Buddhism teaches that everyone and everything is in a constant state of flux—nothing is permanent—not even the self. Deep down, we know this about ourselves. Every experience—every thought—makes an impression and alters, however subtly, our beliefs, values, and coping strategies.
It’s easy to see changes in ourselves—especially the positive ones—but somehow, we expect everyone else to stay the same. Even when we became his caregivers, my dad treated my brother and me as irresponsible, rebellious teens. George will be the cute, funny baby brother in his family until his sisters breathe their last. Likewise, our youngest son, Techie, is kept in that role at family gatherings.
A few years ago, at an extended reunion of George’s family, I met one of the “popular” girls from my junior high. Pippi, with her social ease and cute clothes, had belonged to the “in” crowd which excluded gawky kids like me. Forty years later, Pippi assured me I hadn’t changed a bit—not exactly a compliment. I had graduated from college, earned a master’s degree, held a teaching job and enjoyed respect from colleagues and parents. But the instant I saw Pippi, memory shackled me: My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, pimples erupted, my hair scraggled, my elbows and feet grew three sizes, my clothes became mismatched. Even the fact that Pippi was now 70 pounds heavier than me failed to overcome the tyranny of memory.
I doubt another meeting with Pippi would affect me the same way–we don’t step in the same river twice. We are all in the process of becoming, but sometimes memory tricks us into re-enacting scenarios from a past self. And sometimes memory prevents our recognizing change in others—and we unwittingly force them into the role of a nearly forgotten former self.