Leaving Salem

“You haven’t changed a bit.” I heard folks using that phrase at least fifty times at my wife’s recent high school class reunion. The mighty Yellow Jackets of Sprayberry High School, Marietta, Georgia, were together again. Cindy said the class never looked so good. I knew none of them. Outside of my wife, they were complete strangers. I had no concept of the change they had or had not experienced. So I listened and laughed at their old stories, the antics of their children now in school, and the hard-earned knowledge that comes from ex-husbands and ex-wives. A few members of the class of ’86 are even grandparents. Scary.

Cindy was relieved to recognize most of her former pals. They were balder, plumper, and grayer, but refreshingly they were the same. And, unfortunately, they were the same. A great deal of time was spent comparing outfits and sizing up the success and popularity of others, like they were at their junior prom. The social groups, cliques, and pecking orders of high school were still in place, even after all these years.

As the drinks flowed and Eighties dance music played, groups of five and six huddled together to appraise their memories, photos and lifestyles. The ladies spoke of fashion, families, and the future. The men mumbled about football and work, and tried desperately to out-drink each other at the bar. Truly, not much had changed. Granted, change is hard. We get stuck in established patterns and nothing seems to be able to blast us free from the rut. It’s as if our internal hardwiring, our programming, is unmovable. We don’t change because our thinking doesn’t change. Consider an example from the world of business.

In the late 1960s Switzerland dominated the world of watch-making. The country had done so for more than six decades. It was the Swiss who brought innovation to the trade: The minute hand, the second hand, the refined manufacturing of gears, bearings, and mainsprings – all from the Swiss. Even the first forms of waterproofing were introduced by Swiss engineers. Forty years ago, sixty-five percent of all watches sold in the world, and ninety percent of the profits belonged to Switzerland.

By 1980, however, thousands of European watchmakers had lost their jobs, and Switzerland controlled less than ten percent of the world market. Why? The Swiss refused to change their thinking. A new development, the Quartz watch, had been invented by the Swiss, but was rejected as unacceptable. It had no gears or springs and did not require winding. The old watchmakers couldn’t think of a timepiece without these things. It was just too much to accept. They didn’t even patent it. Seiko, on the other hand, did accept it. This upstart Japanese watchmaker became the industry leader.

The failure of the Swiss watchmakers was not a failure to predict the future. Their failure came as a result of the inability to think differently – to change their internal programming. And to fail to think differently is to fail to live differently. To fail to live differently is to remain unchanged. The great human failure would be to live a life and remain essentially the same person as we began. No growth. No stretching of the mind. No acceptance of challenges or willingness to reach beyond the familiar. “You haven’t changed a bit,” becomes a condemnation rather than a compliment. Allowing decades to pass without substantial change is to waste the time we’ve been given.

The New Testament may say it best: “Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (Romans 12:2). Too often we approach change from the wrong side: The outside. Behavior modification, rules and regulations; punishment and reward; a new wardrobe, the turning over of a new leaf; these most always fail. Lasting change cannot be manufactured by refurbishing the façade. Change must be internal.

I still have a few years before my twenty-year class reunion (a fact I enjoy holding over my wife’s head). When that reunion comes, I trust that if I hear “You haven’t changed a bit,” it’s only because I’ve maintained a glimmer of my boyish appearance, not because I’m the person I once was.

God still has time to do something with me. I hope I let him.

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