Reality Check: Aesop’s Snake

Do you believe there’s good in everyone? That even the most awful person is good at their core?

Values and beliefs form part of what Dr. Wm. Glasser refers to as our “Quality World.” Our beliefs influence our perceptions, decisions and actions.

Chelsea believes in the goodness of all. Thus, she believes that there is a core of goodness in her partner, Mike. Despite past experience, when Mike says, “Chelsea, I love you. I won’t drink [gamble, cheat on you, beat on you, steal from you, etc.] anymore,” Chelsea buys it. She wants to believe that Mike has changed.

Chelsea’s situation reminds me of Aesop’s fable of the farmer and the snake. These fables, although centuries old, effectively express big ideas in few words. There are different versions of the fable, but here’s the gist.

The farmer found a poisonous snake, frozen and numb with cold. He took pity on it, and warmed the snake on his chest. The snake revived and immediately bit the farmer. As the farmer lay dying, he asks, “Why?” The snake responds, “You knew I was a snake when you rescued me.”

What could Chelsea take from this fable? That there’s a possibility that the Mike of the future will be the same Mike of the past. He will not change, no matter how loving and helpful she is.

Now, that may not be true! Perhaps Mike does possess the kernel of goodness that Chelsea believes. Perhaps, with her love, he will become the man that she is sure he can be.

The urge to “help” people change and reform can be powerful. To that end, we may choose behaviours that attempt to coerce, manipulate, or force another to do what we want. After all, as we know what’s best for them, why should they not do as we say?

Yet even though we have only the best of intentions, that is external control. And choice theory suggests that we get along better and ultimately satisfy our needs more effectively if we drop external control.

Let’s look from the snake’s (or Mike’s) perspective. He knows what he wants, and that’s not to be under someone else’s control.

Shall we sit him down and have a heart-to-heart? Perhaps even go to counselling? No problem. As a master of external control himself, Mike knows manipulation and can tell you what you want to hear. What’s the result?

You walk away satisfied, perceiving that you have caused a change in Mike. Mike walks away even more delighted, having yet again pulled the wool over someone’s eyes. But a snake is still a snake, full of poison.

Is all lost? Perhaps not. A valuable question is, “What does the snake want?” Or, “Does Mike want to change?”

For any of us, unless we actually want to change, attempts by others to change us are unlikely to make a scrap of difference.

It’s a wonderfully optimistic characteristic to believe the best of people, to have an open heart free of cynicism. However, just because we would like to believe the world is a place where everyone loves us and wants to get along doesn’t mean that this is the reality.

As we grow and learn, it’s helpful to learn from our experiences.

I think that some people can change. They can transform from poisonous snakes to lovely, harmless creatures…if what they want is to change, themselves. Do you think people change?

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