The Choice to Grow

Oprah has a different voice when she’s talking about growth, trauma, and spiritual things. Have you noticed? She get that wispy, deep tone and the words hang in the air.

It drives me crazy. Nothing against her, but growth is not a wispy, dreamy, philosophical breeze. It is hard and painful and every step of the way it feels like a terrible idea.

Initially when something stressful or traumatic happens there is a messy mix of being shocked, addressing concrete needs, and experiencing acute grief and loss (of a person, a home, a hoped-for life, a career, you name it and if it is meaningful, it can be grieved). After a while of grieving and feeling numb, I often see people get fed up and want something different but not know what or how.  

Then, there are a few different ways people respond in the long-term aftermath of a stressful or traumatic event. We ignore, restore/recover, or grow. It is not a linear or step-wise process, moving from one to the other, though that can happen.

Houstonians, a good metaphor for this is how people respond when they were flooded during Harvey. After the initial rescue, displacement, return, and immediate mucking there is a pause when you decide what to do next. You decide which contractors to call and how things will be put back together again. Ignoring what happened in this metaphor (and real-life situation) involves putting things back together as they were before, ignoring that there is a threat of the same thing happening again. It involves just getting through and trying to think about it as little as possible.

Restoring and recovering involves a similar process but also acknowledges the reality of threat. This is rebuilding but then intentionally keeping the drains and gutters clear, installing tile or wood floors instead of re-installing carpet. Sometimes this is all we have the capacity for. Sometimes, this is the most we can handle. That is okay; it is enough.

Growth involves taking it one step further when a person has the capacity, resources, and energy. It is renovating while we’ve got the contractor over and the house torn apart. It is looking at the blue prints and seeing what renovations might be not just be helpful but might also really spruce up the place. It is seeing the challenge of coping with what has happened and digging into how it has affected us and how we want to live in light of this experience. It is an intentional choice that involves turning away from how things have been done and turning toward something with greater complexity. Struggle and growth, when we are so able and willing to allow it to, can increase the depth and breadth of our life experience.

We don’t grow by moving forward right away. We grow by digging. It is painful, dirty and can take time.

Why bother? Weren’t things just fine before? Aren’t I too old for any of this growth business?

Novelty is good for the brain. When we try new foods, go to new places, learn new skills, it allows our brain to create new connections. Like a baby learning to use a new toy, throughout our lifetime, we can enrich and feed our brains with new experiences. This includes looking at yourself, others, and the world in new ways. This includes choosing to try to think about things differently or taking on new challenges. This gives our brain new life.

Growth can take a couple forms: perspective- or action-centered growth. Essentially, we’re growing in “being” or “doing” (or both). Both are positive, and neither one is better than the other. Perspective-centered growth is a positive change in how we mentally engage with ourselves, others, or the world, such as a significant shift in priorities, a significant positive revision in how we see ourselves. It can be existential or spiritual or purely personal. Action-centered growth involves doing things differently, trying new things, experimenting with what you are capable of.

Both, however, involve digging to see what is not working, what you’re not happy with, or what feels stagnant. It can involve acknowledging mistakes, weakness, and vulnerability. And it will certainly involve change in some way. If it makes you want to run away, you’re probably on the right track. There are an infinite number of reasons to let these things stop us from working on growing, to let the nay-saying voice in our heads keep us from trying and trying again. It involves an investment of spending some time and emotional energy (when we have it) looking around in the darkness. It involves believing that our lives are worth the investment.

Find the area of tension, the area of discomfort, the thing your mind runs away from every time it pops up. When you are ready, set up camp there. Dig. Redesign. Rebuild.

This is all still a dramatic over-simplification of the complex experience of growth, but I wanted to dip into the messy, scary reality of it. If we believe it is something hippies do or that it is easy breezy, if we try but into a challenging aspect, we might think we’re doing something wrong or that we should definitely turn back when that is not the case at all.

Allow it to be something that is complex and doesn’t make sense for a while. Allow it to not fit into a neat package or inspiring message. Allow it to not fit any words at all.