Do We Ever Really Change?

The authentic self is constant. This means that, at the more fundamental level of our being, we never change. There is much truth in the old English adage that “a leopard does not change its spots.” Yet there appear to be many cases of people who went through enormous transformations. I want to look at two notable examples and show that the shifts these famous men experienced are not what they seem.

Snowman with Children

C. S. Lewis described his sudden religious conversion as “melting like a snowman,” but he was merely returning to his childhood roots. (Image: public domain)

The first of these men is the Oxford don, C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, books that filmmakers are even now turning into magnificent movies. The other is Carl Jung, the renowned Swiss psychiatrist who gave us the concepts “extravert” and “introvert,” the unconscious, and Analytical Psychology. Both men appear to have suffered engulfing unconscious events or to have deliberately “let go” in the face of relentless unconscious pressures. Because of their experiences, radical changes became evident in their personalities. Lewis abandoned atheism and underwent a “sudden” religious conversion to Anglicanism. Jung “let go” and allowed his unconscious to overwhelm his ego. After a years-long individuation process, he became much more mystical and intuitive.

Yet a closer look at the evidence reveals that both men did not change one whit.

Lewis’ atheism was a thin smokescreen easily seen through when one considers his very Christian outlook on life. During World War I, he made a pact with a fellow soldier that, should one of them fall in battle, the survivor would look after the other’s family. Lewis’ friend was killed. After the war, Lewis, who, as a student at Oxford, could ill afford to do so, dutifully took on the responsibility for the mother and sister of his slain comrade-in-arms. Furthermore, one cannot ignore Lewis’ long-standing admiration for Christian writers such as George MacDonald. One must also look at his fascination with religious texts and questions of morality.

With all of this in mind, we see that his claim of “melting like a snowman” and the admission that “God was God” were not really descriptions of a sudden religious conversion. They were declarations of his abrupt decision to drop his atheistic false persona and openly admit that he was, and always had been, a God-fearing Christian.

Prior to his conversion, Lewis had been toying half-heartedly with the idea of becoming a poet. He made scant progress there, but read copiously. Above all, he badly wanted the security of a teaching position at Oxford. It is revealing that, at the time of his “conversion,” Lewis also stopped calling himself a poet. Instead, he took to describing himself as a natural-born pedagogue. Once again, we see that the new way of describing himself is not just different but also more accurate than the old. Thus, the atheist epic poet “changed” into the orthodox Anglican Oxford don.

Carl Jung’s situation is a similar story. The famous “letting go” which precipitated a several-year-long “confrontation with the unconscious” followed rather than preceded some strange events. He had had a vision of God defecating on Basil Cathedral, and séances and the occult had always fascinated him. He writes of a wooden table mysteriously splitting in half in the dining room and a knife blade inexplicably shattering in a kitchen drawer. His very choice of career was the result of an abrupt intuitive decision to study psychiatry, then a new and somewhat dubious field.

Again, what we see is not genuine transformation. The new, more-mystical intuitive Jung had always been there behind the rational persona of the professional psychiatrist. He was just openly admitting and accepting his authentic inner reality.

In these cases, change is not occurring. What we see is the illusion of change as the person sheds a false persona and presents a more authentic identity in its place.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

3 thoughts on “Do We Ever Really Change?”

  1. I take the psychological view. Character or personality is part nature (genes), part nurture (the social environment into which we are born). Our inherited genetic temperament interacts with the social milieu of our early childhood and a unique way of looking at and dealing with the world is set up in the unconscious mind. We see this when small children begin to show the unmistakable signs of their budding personalities.

    This process precedes the formation of the often-artificially-contrived conscious ego and forms the nucleus of the authentic self. Research has shown that this core of character is remarkably durable and is the real driving force in the psyche. As I pointed out in the post, what most people mistake for change in a person is the shedding of the artificial false persona (or aspects of it) and the greater emergence of the authentic self.

    Both Lewis and Jung came from religious backgrounds. Lewis was baptized in the Church of Ireland, but supposedly lost his faith during his adolescence. Jung’s father was a rural pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church, yet the family was rife with the folk beliefs of Switzerland at the time: spiritualism, Ouija boards, séances, Tarot cards, and so on, and it was these beliefs that fascinated the young Jung. All of this supposedly vanished when he became a rational clinical psychiatrist who treated schizophrenic patients at an institution in Zurich.

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