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Don't Go Changin' - 06/20/2020

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

The Billy Joel classic, "Just the Way You Are," came out in 1977, a year after I graduated from high school. Although he had a huge hit with "Piano Man," this song more than any other cemented Billy's status as a superstar. The song has gone on to be one of the top covered in history. But I never liked it. It has nothing to do with the melody. I'm sure he meant well, but the phrase "Don't go changin'" always made me want to ask him, "Is that a threat? or a promise?" as my Dad used to ask me when I said I was going to do something like run away from home (I was big on this as a five-year-old). It always sounded to me like he was saying, "Everything will be okay as long as you don't change." And although many people will say that people can't or don't change, I believe that this attitude denies the power of redemption, rehabilitation, and personal growth.

I was a shy high-schooler, smart and studious and not very good with strangers. When I went to college, I learned how to speak in front of groups without passing out, was Vice-President of the Business Club, and a Homecoming Princess. I was also a university hostess, responsible for introducing strangers to the campus. And then my first job after I graduated was in sales. I quickly discovered that I actually liked doing computer demos for potential customers, and that I was good at it. I suppose all my performing experience as a singer since age three contributed to my enjoyment of the spotlight. In short, though, I changed, rather dramatically, in a pretty short time. And my significant other of seven years at the time did not like it at all, not one bit. One of the songs he frequently quoted to me was "Just the Way You Are." However, it wasn't a supportive affirmation when he quoted it; it was a plea for me to stop changing, to put the genie back in the bottle, to go back to the girl he knew and loved from high school. But it was too late. I had started on a new, more adult, and healthier path, and I couldn't go back. He wanted me to go back to the "Road Not Taken," as Robert Frost put it, and I couldn't do it. By the time we figured that out, I had been married to him for four years, but we couldn't save our marriage because our paths had diverged too much. In other words, I changed, and he couldn't deal with it.

There are many songs that celebrate the changes that people go through. "Changes," by David Bowie, reflects on the "children that you spit on, as they try to change their worlds...Don't tell them to grow out of it." Sam Cook's "A Change is Gonna Come," reminds us that "it's been a long time coming, but I know that a change is gonna come." And John Lennon sang about changing the world, in "Revolution:" "You say you want a revolution, well, you know, we all want to change the world....Don't you know it's gonna be alright?" One thing is sure: change is constant. And the way we deal with it is what makes it "alright."

I think much of the seeming anger that we are seeing in relation to the restrictions imposed by the COVID pandemic is actually fear of change. We ask people to wear masks in public. They think, "I've never had to do that before. Why should I now?" Their resistance seems to be out of proportion to what they are being asked to do. And the list goes on: they don't want to stay home from the gym. They want to get a haircut or a dye job at a salon, not at home. They want to go out with friends to the bar, not stay at home and have a glass of wine. They want to do what is familiar. After all, it's worked for them pretty well so far. The problem is that the ubiquitous threat of contracting a deadly virus that has killed over 121,000 since March in the US alone is a "new normal," and people have to adapt in order to deal with it appropriately. And adaptation is usually the hardest part of any new situation.

Growth is all about how well we adapt to our changing circumstances. If we find we are in relationships where both partners cannot adapt to the changes, these relationships don't usually survive. I wasn't surprised to learn that Billy Joel and his first wife, about whom "Just the Way You Are" was written, divorced in 1982. Because if your partner says, "Just don't change anything and I'll love you forever," how stifling is that? Because of course you're going to change. Just physically, as you grow older, your body will thicken, you'll develop wrinkles, your hair will gray. We are mortals; it is the fate of humans to grow old and die. Change is written in the very phrase, "Grow old." No growth is possible without change. Hopefully, as we grow older, we grow wiser, and we become more of our essential selves. To change is difficult, but to not change is impossible.

I know that "Change over the course of your life and I will love you through all the changes," is not nearly as lyrical as "I need to know that you will always be the same old someone that I knew," as Billy sings. But it's much more realistic, affirming, and accepting. Billy is on his fourth marriage now, but he and his wife have now been together for 11 years, so maybe he has either learned the lesson of accepting change, or his wife is super-human and has managed to stay exactly the same for 11 years. I wish them the best. But as for me, I am looking for someone who loves me just the way I am now and will love me as I grow and change in the future. "Don't go changin'?" I don't think so.

#BillyJoel #DavidBowie #SamCook #JohnLennon #RobertFrost #JusttheWayYouAre #personalgrowth #changemanagement #adaptation #JustWearTheMask

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