Can a Leopard Change Its Spots?
In transforming myself from entertainment industry executive to clinical psychology student, someone whose judgment I trust asked me, “can a leopard change its spots?” Which I interpreted to mean, how would I make the transition from one mode of being, to another?
Here is the way I think about this. In his book Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn hypothesized that scientific progress was not a slow and steady march towards progress. Rather, it occurred in relatively sudden leaps. Thus, for example, Copernicus replaced Ptolemy, and Einstein replaced Newton. This same principle can be extended to other phenomenon. For example, the medieval concept of saints and sinners (cf. Dante) replaced the Bronze Age concept of heroes (cf. Homer). With a little bit of imagination, one even can apply it to “personal” revolutions. I lurched from the entertainment industry, with its own customs, conventions and protocols, into psychology, which rests on an entirely different set of assumptions.
One of the key features of a Kuhnian revolution is that the former ways of being – relationships to people, places, objects – no longer make sense. There is no dictionary, or look-up table, that can be used to translate old words and phrases into new ones. The old concepts, and the old words used to express them, no longer comprise part of the lexicon. In short, the conditions of intelligibility have changed. This transition can be difficult for those segueing from one existence-mode into another. It isn’t simply a matter of changing one’s vocabulary; rather, one must modify one’s entire conceptual scheme. And then learn to navigate the new waters. To continue with the metaphor, it takes some time to turn the ship to a new direction, especially if it is large and fraught with cargo. One tries to avoid the icebergs lurking to the side, blocking one’s way. There is considerable friction along the edges as one’s reality-contours shift. But if one perseveres, then one transitions into a new space-time reality dimension.
What do I mean by reality dimensions and reality contours? Reality is a large, undifferentiated mass of people, places, objects, events, etc. that exists independently outside of your head. When you’re born, you experience reality as a unity – one great big thing, or mass of energy. One then begins (non-consciously) enacting a series of behavioral experiments to define its shape and contours. In many cases, reality offers suggestions or affordances on what to do next. They take the general form of “This looks like it might work, so go ahead and try it!” For example, as one approaches a closed door, the door invites you to open it in order to exit the room. If the room is stuffy, a window invites you to open it (or turn on the air conditioner), to adjust the temperature. The outcomes of these experiments present themselves primarily as feedback from the environment – this worked, that didn’t. Feedback in turn shapes cognition (thinking, thoughts) and emotions (affect, feelings), which in turn influence additional hypotheses about behavioral outcomes, thus the focus of future reality experiments.
Reality testing can have a curious, playful dimension to it – “come play with me,” “let’s go poking at reality and see what happens,” “let’s shake things up a bit and find out what comes next.”
These are easy examples; the situation becomes more complex when there are limits on what reality can offer. One cannot respond to an affordance that isn’t there, or require reality to deliver an unrealistic outcome. For example, in principle, there’s no reason why any child can’t become President of the U.S., or a movie star, or head of a technology company worth a billion dollars. Considering the child qua child and the presidency qua presidency, there is some critical path resulting in that outcome. If you examine the personal histories of persons who have achieved those types of objectives, they are completely implausible. But those certainly must be exceptions to the general principle: that the vast mass of us are hedged by a variety of reality-constraints, including the circumstances of our birth; socio-economic status; ethnicity; gender, etc.
There also are a lot of potential bumps along the way. For example, one can end up in a kind of cul-de-sac, “disappointed with reality.” This occurs when there is a conflict or dissonance between one’s expectations of what reality ought to be, and what reality is capable of actually delivering. You might start asking yourself, “Is this all there is? There should be something more.” Questions like this lead to further, more extensive reality-testing, if not reality-confrontation. Along the way, one might come to feel that reality is so dissatisfying, that one has to keep doing things that are ever more drastic, in order to experience something, anything at all. This has the potential to lead to cynicism, isolation, dissociation, detachment, and impaired interpersonal relationships. It promotes unclear thinking, flawed hypotheses about the outcomes of behavioral experiments, impulsivity, boundary-testing, in some cases almost an aggressive approach to reality confronting, which in turn exacerbates one’s sense of estrangement and otherness.
