"Do you really believe people can change, James?"
One of my Fulbright friends recently presented this question to me late one night, while, quite honestly, they were rather intoxicated. Although I am not entirely certain they even remember posing this question to me, I am certain of my answer and I wanted to write this post to tell you why I have come to my conclusion.
Yes, I could immediately point to Jesus and tell you how He has changed my life. This, however, would not mean much to many of the friends who I have met in this season of life. If you did not know me before I met Jesus, you would not be able to fully grasp just how much Jesus has changed me; there were a few years there when nothing could make me smile—more about that later. Instead, though, I will tell you about another radical transformation that has taken place in my life, one that also supports my conclusion of why I truly believe that anyone really can change, and it is a big one if you know me well. It is the radical transformation of my taste buds.
I was a chicken nuggets and french fries child. Let's get real for a moment, I am still a chicken nuggets and french fries adult, but not nearly as obsessed today as I was during my Indiana childhood. I inhaled those nugs like it was my day job and my livelihood depended on it. Much like the boy featured in John Mulaney's new Netflix special "John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch" who only eats plain noodles with a little bit of butter, I feared as a kid that my love for chicken nuggets and french fries was going to "make my life so hard."
Unlike my talented young friend, however, I sometimes would deviate from my standard choice of cuisine whenever my family went to a restaurant of a different culture. Although many American children do tend to resort to chicken nuggets and french fries at ethnic restaurants—e.g., the famous "The Dad" tweet seen below—this was the only time I ever actually would try something new. If it was an American restaurant or a fast food chain, it was chicken nuggets and french fries, but, if it was a Mediterranean restaurant, it was hummus, pita bread, saganaki, and a lamb gyro with tahini sauce.
These new foods slowly started changing my taste buds in my childhood, but it would take quite some time before I would be willing to ever try any of the foods I had written off as a boy—a list that included tomatoes that weren't already ketchup, onions that weren't already fried, and mushrooms of any kind. After all, change does not just happen in a day. When I left Indiana for college, my taste buds continued to change throughout my time in Florida, but true change cannot take place by simply changing your surroundings either. Change happens through intentional choices every single day—for the good or for the bad.
I had a friend in college who often would shame my eating habits. He knew how much I loved going out late with many of my residents when I was a Resident Assistant to get McDonald's or Taco Bell. One statement I frequently heard from him was "James, how do you ever expect to live in another country when all you eat is fast food?" Statements like this serve no purpose when working towards changing habits. If anything, hearing this just made me want to eat more fast food. What did he expect me to do—take all of my residents out to try new foods from different cultures every single night?
What he did not know was that we actually did switch it up quite often, going on late night trips to our favorite Cuban restaurant, local Mediterranean restaurants, and even driving down to Miami to eat at a Ukrainian restaurant. All his statement did was plant a fear deep inside of me that I never would be able to live in another country—that maybe my taste buds never would change past what they had always been.
Despite this fear, I still chose to believe that the change could and would happen; that my taste buds would continue to grow and develop through the years. When I learned that I had been accepted as part of the Fulbright South Korea cohort, my friend's words were still in the back of my mind, but I decided to silence them and jump fully into a new season of life filled with new tastes for me to embrace in the country of South Korea. I met new friends who did not shame my old eating habits, but encouraged my new ones. They offered me foods that I had never heard of before, saying "James, I really think you will like trying this!" They have been so patient with me, and, on nights when I still crave chicken nuggets and french fries, they have even been willing to go out and get some McDonald's with me too—jokes on my friend; McDonald's is literally everywhere in this world!
When I worked for the organization Student Leadership University, the founder, Dr. Jay Strack, often made a statement about change that has stuck with me through the years. He stated, "You will be the same person five years from now except for the people you meet, the books you read, and the places you go." I have found this statement to be true. The new people I have met, the books I have read, and the places I have gone over the last five years have changed me completely, and I am still changing today as I meet even more people, read more books, and travel to so many new places.
Throughout my time in South Korea, I have grown to love tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms in my food. When I first arrived, I could not bring myself to eat the Korean dish "naengmyeon," which is a cold noodle dish that is popular in the summer, but even it has quickly become one of my favorite dishes here that I now crave. My taste buds have changed and they are still changing. Taste buds are not the only parts of ourselves that can change with time and intentional choices, though—as I stated earlier, I used to be such an unhappy person. Meeting Jesus changed my life because He presented something new to me that my friends often present to me here in South Korea as well: a choice.
Jesus gives us a choice to either follow Him or not follow Him, to love the people around us or not love them, to choose joy or bitterness, and to encourage or discourage. Everything comes down to intentional choices to change. When the world says "How do you ever expect to change?" Jesus smiles at you, takes your hand, and kindly says, "Hey, I really think you will like trying this instead."
So, do I believe that people can change? Why, of course I do. We are changing all of the time.
James Davisson is just a small man with a big heart, serving a much bigger God.