“Why do we have such a hard time changing the way we do things?” a colleague recently inquired as we reflected on various community initiatives and the possibility little had really changed.
I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact we humans are creatures of habit.
For instance, let’s take the reality of chiggers. Every single summer in the Ozarks you are certain to find them if you venture off pavement into tall weeds and grass. If you’re a gardener, you’re bound to encounter them when you brush up against ornamental grasses. Get down on your knees to grub up the crab grass and you’re a goner. Those pesky chiggers seem to leap onto your body and burrow into your skin at any place where clothing restricts. This means you are likely to have an itchy red bump in an area inappropriate to scratch in polite company. If you’ve ever had them, you know what I mean.
So what do chiggers have to do with change? Just this . . . even though I know a thorough dousing in insect repellant will dispel most chiggers, nearly every year in early summer I neglect to do what needs to be done until I’ve had a miserable infestation. Only then do I make a choice to saturate myself in insect spray before venturing again into the great outback of my backyard. You think I’d learn to choose this option earlier—maybe it’s just my disgust for DEET, but I usually don’t. Like most people, I appear to have a proclivity to persist in what I’ve always done. Only when, once again, the itching become intolerable do I swear I will never, ever again fail to respect the mysterious, invisible chigger.
In the same way it seems to me we don’t change some of the approaches we use to solving problems in our lives or in our community because we find change awkward and uncomfortable. It’s hard to see solutions from a perspective different than our own. It’s uncomfortable to adopt unfamiliar strategies and innovative ideas. We prefer to label our continued efforts as “persistence” and insist this is a worthy goal, Streep and Bernstein, authors of Mastering the Art of Quitting,” suggest something different. They maintain, “People who ultimately reach their goals have to do more than learn from their failures . . . and have to give up on their failed goals fully and completely” (p. 4).
Years ago in a county far away I met with a group of leaders to determine what might be done about the problem of teen pregnancy in our community. An agency worker from a neighboring county declared, “I could be in your county more than one day a week if you had more pregnant and parenting teens. You need to find them.”
It struck me as odd. What if we did not have more pregnant and parenting teens? Was that a problem for us or for her?
It makes me wonder. What kind of assumptions could we be making about certain problems that might actually be making them worse? How might we be overlooking the obvious? Assumptions, like chiggers, are virtually invisible to us, but definitely influence our choices. What uncomfortable action might we consider to protect us from longstanding assumptions, in much the same way DEET protects us from chiggers? If we want truly meaningful change, we might want to consider that sort of repellent as we continue to address our thorniest issues.
This column originally appeared in the Springfield News-Leader on Thursday, July 3, 2014.