At a wedding I attended recently, the minister told the couple, "My advice to you is not to try to change each other. It's a waste of time. You are who you are, and the same is true of your partner. Respect that. Remember who you fell in love with in the first place."
I've heard that marital advice from the altar more than once, and I cringe every time. Not that I advocate bullying an introvert into becoming a party clown, for instance; I don't. It wouldn't work anyway. Certain aspects of our personalities are hardwired. So yes, accept the fundamentals. Respect your partner's need to socialize periodically, or conversely, to recharge his or her batteries in the garden or on the golf course. But there's a lot more leeway for change than those homilies suggest. My advice to married couples is, "Challenge each other to grow. Challenge each other to evolve into the people you were meant to be."
Growth is an essential dynamic of life, and growth requires change.
When I was in college I had a wonderful friend named John. He was a self-improvement guru way ahead of his time. He meditated, practiced yoga and led a pretty Zen life, not that he didn't have to work at it; he did. Peace, I've discovered, requires more work than conflict. I called him once (on a landline), and there was so much friction that I didn't recognize his voice. "Is this John?"I asked. His answer: "Not yet. But I'm working on it."
That remark stuck with me in a primal way. It's my go-to whenever I think I can't go any further down the road to self-improvement. I never forget it or its powerful implication that from the beginning of our lives to the end, we are works in progress. We must change, individually and collectively, not just to thrive but to survive at all. In our early years we are mere spiritual stem cells of who we are meant to be. But how do we fulfill that destiny? How do we get there? Not with rigidity, that's for sure. Not by insisting "I am who I am and stop trying to change me." There is only one road that will get us there, and that road requires courage, flexibility and openness to the many challenges along the way. That road is awareness.
Awareness -- or consciousness -- though present in each of us in differing degrees, doesn't magically show up or evolve. Some people never expand their awareness, spending their entire lives surrounded by the mirrored walls of their own fixed opinions. Awareness isn't a passive process; it doesn't come knocking on your door. It must be pursued, cultivated and earned. Awareness is the only escape from ego. It's our connection to the divine. We don't cultivate awareness for our own sake, although we will certainly benefit individually. We do it for each other -- for our spouses, families, friends, associates, and really, everyone. We cultivate awareness for humankind.
A healthy marriage helps us rise above our individuality to a higher good for a higher purpose. It helps us to cultivate awareness. By fully committing to someone else, we learn the limitations of self-defense and self-protection as a lifestyle. Awareness within a committed relationship moves us closer to empathy and compassion and acceptance of issues we may have previously viewed as strange or foreign. The plan is that we will eventually be able to extend those lessons beyond our marriage into our families and communities, resetting our internal GPS from local to global. The growth of one affects the growth of another, and another, on and on until nothing is foreign or strange, and we have busily created the Kingdom of God on Earth one person at a time.
At this point in evolution, humans are still a scorekeeping species. We seek the win, the one-upmanship, the higher rung on the ladder. We are competitive and exclusive. But relationships are adverse to scorekeeping. In marriage, when you win, you lose. The question we should ask ourselves is not, "Did I win that last argument?" but, "Did that argument bring my marriage closer to union or closer to separation, and what was my contribution to it?" This kind of thinking requires awareness. Although awareness is the road, it's not the destination. The destination is unity.
Unity is critical not only to marriage, but to family, community, country and planet. Unity is the goal and purpose of our existence. Every relationship is meant to teach us how to work for a common good instead of our own self-involved pursuits. Every relationship is meant to teach us the benefits of unity and wholeness over separation and fragmentation. Employing the governing principal of Unity v Separation, committed relationships can teach us to put our egos aside. Ask yourself, "Will the thought I'm entertaining -- the word, the action or decision I am about to make -- bring this marriage closer together or further apart?" Will it prop you up or pull you down? Awareness is the only tool in the cosmic belt that allows us to answer these questions with any integrity.
Everything we do to improve ourselves and our relationships -- listening, caregiving, forgiving, supporting, sacrificing and celebrating contributes to our personal and global evolution. Gaining personal awareness changes how we relate to each other personally, locally, and globally. It changes how we relate to the earth that feeds us, and to the divine source that sustains our spirit. There is nothing that isn't changed by the conscious growth, however small, of a single individual.
Life is a journey, and if we emerge at the other end exactly as we arrived, we have accomplished nothing. So couples, for the sake of us all -- please change! And remember to support each other in the process.