Thursday, February 3, 2011

Opportunities for Growth

I'm going to draw heavily (read: more or less cut and paste) from a blog entry I wrote almost a year ago on my other blog, because I think it fits in with what I've been writing about and thinking about the past few days. Anyway, I see the connection and, anyway, Lauren and I have a low-tech night scheduled for tonight, so I have to get off the computer ASAP!

This entry started from my vague sense of resentment throughout my 20s at the way that I seemed to be classified by society as less of an adult than someone else the same age if that person was married, and even more so if they had kids. This seemed ludicrous to me–how many examples of utterly immature married and child-bearing people would I have to enumerate to tear down this cultural prejudice? 

Yet, as I’ve approached and passed both of those milestones in my life, I’ve been unable to help feeling that, in fact, they have matured me in some fundamental way. Not, I should say, our wedding itself, but the process of living with someone and working on a relationship in such a serious way--and it's surely an on-going process. Likewise, although being part of Thea's birth was pretty profound, it's the process over the past 7 week of caring for a child that's pushed me toward greater maturity.

At the same time, my earlier intuition did not seem altogether wrong. I still know people who aren’t all that mature, weren’t all that put together, just because they were married, and no number of offspring seemed to do the trick with these individuals either. So?

So it seems to me that there are certain experiences, be they singular events or on-going processes, that give us the opportunity to grow, to mature, to become better than we were. Our first relationship. Our second one. Etc. Struggling in a class. Trying a new activity. Going off to college. Living on your own. First real job. Changing jobs. Sharing an apartment with people not in your family. The death of [insert family member or friend or whoever here]. Facing your own mortality. A crisis–or crises–of faith. Dealing with a serious illness, either yours or someone close to you. Dealing with depression. And on and on.

Some are universal or nearly so. Some are particular to a culture or class. Some are unique, personal. In some cases they are cultural rites of passage, in some cases they are things we seek out, in other cases they are things that happen to us even though we would have wished to avoid them.

And in every case, these are not just opportunities to grow, they are also opportunities to fail. Either to fail to grow or to fail more profoundly: to suffer a setback or even to be broken in some way by the experience. Both of which, I suppose, are in themselves opportunities.

Often, we face these challenges in a rather unselfconscious manner–we don’t see them in the light I’m suggesting, they’re just “what I’m doing, what I’m going through,” except perhaps retrospectively, when we realize how we've grown. Perhaps, however, we can approach them differently? Although religions have sometimes asserted that God redeems suffering--and make no mistake, many of what I've tried to frame as "opportunities" can be quite painful--either with an eternal reward or in some way by serving as a point of growth. The saying that God never gives us more than we can handle is typical of this way of thinking. I don't buy it, of course. Some suffering seems clearly pointless, clearly unredeemable in this life. I'm suggesting, though, that much of it can be redeemed. 

I've written here before about my father's death from complications resulting from cancer when I was a freshman in high school. No doubt about it: awful experience. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that I grew immeasurably from living coping with that experience. I doubt I could enumerate every point of growth that stemmed from it, but I have no doubt that it played a large part in who I became, and I rather like that guy. I wouldn't have chosen the experience, but I can't regret it either. And I think it points to the sometimes-value of difficult experiences.

And getting back to the original point, people can be quite mature without being married, without having children, because there are many experiences that force us to grow. People can be immature despite a wealth of experience because they fail to change, to grow, to learn. How we deal with our experiences is the critical thing.

I suppose I need to keep all this in mind now, as we go through our own difficult time. Opportunity--right, that's what it is; and opportunity to grow and mature.


  1. I spend an inordinate amount of time resenting the fact that I often feel as though I'm failing miserably at life and/or that there is something wrong with me because I'm not married and don't have children. I can never figure out how much of it is me - that fact that I want both of those things (I think) but feel at a loss as how to make them happen (okay, I know how to make KIDS happen, but hopefully you know what I mean) versus how much of it are these societal standards that were forced down my throat from a very young age.

  2. "I can never figure out how much of it is me ... versus how much of it are these societal standards that were forced down my throat from a very young age."

    I hear you! Why do we like what we like and want what we want? It's a difficult knot to untangle, what's been conditioned into us and what we can authentically call our own--and of course, once you get through college, if you haven't done most of that sorting work, who has time in the midst of "real life" and "making a living"?

    Two side tracks off this question:

    First, there's an excellent fantasy series that, among the other things it does, builds off this idea: there's a secluded order of monks who strive to make themselves "unconditioned" so that they can follow Logos purely, without the obstacle that most humans face of being conditioned by "the darkness that comes before"--basically all the influences outside ourselves that condition us to be who we are. The first book, by R. Scott Bakker, is The Darkness that Comes Before.

    And then there's this poem by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks:

    Who makes these changes?
    I shoot an arrow right.
    It lands left.
    I ride after deer and find myself
    chased by a hog.
    I plot to get what I want
    and end up in prison.
    I dig pits to trap others
    and fall in.

    I should be suspicious
    of what I want.