Can people change, you asked, for the better, for the worse? And I gave you a single-paragraph, cynical answer. But your question has stuck in my mind. Maybe because I feel you deserve a better (or at least more thoughtful) answer. Maybe because the question deserves more serious consideration. I don't know. I do know that it's a damned complex question to try and answer fairly, honestly, thoroughly.
And so I sit here at Serangoon Gardens in the heat, listening to The Smiths, sweating and smoking and drinking iced tea, and Morrissey is telling me how he'd go out tonight, but he doesn't have a stitch to wear. And I think, you're asking a man who's still listening to The Smiths in 2005 about change. I'll try to answer, but don't blame me if it all ends in tears.
What is change, Jae? How do we define it? How do we quantify it? When we talk about change, are we talking about emotional, moral, ethical, intellectual or behavioral change? In this post-postmodern world, even the definition of change is uncertain, shifiting. So let's limit the conversation to the subject you were commenting on—which, if I understand you, is based loosely on the whole thing about X: can someone who has done some really despicable things in the past change sufficiently to be, for practical purposes, either incapable or at least utterly unwilling to repeat same or similar despicable actions? Or to muddle a metaphor, can a rat bastard change his/her spots?
You and I both know, Jae, from first-hand experience, that people are capable of some truly horrendous shit. You and I both know that the beauty of this world is inextricably bound up with its ugliness. I believe, from reading what you have written, that you would agree with me when I say that sometimes it is better and more appropriate to curse the darkness than light a candle. That's just the way it is. Nobody asked our opinion when they put this whole thing together.
What am I trying to say? What does this have to do with change? I'm not exactly sure, my friend (and I do count you as my friend for all that I have no idea who you really are), but something tells me it's important that we recognize upfront the fact that forgiveness can never be earned. It's always a gift, freely given or irrevocably withheld.
I have done wrong in my life. I have tried to earn forgiveness for the wrongs I have done, when I recognize them. Sometimes I've gotten it, sometimes not. Sometimes I've had to say to myself, 'You've suffered enough for that. Move on.' Sometimes I've done wrong that was beyond my control. It comes with being slightly unstable. Should I feel guilt for being a bastard towards people who cared for me when it was the fault of a hereditary chemical imbalance in my brain? Should I blame my chemically imbalanced ancestors? Should I blame God? Should I blame the vagaries of evolution? The answer is, none of that matters. It only matters whether and how I deal with the consequences of my actions.
Can people change? Yes, of course. Was Tookie Williams truly a changed person when they strapped him down and lethally injected him? Almost certainly. But he was still directly responsible for four murders and indirectly responsible for hundreds if not thousands of deaths in his role as founder of the Crips. This same man did enough good behind bars to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize four times. A truly bloodless sort of justice would see Tookie executed for his crimes, and then erect a memorial for his good works. But we could never be that coldly logical. We must either vilify or beatify him.
Can people like X change? Sure they can, Jae. We all of us change all the time. No one can step into the same river twice, and all that. But the kind of change you're talking about, the change from viciousness to—oh, call it trustworthiness, call it benevolence—well sure it's possible. Just as it's possible, given a sufficiently fucked up situation, for someone who is essentially good and kind to repeatedly do despicable things. But the only thing that I've ever seen that could cause such a change in someone for the better is sheer unadulterated suffering (be it physical, mental or emotional).
The price you pay for such a fundamental change is the fact that no one may ever believe you really have changed. No one is obliged to, and generally speaking they'd be fools to give you the benefit of the doubt. We've moved beyond the simple expectations of right and wrong that we were taught in elementary school. Repentance doesn't automatically make everything okay.
At the end of the day, it's just too easy to mistake regret for remorse. They tend to look the same, but regret is essentially selfish, while remorse is something mostly selfless. Mistaking one for the other can lead to all sorts of trouble. If someone who has wronged you truly changes, then they must be content to be rejected by you for months, for years, perhaps forever. True change has absolutely no expectations.
Anything less is flawed, and dangerous.
So that's how I feel, Jae. I don't know if it helps. I don't know your situation, other than the slivers you share with us on your blog. But even from those fragments, I can hear the lions roaring. You walk down there in the literary grasslands, exposed to all sorts of savagery. You're down there, staring into the dispassionate eyes of predators. I'm up here in the trees, flinging feces and rotten fruit at them. I don't know that anything I have to say to you will be of use.
But there's room on this branch if you want to take a breather.