Thoughts on Change – illustrated by a portrait of Brother Dan

dan Brother Dan

I struggle constantly with the question of whether or not people can change.  I want to believe that people can, because I want to believe in free-will and the power of hard-work, determination and the human spirit.  I want to believe that I create my own luck and success, and thereby my own misfortunes as well.  It is comforting to believe that I can continue to grow and improve, and that my family and friends can as well.  However I see so many examples around me of people whose destinies seem to be within their own hands, but who repeatedly do not seize the opportunities to better themselves or their situation.

On the other hand, it is also convenient to blame our weaknesses or faults on the unalterable state of human nature, that is, that we surrender to being powerless in order to feel less guilty. Don’t get me wrong, letting yourself or your loved ones off the hook for their behaviour or personality flaws can actually be very therapeutic and help foster a healthier relationship. To let go of that guilt, or the condemnation, leaves room for acceptance, forgiveness, and growth.

My brother Dan always comes to mind when I am in a position to reconsider my stance on change. Not because he helps me to make up my mind, in fact, he makes it even more difficult to frame any type of response.  Dan is…impossible to label, yet he comes up in almost every conversation. He is that one family member, I swear almost everyone has one, to whom you are referring when you say “oh, I know exactly what you are talking about” (sometimes this is followed by a sigh, sometimes an eye-roll , and sometimes by an emphatic swear word).  He’s….that guy. When your friend comes into the office and says “I just heard the craziest story…” you a) immediately think she is talking about your family member; b) listen to the story with a look of anxious anticipation and fear; c) start nodding your head in understanding and secret prayer that you won’t have to admit it involved your family member; and then d) give a sigh, smile and respond “gosh, my family member did (said, ate, jumped over, ran over, bought, broke, contracted, …) the exact same thing!”

You probably expect me to continue by going through the things about my brother I think he is capable of changing, or wish he would change, and then contrast that with a list of things I wish he wouldn’t change. Although this would be a fascinating exercise for me, I would prefer to offer up a brief history of Dan, and allow you to begin to form your own thoughts on the matter.

Dan is a conundrum. Dan is both selfish and altruistic, scatter-brained yet focused, and embraces contemplative self-awareness while being incredibly, and unapologetically, impulsive. My brother Dan is a 6’5 red-headed bean-pole, with a face loaded with freckles and smile lines. Like the rest of my family, he is said to smile with his whole face at once, which helps him not to appear so intimidating, but still overwhelming. Like he could swallow you. You would never be able to decipher when  meeting him, or when talking to him, if he was 16 or 56 years old, and this can attributed to good genes, goofy immaturity and the confidence to talk about everything with a striking conviction.

Dan has spent his life (re?)defining himself, but the question remains was it done intentionally, and was it done successfully?

Dan was a typical, energetic monster of a child, stretching the terrible-twos out to at least age 21. He was my infamous younger brother, with the public alias “Danny Lazerbeam”, which caused me no end of suffering, but provided great anecdotes at parties. He was, and is, an amazing artist and outstanding athlete, pushing himself to excel …often to the extremes. His teen years were dominated by risk-taking stunts, outdoor cliff-face climbing, and heavy metal music. ‘Adrenaline Dan’ would have been an appropriate nick-name, as he tirelessly searched for his next adventure (or big baventures, as he used to call them as a toddler).

dan kbcAfter graduating top of his class as an architectural technologist Adrenaline Dan became Industrious Dan, securing many high-profile and unique job opportunities designing buildings, homes and community buildings, while building and running a Climbing Gym Co-op. He was suddenly dependable, motivated and productive. But, ever dis-satisfied (or is it restlessness, pursuit of perfection, or ego?) Dan jumped rapidly from architectural firm, to independent construction company, to geo-modular home production …and also found new homes each time. At least he was working, right? We all assured ourselves that he was just trying to find the right fit, you know, the perfect combination of job satisfaction, lifestyle and creative freedom, like most of the people of our generation. It is very normal for those of us born in the 80’s and 90’s to have 5-8 ‘real’ jobs in our lifetime, which is in sharp contrast to our parent’s generation who usually grabbed their first job out of college and worked up through the ranks for the next 45 years.

But then Dan decided to quit his job, give up his apartment, and hitch-hike to South America with a back pack and a camera (well, he was a very talented photographer as well), and about $23.oo in his pocket. He even bragged about jumping on rail-cars like an old-fashioned hobo (his words) and sleeping under parked transport trucks for protection from the elements. This was a bit hard for us all to swallow, but if we learned at least ONE thing from raising Dan, it was don’t tell him he can’t do it…it would just speed up the process and provide more motivation! After a few months of international exploits (including falling off the edge of a mountain while riding a dirt bike) he decided he was going gluten/dairy free…then it was vegan, which led naturally to juicing all of his food and some sort of acid/alkaline diet…and then finally to Raw Food. Trying to self-medicate and cure all of his ‘ailments’ (sore muscles and joints, congestion, inattention, hyperactivity, moodiness, insomnia…) he travelled across Canada for a meditation/yoga retreat (completely silent, a la Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love) and even moved to Bali for a while to take a certified Raw Food Chef’s course (also a Julia Robert’s destination in Eat Pray Love…hmmm).

Referring to himself as Brother Dan, he now resides in a community of like-minded individuals (at least currently-like-minded) in B.C., and has given up all of his personal possessions, working 18 hour days, 6 days a week for the common good (and for no pay). He is happy and healthy, so I will reserve my thoughts on his new friends. He has found religion and believes that those who sacrifice will be redeemed. He has very little contact with his family and the outside world. Within this community he sometimes works managing a cafe, sometimes he works construction, and he has begun studies in bee-keeping on the farm.

So, has my brother changed at all over the past 30 years? Is he actually different, or have his unique personality traits become more obvious to us, and to himself? If you look back at his baventures, were they not all similar in intent (self-improvement through self-awareness)? Did he not continue to push ALL boundaries, refusing to be restrained or constrained (physically, geographically, socially, politically, philosophically…and nutritionally?) He definitely assumed very contrasting roles…from meat-head construction worker, to rebellious rock-star, to vegan monk (pardon the stereotypes)…and his narrative changed accordingly (‘Work Hard’ became ‘Play Hard’ became ‘Love Hard’).

It appears he was trying very hard to change himself…or was he trying hard to change his view of and his place in the world around him? Perhaps I am not the only one deconstructing Dan.

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