and/or they are afraid of what could happen if they do change.

YOU are the architect of your persona, which includes how you look, how you speak, how you treat people, and the decisions you make. You can change your name, your body, and any marker of how you identify. You can try on endless new ways of engaging with the world. Where you feel limited or unskilled, you can place yourself in situations that encourage growth and change.

Most of us have been traumatized by the world, in large and small ways, and whether we are aware of it or not, it impacts how we connect with others. It impacts how we interpret the actions of others, how much grace we offer ourselves and each other.

If you have difficult relationships and tend to blame the other most of the time, the new year offers a gentle opportunity to look inward and consider that …. maybe it’s not other people causing the problems here. Maybe you, as the common denominator, are the problem. Like that Taylor Swift song, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.” Don’t shoot the messenger, but this is often the case.

But it’s never too late! You can do so much healing work that you emerge from it whole in a way you’ve never been before. Like a phoenix. LOOK AT ME EVERYONE I AM BRAND NEW AND BEAUTIFUL

You can do any or all of this at ANY stage of your life. There is never a day when one is too old to change. The idea that you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a lie. The idea that you are ever too old or set in your ways to learn that you were wrong about something or to shift or expand your understanding is simply false and limiting.

You are entitled to change anything about how you show up in the world at any time.

You have the right to ask that people take note when something has changed. “Yes, that was true before but it is no longer true.”

You may have a thousand slightly improved versions of yourself waiting to be birthed. Think of your self-improvement journey like a series of app updates. We don’t get mad that the tech support people are still trying to fix the app and keep re-releasing new and improved features. No, we just hope that this one will make the thing do what we want that will allow us to move forward peacefully. Life is progress and movement. Fix those “bugs” that make you shut down at inopportune moments. Update your operating system to reflect your current mindset. Keep informing the people around you that you are a new version so they don’t get confused and treat you like an old one. When they do treat you like an old version, remind them you have changed. Remember that you are under no obligation to remain the same person as time passes. You do not owe anyone your continued participation in any dynamic that does not serve you.

You may, at any moment, decide to change or heal something about yourself or your life. You do not owe anyone an explanation about your process. Folks who feel bonded with you through a dysfunctional or unhealthy connection may particularly struggle when you start to grow and get stronger. You may begin to identify things as problematic that before you were okay with. New understandings require new agreements. As such, you may choose at any time to say “no” to anything you previously said “yes” to, and you do are not required to own anyone else’s feelings about your shift. They may take some time to adjust, but you are not obligated to put energy into their adjustment. You may, but you don’t have to. “I no longer agree to this” is a valid and mature way to revoke consent. Always remember that “no” is a complete sentence.

Consent should be required for access to not only your body and personal space, but your energy as well. You have the right to say “no this doesn’t feel good for me right now” or “I know in the past this has been how we’ve done things, but I don’t want to do it this way anymore.” Your capacity may fluctuate. Something you are available for today you may not be available for tomorrow, and that is okay. Inform the people who are affected by your fluctuations so that they are not blindsided, but beyond that you owe them nothing.

Honor your own rhythms and grow at your own pace. Remember that you contain within you infinite possibilities, and you don’t need permission to try a new version of yourself on for size. Sometimes finding out who you really are is like trying on jeans. It can take a while to find the right fit.

Remembering that we are all evolving all the time can also inform how we raise our children to think of themselves. When you tell your child, “you are shy” or “you are bad” or “you are ornery” or “you are so smart” or “you are ____” you may unintentionally be placing an identifying marker on them that will stick.

That marker may cause that child later in life to believe certain things are inalienable about them, when those qualities were actually assigned to them by

someone outside their body. Only inside the body can it be known what is “true” about a person.

But once an identity gets placed upon you, it can feel impossible to be something else. Change may seem out of the question and you may consistently behave in accordance with those identities.

But remember also that who you are is not your behavior. Your behavior is a collection of habits that you mostly do not think much about. Your behavior is the stuff the world sees you DOING, but the world can’t know who you are busy BEING on the inside unless you make it known. You can expand and change your behaviors at any time to show a fuller version of who you are.

