Growth is extremely exciting, admittedly humbling, terribly frightening, yet ultimately necessary.
We tend to romanticize growth as an exciting time of flourishing and transformation, of trading our former lives for improved versions of ourselves. And most of the time, that is the case.
But we often overlook the fact that growth can also be very unsettling, sometimes even threatening, before it gets to that gloriously triumphant stage. There’s a reason we refer to it as “growing pains,” after all; growth is a very uncomfortable place to be in.
“A mind stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
There’s a reason why many people, after living abroad for some time, return home feeling out of place, no longer able to fit back into the roles they once played. After traveling to different corners of the world, being exposed to new ways of being, they are inevitably changed. These new sights, sounds, and experiences become part of the fabric of who they are.
This isn’t only true for people who have traveled the world, but for those who’ve dived into new experiences, relationships, or intellectual pursuits. They begin to realize that there is no way to go back to the person they used to be; all they can do is move forward with whoever they’ve become and are becoming. Not to “do away” with the old, but to add on to the old, so that they become a fusion of something different.
This, while exciting, can also carry a sense of melancholic nostalgia. As Té V. Smith says, “No one warns you about the amount of mourning in growth.”
Even the human brain reflects this strange truth. When we are born, we have an abundance of synapses between nerve cells that allow us to take in data about the world. But as we grow, the brain begins to eliminate excess synapses that aren’t used enough (a process known as “synaptic pruning”) to refine our neural circuits and increase the efficiency in which we process information, giving us room for more complex forms of thinking.
As psychiatrist Hans summarizes, “The secret of learning is the systematic elimination of excess. We grow, mostly, by dying.” The same ancient wisdom can be found in the Bible, which states, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). According to Adyashanti, “Enlightenment is a destructive process … [It] is the crumbling away of untruth.”
In order for us to learn, grow, and bear fruit, there is another part of us that has to (metaphorically) “die” and “crumble”. Whether it’s a philosophical discussion, an experience of heartbreak, or a profound wake-up call that serves as our catalyst for growth, there is often a sense of mourning for what was (or must be) lost in order for discovery and new insights to take place.
Cynthia Occelli describes it accurately when she says, “To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it will look like complete destruction.”
To suspend ‘certainty’ for the sake of ‘discovery’ is always a risk. It is much safer to seek out experiences that confirm what we’ve always known, because it enables us to move through life with the comfort, safety, and predictability of the familiar. It also means fewer chances of experiencing inner fragmentation, cognitive dissonance, or existential crises that come with profound growth and change.
But while this way of living poses less of a threat to our ‘sense of self’, we also run the risk of never challenging ourselves. By being too attached to old and static ideas of who we are, we don’t give ourselves enough room to become anything new.
Now, I will offer a word of caution: just because something is new, it doesn’t necessarily make it better.
Not everything ‘modern’ is necessarily better than the ‘old school’, and not everything ‘progressive’ is necessarily better than the ‘traditional’. It’s important not to over-glamourize the idea of the ‘new’.
In the same way, don’t immediately dismiss old wisdom that’s successfully governed your life just because you are open to new wisdom. But don’t also cling on to old patterns of living just because they’re familiar. Take everything with a grain of salt, exercise critical thinking, and don’t immediately assume that new ideas are necessarily better (or worse) than your pre-existing ones.
Dare to step out of your comfort zone and expand your horizons.
As Friedrick Nietzsche says, “The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die.” We must be willing to shed layers that don’t serve us anymore so we can grow into all we can be, just as our brains must prune excess synapses so they can function more optimally.
Growth isn’t always glamorous. In fact, it’s pretty darn uncomfortable. But it’s almost always worth it.