A woman outside raising her hands portrays the message of personal development blogger Liz Pardi's post which teaches that you can't change anyone but yourself.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Did you ever see that movie Crash? It was one of those films consisting of several seemingly unrelated situations that were all tied together in the end. America’s sweetheart, Sandra Bullock, was in it and it even included Ludacris who, by the way, went to my high school, so I’m pretty much a celebrity, you guys. 

Anyway, the character that made the most significant impression on me was Officer John Ryan, superbly played by lesser-known actor Matt Dillon. Without beating around the bush, Officer Ryan is a turd. He’s a corrupt cop who takes advantage of citizens, is grotesquely racist and loves to place blame on others for all his issues. He’s just the worst.

In an effort to extend his sick father’s health insurance coverage, Officer Ryan shows up at the insurance agent’s office. To his dismay, he’s told that if he’s not a fan of his dad’s physician, he’ll have to find someone out of network, which his insurance won’t cover. Angrily, he tells the insurance worker, a black woman, “I can’t look at you without thinking about the five or six more qualified white men who didn’t get your job.” Yikes.

In his mind, it’s all her fault. The health problems his father is facing, the frustration he feels—it would all be solved if not for this woman, Shaniqua.

The insight of Officer Ryan

Clearly in the Bitterness Olympics, Officer Ryan gets gold. Most of us don’t harbor resentment quite as intensely as he does. But still, this character speaks a powerful truth about humanity as a whole. When we encounter problems, we expect change from everyone but ourselves.

When marriages dwindle, each spouse points to the other’s flaws. When our kids misbehave, our inclination is to lecture them for their failures. When a career is dissatisfactory, we decide it’s due to the coworkers, or the hours or the pay. We think that if only someone or something outside of us was different, things would be better.

Here’s the irony, though. It may be temporarily empowering to prescribe solutions that others ought to implement. “My husband needs to appreciate me more.” “My kids need to obey me more.” “The mailman needs to come by earlier because this is a neighborhood, not a nightclub, and some of us are eagerly awaiting our Prime packages.” Ultimately, though, through all these diagnoses, we’re rendering ourselves powerless. We’re essentially saying, “I’m a victim of circumstance. Rude people, ugly weather, delays, rowdy kids, whatever—all of it has power over me, my mood and my actions.” It’s such a sad and weak perspective, right? And yet, I make this mistake frequently in my marriage.

Bless him. Change me.

See, when it comes to the spectrum of cleanliness, my husband and I probably fall where most couples fall: he’s a slob and I worship Marie Kondo. Kidding.

Truthfully, he appreciates order but definitely doesn’t mind messes as much as I do. And then there’s me, who could probably be institutionalized for anti-clutter OCD. If you sat me at a messy desk and offered me $1,000 to crank out an article in 20 minutes, I’d probably spend the first 18 of them cleaning.

So naturally, my gears tend to grind when I encounter my husband’s disorder. In the early phases of marriage, my instinct was to criticize him and insist that if only he could be tidier, I would be more at ease. Then I learned a simple mantra: “Bless him. Change me.” In other words, Lord, give him good things and enlighten my short-sighted perspective. I did kindly ask my husband to help keep our home cleaner, but more frequently, I began to repeat “bless him, change me” when my blood began to boil because of his messes. And you know what? The most interesting changes took place.

First, my husband’s cleanliness actually did improve. He’s a steadfast ally in our household’s management of messes. But even more interesting is how much my eyes have been opened to how hypocritical I’ve been in focusing exclusively on his messes, ignoring the many that I was making.

Furthermore, I’ve woken up to how much time and energy I squander through unnecessary cleaning and organization when there are far higher callings for me than an impossibly immaculate home. My eyes are more open now to those precious opportunities to, for example, pop a squat on the kitchen floor and read If You Give A Mouse A Cookie with the kids while crusty dishes sit in the sink. Cleaning has to happen, without a doubt. But every seasoned mom will tell you that part of motherhood is learning to look past the messes and onto the bigger picture.

I was so sure it was my husband who needed to shape up but in truth, I stood to learn more from the predicament than he did. By acknowledging, albeit begrudgingly, that it was up to me to determine my attitude and how to fruitfully approach the circumstance, I empowered myself.

We wait in vain

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey recounts a situation in which he and his wife were struggling with their son. Their attempts to prod and motivate him toward success were failing so they finally reevaluated their approach. “We began to realize that if we wanted to change the situation, we first had to change ourselves,” Covey writes.

This attitude applies to such a wide range of conditions it’s ridiculous. Don’t sit idly wishing and waiting for others to change. Just change yourself and watch your issues diminish. If you want more appreciation from your husband, be a wife who genuinely appreciates him. If you want pleasant, compliant kids, be a pleasant, kind parent. If you want deeper, more meaningful friendships, be the companion who authentically knows, cares about and loves others.

Okay. I’m not totally naive. There are absolutely times when we can perceive where others have room for improvement and tactful communication has its place. It’s possible and productive for me to (kindly) inform my husband that I’d appreciate more order on his part, which I did. It’s also a parent’s job to communicate to their kids what is and is not acceptable. I’m not advocating for turning a blind eye to their errors and hoping our own self-improvement solves everything.

At the end of the day, though, where is the bulk of my focus? Am I spotlighting the flaws of others, waiting in vain for them to mend their ways? My guy Dr. Seuss said it this way:

“waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.”
– Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

I can wait until the cows come home for my four-year-old to be less sensitive. On the other hand, I can change my perspective, appreciating the beauty of a sensitive soul and educating myself on how, as a mother, I can nurture and delight in this quality, teaching her to use it for good.

I can zero in on the rudeness of angry, aggressive drivers, concentrate on the ignorance of politicians or the asinine posts on social media. Or I can look inward to where I myself fall short and consciously focus my efforts on the only soul I control: my own. So, bless them. Change me.

Deal with your beam, then the speck

In one of his most sobering messages to a crowd, Jesus asks in Luke 6:40, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the beam in your own?” You’ve got to love Jesus and his knack for asking questions he knows the answers to but that serve to get our wheels spinning.

I notice that speck because it so satisfactorily directs my attention away from my own obnoxious beam. In a twisted way, it feels good for me to grumble about my husband’s messiness because then I don’t have to think about all the hours I fritter away needlessly cleaning when I could be doing so many other more worthwhile things. That’s a sad habit I could stay stuck in for literally decades, accomplishing nothing of any value because I’m too busy barking at others to change and ignoring where I need to do so.

But therein lies the profound beauty of, “Bless him. Change me.” All it takes is a simple acknowledgement that someone else’s flaws are not mine to fix and bam—the universe goes to work lifting me little by little out of my own muck, empowering me to fix the flaws I can, those being my own.

Officer Ryan was so stuck on what he hated about other people that he was making no progress himself. If only he could’ve stepped back and realized the power in practicing virtues like kindness, mercy and humility, he would’ve been on his way to a higher state of being.

As it was, he stayed stuck in his muck and that’s where way too many of us decide to exist. We allow precious relationships to dissipate, like marriages and those with our own parents, because we’re so zeroed in on others’ character flaws. Meanwhile, we’re whacking people left and right with the monstrous beam sticking out of our eyeball, totally oblivious to the path of destruction we’re plowing.

Putting a stop to this madness begins with just a touch of humility. Next time someone else’s flaws show up on your radar, say simply, “Bless them. Change me.” And wait in peace for the wisdom to proceed.