Example, I was a “shy” and “smart” child.

I carried the labels “shy” and “smart” with me. My parents were educators and had me IQ tested and all that before I even knew what that meant. So the label was assigned and internalized early.

The problem with being a “smart” kid, though, for example, is that when things become challenging at school, the internal notion of myself as a “smart” kid got questioned and I felt confused and worried. “How can I be smart if I don’t understand this?” and “They must have had it wrong. They think I belong in this gifted program, but I don’t think I do. How do I keep anyone from noticing?”

I didn’t want to disappoint the people who thought I was “smart.” They seemed to be very invested in this part of my identity.

So I just burned the whole house down and intentionally stopped doing anything at school so that the focus could be on my dramatic behavior rather than the very real internal sense of failure and identity confusion I was experiencing when the world and its expectations pushed up against something I thought was “true” about me.

But it can be true that a person is both very “smart” and also not great at everything. A person can be “smart” but struggle with comprehension sometimes. A person can be “smart” but not have the requisite skills for mastery. Being “smart” really just means having the CAPACITY to learn. But I didn’t know that as a child; I believed that if I was truly “smart” then I would magically just understand and know everything easily.

Now, I know that I AM quite smart, but that I need INTEREST in whatever I’m learning to make me want to use my smarts to master it. My behavior is often quite lazy otherwise.

And I have thought I was “shy” my whole life. At sometimes in my adulthood, I decided this is actually bullshit. The truth is I am extremely introverted and have some anxiety. I don’t think shy is or ever was the word for it. But believing I was “shy” allowed me to just avoid situations and/or it created extreme worry about my social performance.

I have equated shy with a feeling of not belonging that I didn’t really challenge. “I just don’t fit in” “I am too shy to attend this event” “I don’t belong here” “These aren’t my people” “I can’t do public speaking”

But really I just suck at small talk because I don’t enjoy it; I’d rather speak only when I have things to say. I don’t like networking events because that’s too many people at once. I don’t want to cold call people or sell my offerings to people I don’t know because that feels gross.

But I like people and I love connecting with them. I am confident in my ability to carry a conversation and to make people feel seen. I’m great at my coaching job and great at the parts of this job that are focused on relationship building.

None of this is “shy”. That label doesn’t fit.

So when you are raising your children, be mindful not to tell them who they are. They want to please you. They will do their best to embody whatever identity you have assigned them. But from my perspective, the best parents are the ones who have decided to be gardeners, not carpenters.

Allow your child to grow into who they are, through as many iterations as they require, rather than form them to who you think they are or should be. Surely, we want to pass on our values to our children, but a child being free to question in general must include being free to question who they are and to creatively explore their identity. I wish I’d felt more free to do this much sooner.

I can see places where, to this day, even in this role this past year, I have been shrinking to fit. Or stretching to fit. Or smiling and nodding to fit. Or people-pleasing to fit.

Unfortunately I have learned the hardest way possible again and again that none of that actually means I fit. It means I deny myself. The goal should be a real sense of belonging for my whole self, instead of trying to fit in.

So in 2024, one of my personal goals is to evaluate at every moment whether the action, word, deed, or even thought is in alignment with my values and in service of the future I want to build.

That shift has felt good, and a little scary. I want this for everyone. But it takes courage. It takes boundary setting. It takes premiering yourself to the world over and again so that you are the most updated version at all times.

It will mean accepting that some people have a vested interest in you NOT changing. Folks may not always understand. Do it anyway because you will be happier and more free.

So for you, think about what labels or identities you’ve been living under, and then assess for their current resonance.

Ask yourself any or all of these:

  • Are you in alignment with your authentic self?
  • Is there healing work you still need to do?
  • Why might you be limiting yourself? What’s stopping you?
  • Do you want to change something about how you’re living or behaving or showing up?
  • What new things might you try if you weren’t stuck in whatever box was built for you?
  • What have you been doing that doesn’t serve you and how might you begin to change those things?
  • What are you afraid will happen if you start changing?

