“For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness.”
Recently, I finished watching the entire Breaking Bad saga, including Better Call Saul and El Camino. I know, I’m always late to the party when it comes to watching series.
There’s a scene from the very first Breaking Bad episode that has stuck with me, where we see the character Walter White, who is a high-school chemistry teacher, summarizing what the study of chemistry is to a class of bored students.
“Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change,” he explains. “Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds.”
“But that’s all of life, right?” he adds. “It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation.”
Essentially, that’s the theme of the Breaking Bad saga right there — change. Of course, in the Breaking Bad series, we have Walter White, a chemistry teacher who changes into a drug kingpin in order to fend for his family, after being diagnosed with cancer. In Better Call Saul, we have Jimmy McGill, an ex-con-man who struggles in his change in making a living as an honest lawyer. And in El Camino, we have Walter’s partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman, who seeks a change in direction as he attempts to make peace with his past.
Change is a constant in life. Everybody changes. Like the characters in the saga, we all go through a similar process of growth, decay, and transformation. We all have an identity that we nurture and grow. Gradually, that identity decays as we undergo new experiences and gain new knowledge. And with that, our identity becomes irrelevant and transforms into something different. And the cycle repeats itself.
Though, to change for better or for worse, is a different question.
As we can learn from the characters in the saga, to change for worse is fairly easy. You just have to live an unexamined life and let your flaws screw you over.
The protagonists in the saga largely fit the archetype in a Shakespearean tragedy — while they appear larger than life, they eventually fall from grace due to a tragic flaw in their character — they become undone from their own doing.
Walter White, for example, is a brilliant chemist. He could have avoided resorting to manufacturing methamphetamine, and in general, could have lived a more fulfilled life if it weren’t for his inferiority complex. Because he felt inferior as compared to his wealthy fiancée and business partners, he backed out of his engagement as well as a highly profitable and legitimate company. Much later, after being diagnosed with cancer, he refuses help from the same people, even as he juggles two jobs to make ends meet. For his entire life, he indulges in self-victimization as he blames others for his own misfortune.
How do we change for the better, then? Is good change truly possible?
The answer is yes, although, it doesn’t work in the way you might think. Let me show you what I mean.
You see, changing ourselves for the better doesn’t mean that we can be anything we want. It doesn’t mean that we can simply become a new person and negate who we used to be. There are always going to be things in ourselves that we can’t change. We can’t change our past. We can’t change our character flaws, either, because they are part of our individual nature, and they are deeply embedded in us, typically stemming from our childhood. If you have experienced trauma, you will never not live without trauma.
To change ourselves for the better is more like making a new sculpture with the same, unchanging mold, or playing differently with the same set of cards that we are dealt.
To change for the better is to be aware of your faults, to acknowledge them, and gradually, be able to take responsibility by making sure they don’t screw us over, as well as by integrating them into our lives, or to make them work for us as much as possible.
Ultimately, that’s what therapy helps us do. It holds up a mirror so that we could see ourselves objectively for who we are, and understand why we are the way we are. So instead of falling into behavioral patterns that don’t serve us, we can slowly be aware of them, acknowledge and understand them, and in turn, take responsibility for ourselves.
Just think, how differently Walter White’s life could have turned out if he were only able to take responsibility for his own shortcomings. His tendency to feel inferior could have translated differently for him — rather than being helplessly self-absorbed, he could have taught himself to have more empathy, to be more sensitive towards other people’s suffering, especially those who are more underprivileged than him.
So, don’t be like Walter White.
You can never run away from who you are. But you can decide to face up and take responsibility, to own your shortcomings and flaws. And this decision could very well change the course of your life.