When you were a kid, did you know exactly what you wanted to be when you grew up? Firefighter, doctor, lawyer, zookeeper? I knew exactly what I wanted to be from the time I was six or seven. I wanted to be a grown-up, as clear as that. I didn’t really care what kind of grown-up; I just wanted to be a grown-up as fast as possible. At seven or eight years-old, I owned albums of Abbott and Costello comedy routines. I had a cappuccino machine. I owned the entire silent film collection of Charlie Chaplin by my tenth birthday, and I listened to the Benny Goodman Orchestra. My version of what it meant to grow up has not come to pass, because apparently seven or eight-year-old Aaron thought that being a grown-up looked a heck of a lot like being a 1930’s vaudeville performer – with pictures of Harry Houdini and Abbott & Costello and Bela Lugosi in my head.
What I thought being a grown-up looked like then, and the requirements of making meaning as a dad, minister, citizen, or friend now – they are just different worlds. There are many days when I look in the mirror and think, “how did they give that person responsibility for human lives? They just sent that guy home with babies? Wow, that doesn’t look like a grown-up to me.” Anybody else feel like you’re not quite a grown-up yet?
Can we still grow up?
Dr. Jennifer Garvey Berger writes about what it means for adults to keep growing up, which is a terrifying proposition for some of us who wish it was over and a freeing idea for those of us who are glad there might still be time. She studies adult human development – stages of what our mindsets and sense-making toolboxes look like as we grow throughout our lives. She talks about the fact that, for those of us living in the postmodern world (all of us), we don’t intuitively feel like we have the same kind of clear precise map of what it means to make sense of the world that our ancestors did. This is for better and for worse – a lot of those sense making maps were oppressive and limiting. However, a defined map provides clarity in understanding where, and who, you are. Examples of the old map: you know what you’re going to be when you grow up, because that’s what your parents did. You know who you’re going to marry, because there are four other people who live in your town. You know what God is, because the tribe or the place where you worship tells you what God is. You know what it means to be a partner or parent, and then when you get sick there’s a way to make sense of it, and when someone you love dies, there’s a way to make sense of it, and when you die, there’s a map. For better or worse. For those of us in this era, many of the typical places we used to look for wisdom – like churches or political parties or traditional family structures – are being questioned (and questioned for good reason). But what it means is there’s not one place that all of us can depend on for solid knowledge to make sense of the world, especially in an era when we’re questioning whether what we hear on the news or from a politician or from a preacher is even meant to be true.
In growing up as an adult with a different map, Berger suggests that there is a big difference between learning and growing. Learning is getting more information and putting it into a container, and growing is changing the container. I could see how people who are in, let’s say, Western, typically highly-educated, progressive intellectual-type environments could easily mistake learning for growth. Learning is like putting a lot of rocks into a bucket and then next time putting different rocks or more rocks into the bucket. Growth is no longer being a bucket. Berger claims they are very different things and that growth, that kind of transformation – changing the container and the very sense making system you have – very rarely happens unless we are forced to do it. When everything’s going well and your paycheck comes in on time, food is on the table, your partner is happy, when you get done speaking they clap their hands, and there’s a gold star on the report card, you don’t have much of a reason to change the way that you make sense of the world. In fact, if you do, and you start growing too fast, the people in your family or your religious community or workplace might say, “What’s wrong with you?” She says that we tend to grow, to break open the container and become a new one, when the person we are and the world that we’re in no longer match if we want to make sense of life. As I understand it, it’s kind of like the difference between being a bicycle and being a boat. If you are a bike, and one road is blocked, you just go through a different path. But if it floods, it is no longer good to be a bike. You can’t just pick a different road. You must become a boat.
What about our country?
As a country, it feels to me like we are not in a learning moment. Rather, we are in a time which calls for some very radical growth – getting a new set of skin, getting a new container, becoming a boat that can help navigate the (maybe literal) rising waters. Like many of you I’m guessing, when the results of the recent election were coming in, I was glued to my television waiting to news from counties I had never heard of before, asking myself what direction we are going as a country.
I recently went to Boston with a group from the church I serve. We would sit in the Public Garden or at Walden Pond, often talking about whether this was the most divided and polarized time in our country. We realized one day that we were asking this question while sitting under a statue of a US senator who had been beaten almost to death with a cane and left for dead on the floor of the US Senate for his position on abolition, the argument about whether humans are allowed to be bought and sold. It was a time when women couldn’t go to every school or vote or own property, and we found ourselves concluding that things are bad right now, but maybe not the most polarized it has ever been. How do we make sense as a people right now? The same tools we have used, the political parties and the religions, the family dynamics that we used to rely on when things got hard, they don’t seem like they are working right now. Putting new information into the bucket doesn’t seem like it’s going to solve this problem.
New wine; old skins
We have to be something different to experience something different. Because, whether it’s as a country or as individuals, once you decide that you’re finished – you’re done changing – every new piece of data is a threat. You can only take so much more new life before you break, if you’re unwilling to grow. Berger notes that, paradoxically, it is precisely the moments when we need to be most creative that we rely on our most ancient forms of wisdom and sense-making, or when we revert to tools that served us at a different stage. When the world is experiencing trauma and tragedy, when someone you thought would never die dies or leaves you, or you walked out the door. On the day when your job is over and you didn’t expect it to be, or the election didn’t go the way you thought – in the most chaotic moments where we need to stretch, get creative, and grow the most, we often we go back to the tools that used to serve us a lifetime, or maybe thousands of years ago.