Because, truly, you have to let yourself evolve. Our spirits are not built for stagnation. We are not meant to feel caged by our lives; the purpose of life (if there is one) should merely be to appreciate it while we are here and do our best to make the world better for everyone. I acknowledge fully that the world is an ugly place in many ways and that its ugliness robs far too many people of their fundamental human right to safe passage through their lifespan.

I’m not here with toxic positivity. I live in a state of low-level existential dread much of the time.

But I know how easy it is to be overwhelmed by all the tragedy in the world and forget about the mission of living, or feel too guilty to live fully knowing others aren’t given that freedom. I’m simply here with a reminder that your “one precious life” is waiting for you to respond to its whispered desires. Including the desire to

uplift others, to march for the freedom from oppression for others, to champion ethical action in all corners of your life.

So. If there’s something you want to do, or a position you want to take, it doesn’t really matter if it seems “out of character” to other people. It does not matter if they are surprised by or even disappointed in you, if you are in alignment with yourself.

It may be that someone important to you doesn’t understand what you’re doing or how you’re living or what you’re standing up for. And maybe that has stopped you many times in the past from evolving fully into yourself.

But the truth is, if you want to change something about your life or circumstances, you are the only one who must agree to it.

Obviously, consider the impact on whatever systems you’re in. The moves I can freely make as an individual are not the same moves I can make in my role as the executive director of an organization. There are always calculations to be made when you are part of a system. Being mindful of costs and benefits, both material and social, is part of being a responsible adult.

Obviously, move ethically through your evolution. Do no harm. But, if your life calls you to evolve, EVOLVE. Change. Grow. Be someone new. It’s important to note again that your core self doesn’t change. There is an essence of who you are. But everything around that core has been shaped by your life thus far and mostly those influences are external to you. Mostly those were imposed upon you, not measured and weighed against “is this right for me?”

So DIG IN and see what’s going on in there. Listen to yourself when you feel pulled in a direction, even if you’ve never been pulled that way before and it feels odd or even scary.

I love and enjoy change. Not everyone is as restless and mercurial as I am, of course, but my guess is more of you would like to make radical (or not-radical) changes and grow and try on new aspects of yourself. See how and whether those new versions of yourself fit with your current relationships and ways of being in the world. Relationships are dynamic and ever-evolving because humans are. They can always get better.

When talking about improving relationships, it is important to accept that we can only change ourselves. As much as we may wish it were otherwise, other people’s behavior is entirely out of our control. And often we are contributing to

whatever behavior they are displaying, as we continually trigger and influence people around us while they are in turn doing the same to us.

We each bring all our garbage with us, that is both hidden and seen, and tend to just throw it around and hope it doesn’t cause too much damage. A lot of times we also blame others for the messes we make. We make our happiness contingent upon the behavior of others.

This is a bad plan, y’all.

Our best bet is to take inventory of what our contribution is to every interaction and figure out how we can do it better each time. Basically, I say this a lot: “You’ve got to make sure your house is clean before you can invite anybody to move in.”

Okay, so what does this look like? How do we clean our house? How do we make ourselves a welcoming and safe place for the people we love as we also do this internal, evolutionary work? How do keep from being self-centered while we grown and change?

Do your work. Unpack your issues. Unearth your roots. Exorcise your demons. Whatever you call it doesn’t matter. It’s all that icky leftover sh*t you bring with you, dragging behind you, cluttering up your relationships. Get rid of it.

Most of what we are carrying is old anyway, like I said before. Most of it was assigned to you by your life and the world.

Let yourself grow. How many of the stories you have about yourself are even true anymore, if they ever were? Edit. Delete. Start over. Tell the truth.

I do this work because I truly believe that incredible changes can happen by doing some deep, courageous self-reflection AND re-learning (or learning for the first time) how to love ourselves authentically AND learning new skills to communicate with the people we love more effectively. These efforts, in tandem, will always lead to significant improvement in all areas of life. I promise.

May you find the happiest, healthiest, and most peaceful version of yourself in 2024.