Most likely the new reality is there, but it’s hiding behind the reality contours that you originally shaped for yourself. Something more akin to the unity that we all started off with. Changing one’s spots reminds you that those contours still exist, because one in effect is altering them.
Another problem is role expectancies. Most people – especially those embedded in organizational structures – are not receptive to reality experiments, which typically make them feel threatened, because they suggest that there are myriad alternative realities, and that their reality might not be all that it’s cracked up to be. Reality modifications often are misinterpreted by others as a kind of inattentiveness, indifference, or even intolerance.
So these are the main challenges to changing one’s spots … to purposefully and intentionally down-regulate the reality contours associated with one’s old personality. Then, to purposefully and intentionally seek out and construct new ones. Sometimes, reality contours are not at all clear. They are indefinite, indeterminate, and obscured by fog. They have fuzzy boundary conditions. One must maintain (or regain) a measure of psychological flexibility, which will help you not only to identify them, but also to respond and contend with them appropriately. And not injure, maim or kill others with a sabre-like laser sword in the process.
I envision this process as trying to reach a clearing in the forest, surrounded by light; a place where everything makes sense. In Heidegger terms, a Lichtung. So often, most of what we do comes from the ego, not from the heart. Only by deploying resources from the heart will one ever be able to find the clearing.
I think this is what existentialists (Kierkegaard, Sartre) were trying to say about contingency. It’s a scandal that modern physics can’t tell us what time it was when the big bang occurred some 13.8 billion years ago. And why we think that time moves forward instead of backwards, and that earlier events cause later ones. Or, the nature of the space that surrounded the very small particle giving rise to the 1 billion trillion stars in the universe. Or, how it might be possible for that single particle to generate all of the matter and substance that exists, especially in light of the first law of thermodynamics (to the effect that matter can neither be created nor destroyed). The answer to these questions probably is something like, before the big bang, there was no time, no space; there was absolutely nothing.
It is extremely difficult to wrap one’s head around concepts like “nothing,” “eternity,” “infinity,” and what not. The reason why is that, as sentient humans, we are temporally and spatially constrained. Says Husserl, the subjective lived experience of temporality is quite different from Cartesian or “objective” time. The former is assessed using adjectives such as “sooner” or “later.” The latter is assessed using adjectives such as “days” or “months.” The same thing is true of space – we think of it in terms of “near” and “far,” versus “10 miles away” or “a day’s drive away.” The distinguishing characteristic of the latter is calculation, whereas with the former, it is personal knowledge.
Underlying this dichotomy is a significant conflict between reality-as-it-is versus reality-as-we-perceive-it. There’s no particular reason why you were born at the time when you were, and into the circumstances you were. For that matter, there’s no particular reason why you were born, to begin with. And then you meet and partner with someone, who most probably could have been anybody else; the circumstances of your meeting are entirely fortuitous, and matters easily could have happened otherwise. Says Kierkegaard: somehow, this series of contingent possibilities becomes transformed into a kind of necessity. You spend your life (or at least a significant portion of it) with that person. You may have children, who will experience the same dilemma. Says Heidegger, the only bit of personal knowledge that is unique to each of us is the foreboding of one’s demise.
What to do in light of this prognosis? Many confront this challenge with a flight to certainty – something with spiritual or religious overtones. One can reason from an anthropic perspective, to the effect that matters couldn’t possibly be otherwise; for if they were, then you wouldn’t be here to begin with, to make the observations that you do. Says Sartre, in light of this, one must strive to be authentic, that is, to accomplish the objectives one sets for oneself with style and panache, to realize all aspects of one’s personality, to do what one is compelled to do. And maybe this is the best conceptualization of what lies behind a leopard changing its spots – to push through the old reality-contours and to reconnect with the unity, which one originally faced. As Stephen Daedalus said at the end of Portrait of the Artist: “Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”