In the Bible, the teacher Jesus talks about this dynamic in the metaphor of putting new wine into old wineskins. For those of you who are familiar with this passage, he says, “you don’t take new wine and put it into old wineskins, because if you do, they’ll break, and you’ll lose all your wine!” It’s alive; it’s a living thing, and if you put it into something that won’t stretch, it’ll break. The teacher Jesus equates liberation and freedom with being unfinished people. You want a new life? Be a new person. You want more love? Be a new person. You want more forgiveness? Be a new person. Don’t put new life into the same old package. This is, of course, a lot easier said than done.
Growth and loss go together
If you’re like me, you don’t like change, not even good change. It’s hard to grow as a person, and I rarely want to unless the environment I’m in stops making sense. Berger notes that growth and loss are always related. She talks about the fact that when kids develop a new skill set, they literally have to give up their capacity to experience the world in the same way. For example, a baby goes from being held to crawling and then walking and we cheer from the sidelines and celebrate with them. And yet, for them, the entire world has changed. Life used to mean being held all the time, and to walk it no longer means that. When a child learns to speak and use or understand words, we celebrate and clap from the sidelines. And yet, they never get to get back to what it meant to live before language, to live in that mystical non-dual space before you had to make sense using words.
Real growth always involves some sort of loss. If you want to make sense of the world in a new way, you have to literally give up the way that you currently make sense of the world, and that can sting. Over time, my experience of what God is has changed, changed in ways that feel real to e, and I’m happy for that. However, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that there is a grief there, too. As much as the new encounters of God feel real to me, the old God was sturdy and loved me in a powerful way, and I don’t get that God back.
I think this loss with growth is what the mystics and poets talk about when they say that you must lose your life in order to gain it. It’s what the Buddha points to in saying that non-attachment is the tool to use if you want to be enlightened. Every morning around five o’clock, I sit down and read the prayer of St. Francis. It has all this paradoxical stuff about needing to forgive in order to be forgiven and dying to achieve eternal life. You could interpret that as some sort of morbid superstitious thing, or you could say that if there’s always something to learn, and always a new person to be, and always one more person to love and be forgiven by, then you can’t have the same life you have today if you want that one. Growth requires a little dying, over and over and over again.
Live at the edge of our ability
If you are interested in spiritual growth or making more meaning in your life (and I assume you are at least a little interested if you are still reading at this point) then a big part of the work is learning to like living at the very edge of what we’re capable of understanding, all the time. By definition, the love you’re not capable of having right now is just on the other side of who you are. In her poem, “Revolution the Day After,” Carrie Newcomer talks of revolution and new life as this continual act of leaving what is not required along the roadside as we seek true north. What do you need to set down by the roadside if you want to keep walking toward new love, or forgiveness, new insight, or the courage you seek? Is your ego too heavy? Your resentment? Perhaps it’s hard for you to imagine who you are apart from your labels as parent, worker, member of a political party or religious group.
In her book, Jennifer Garvey Berger talks about proactively preparing for growth through the practice of asking ourselves questions that are just beyond our current capacity and way of making sense in the world. For example, if you’ve just gotten a new promotion and paycheck at work, and you’re really excited about your success, ask yourself, “is that what success looks like?” The questions that change us are the ones that stretch the ways we make sense of where, and who, we are in the world. Easier said than done.
Grace for the past helps possibility for the future
For me, in order to live, I have to believe that things don’t have to be this way – as a country and as a person. Sometimes, looking back and seeing the change that has happened in my life helps be believe that future change is possible. Grace for the past often equals possibility for the future. In their blog, Quaker author, Parker Palmer, and musician, Carrie Newcomer, offer a question for reflection each month. Their question for October was, “What do you want to name and claim as a way you are flowering today that you could only hope for in the past?” In other words, is there a part of who you are that you are proud of that you wouldn’t have thought possible before? In speaking to the impatience and judgement we so often feel about our own change, the offer the words of Mark Nepo as a reminder for grace, to us and others. Nepo writes,
“The simple rose, at each moment of its slow blossoming, is as open as it can be. The same is true of our lives.”
That flower is as open as it can be right now, and perhaps, so are you.
If you wrote a letter to yourself from 10, 5, maybe 1 year ago, what would you say? I can imagine writing a letter back to myself just a year ago and saying, “I am so proud of you. Look at the ways that you’ve grown, ways you didn’t ask for, but which happened nonetheless.” Writing back to that person you were, how much faith do you have in them? What are you proud of? What growth and wisdom do you have now that they couldn’t imagine. Do they know what they will be capable of? (Share some of your letter to yourself in the comments!)
A little grace looking back goes a long way. And so, like that teacher 2000 years ago, or those today, there’s something linked between you being unfinished and you being free. Being unfinished is good and terrifying news. It means we get to keep growing up, and usually means we will have to . It means that change is not destined to be in one direction, that countries can get better, and countries can get worse. Our lives can grow and broaden, or they can narrow.
I have faith in us, not just as a country but as people, and I have faith in you. Not some superstitious or naive faith, but faith in things not yet seen. Because, whether you have one day left on earth, one year or 50 years, there is a version of you that hasn’t yet shown itself to the world just yet, and when it does, God’s possibility will be a little more known to us all.