The Mystery of Change

I truly cannot understand the language of my former heart. Who was that person?
Zadie Smith

Earlier this month (12/17/12) the New Yorker published an essay by Zadie Smith titled, “Notes on Attunement.” It took me a while to figure out what she meant by “attunement.” It’s not a widely used word. In fact, it’s not in most dictionaries.

But what she meant was that there was a time, early in her youth, when she couldn’t stand the music of Joni Mitchell. In other words, she wasn’t in tune with her songs. Instead, she loved songs that made her, dance, laugh, or cry. Joni’s did none of that. To Smith, her songs were just noise.

Her friends asked her: “You don’t like Joni? My friends had pity in their eyes.”

But then after many years, she finally began to appreciate her songs, to come to love them, in fact. Then she asks a question I wish I heard more often.

“How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such change occur?”

Her question gets to the heart of how major shifts in behavior occur and what that implies about a person’s identity. Her transformation came unexpectedly, it wasn’t gradual, or develop as her musical appreciation matured. Smith writes:

“Involving no progressive change but, instead, a leap of faith [the pleasure that Joni Mitchell’s songs now gave her]. A sudden, unexpected attunement. Or a returning from nothing, or from a negative, into something soaring and positive and sublime.”

Today the effect of listening to Joni Mitchell brings her to tears, uncontrollable tears. She says it’s embarrassing and she can’t listen to her songs when others are present. But they bring her a sense of joy, of “almost intolerable beauty.” “I hated Joni Mitchell—and then I loved her. Her voice did nothing for me—until the day it undid me.”

On my understanding many major shifts in behavior happen this way. They simply occur over time, without any external pressure or the influence of another person. Sometimes they occur after a major change in one’s life or a “progressive change in taste,” but I don’t sense that either of these factors played a role in Smith’s feelings about Joni Mitchell’s tunes.

What does her observation suggest about a person’s identity? Smith writes, “The girl who hated Joni and the woman who loves her seem to me similarly divorced from each other, two people who happen to have shared the same body.”

Again, I think that is a common observation. I know, for example, that I sometimes wonder how I ever managed to teach psychology or write those articles on issues that seem so foreign to me now. I say to myself that must be another person. It isn’t the me who is the me of today. The discontinuity of the life I lead today and the one I led after I left graduate school is striking.

Many have written about the multiple selves people often have. Perhaps that’s all it is. We are two or three selves at any time in our life, often in opposition or inconsistent with one another, and yet, we occupy the same physical body, maybe a few more wrinkles here and there, a few gray stands of hair, sometimes lighter, sometimes heavier, but we generally look the same so that the friends we had in college recognize us when we see each other at our 50th reunion.

Towards the end Smith writes: “What created this easy transit in the first place is a mystery: I feel I listened to as many songs in childhood as I read stories, but in music I seem to have formed rigid ideas and created defenses around them, whereas when it came to words I never did.”