What's Tony Thinking

Moving Toward Better


There’s a scene in the last episode of “Ted Lasso,” where Coach Roy asks, “Can people change?” Nadia Bolz-Weber picked up on his question and quotes a bit of the dialogue:

Roy Kent: For the past year I’ve busted my fucking ass trying to change but apparently it hasn’t done shit because I’m still me.

Ted Lasso: Wait. Did you want to be someone else?

Roy Kent: Yeah – someone better. Can people change?

The conversation continues among the six men who are in session as the “Diamond Dogs,” (Roy, Trent, Nate, Higgins, Beard and Ted) as they discuss Roy’s question and the topic of perfection.

Then Higgins, looking at Roy, says “Human beings are never going to be perfect, Roy. The best we can do is to keep asking for help and accepting it when you can. And if you keep doing that, you’ll always be moving toward better.”

Can people change? It’s a good question. A whole lot of American culture is devoted to the idea that with sufficient effort, the right tool , technique or life-hack, plus a positive attitude, people can totally transform themselves. We can become anything or anyone we want to be. Think how often we say to kids, “You can be whatever you want to be.” Or how many ads and testimonials, both secular and religious, say, “This (or that) changed my life,” with the implication that you can change your life too, if you try this, buy that, read this and, most of all, put your mind to it and try hard enough. To question this is un-American, and in some quarters, un-Christian.

But as Roy’s lament and the subsequent conversation among the men makes clear, people don’t change easily. And if the goal is some form of personal perfection . . .We may, as Higgins says, “move toward better,” but it’s not a steady upward trajectory whatever the gurus of positive thinking and self-optimization may say.

NBZ titles her musings on all this, “1% Less Asshole,” which is what she would say for herself and her change efforts. She continues, “Maybe this is a limit of what I like to call Influencer Self-Esteem Porn that is just smeared all over social media these days . . . we can’t be everything . . .  Having limits is the inescapable experience of being a human being, it is not a failure at being a human being.

“You just can’t take enough improv classes to become someone who is funnier than how God made you. It’s ok . . . I can’t meditate my way into a personality transplant and if suddenly looking like someone else entirely is the basis by which I am judging my progress, I am being unnecessarily cruel to myself.

“Having said that, I DO believe in human transformation, I just believe it is not limitless in ways that the words ‘achieving enlightenment’ and ‘progressive sanctification’ seem to imply (no disrespect intended). I have seen people change, just not in a way that makes them not be them anymore.”

I share her ambivalence. I want to believe people can change, and do change, for the better. But I don’t think I am as naive about that as I was as a young man and young pastor. Too often our exhortations to change sounds like what St. Paul calls “the Law.” We have to just try harder, be stronger, be better . . . then we’ll be worthy, then we can live with ourselves. But too often that ends up in being harsh and demanding. As Paul says, “the Law” can never actually bring about what it demands.

At this point in life, my belief is that we can change, but less because of our striving, ceaseless effort or self-flagellation. We change because something mysterious — grace, I’d call it — is at work in the world and may get a hold on us. More often than not this comes through life’s hard stuff. It’s not our own strenuous efforts to lose the last ten pounds, think only positive thoughts, stop being judg-y and do more to end Climate Change that bring about change of a positive nature in our lives, but a God and grace that doesn’t give up on us and accepts us with the limits that we mostly don’t transcend but can learn to live with and even appreciate.

Were I doing it over again as a pastor I think I’d start by thinking “people don’t change much,” though not as a judgment of despair or cynicism, but as a kind of grace in everyday life.  And yet I’d want to stay alert for the times grace happens and when the Holy Spirit moves and people do change.


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