Growth vs. Stagnation: The Primary Challenge of Adulthood

It’s easy–painfully easy–to resort to established ways of doing things: patterns we’ve learned, methods we know. We already know how to do it–and it works. In everything from how we communicate, the style of clothes we wear, the movies and music we consume, the technology we utilize and especially in our thought heuristics, we tend to opt for what we know.

As an adult, the fatal temptation is to resort to only these established methods and become confined by them instead of helped.

It’s been seven years now since I completed my undergraduate degree. College makes it easy to learn: it’s a new environment which demands us to adapt. It’s full of stimulating and challenging courses, people and events. We are encouraged to try new things, travel, consider and reconsider. It feels exhilarating and mind-stretching to piece together one’s own worldview from fresh and exciting ideas and experiences.

Then comes graduation, a job, parenthood and adult life.

All those methods we learned, we stick to because they work and they helped us to learn and understand and do things quickly. Parents especially –I am one– have priorities (babies) that demand so much of our attention that expending extra time on finding new bands or reading a new book of philosophy or even driving a new route doesn’t always happen. Welcoming a baby is so demanding that we resort to those time-tested ways of knowing and doing that we’ve learned.

The temptation is to stick with what we know because it’s safe and it works. But this temptation is deadly: deadly to our souls, our intelligences, our Faith and our bodies.

In the book Dune, author Frank Herbert elaborates the prescient abilities of the hero Paul Muad’Dib:

Muad’Dib could indeed, see the Future, but you must understand the limits of this power. Think of sight. You have eyes, yet cannot see without light. If you are on the floor of a valley, you cannot see beyond your valley. Just so, Muad’Dib could not always choose to look across the mysterious terrain….And always, he fought the temptation to choose a clear, safe course, warning “That path leads ever down into stagnation.”

The clear, safe, easy path leads ever downward into stagnation, like the business man who keeps pursuing more money, more security, more promotions and wakes up at 45 years old to find his wife and children strangers.

Life is always changing. Attempting to force things to stay the same or expecting them to stay the same is a recipe for a shrinking consciousness. Even in faith. Karl Barth wanted to break Christians out of the old ruts of reading the Bible and have the Faithful see the vibrant, fresh living God-man who is Our Lord, Jesus Christ. From personal experience, we know that if we aren’t growing in the Faith through devotion, prayer, holy reading and otherwise, it’s easy to forget things. It’s easy to think that Jesus is the man we think He is. But Jesus is God; God is infinite and ultimately incomprehensible to man–that is we can never understand or know Him completely. But we can get closer the more we read, pray and act. God is always surprising us, as Pope Francis put it: “A God of surprises.” God is always calling us to go deeper, love more, give up more and follow Him more purely.

Earthly reality, as created by God, is like that too. We can never know or understand it all, but the more do learn, the more developed we become. The more open we will be to admitting that we don’t know it all and that we can learn A LOT from other people and other ways of thinking and doing.

I believe it is essential, imperative for all humans to always be developing and growing. Even for adults and parents. Even for those of us who have demanding priorities such as small children. I don’t mean that we have to go snowboarding then river rafting then coffee-tasting every weekend (those that’s a fine thing to do). I just mean that we should never give up our drive to learn and continue and set new goals.

If we don’t set new goals and grow, life becomes an empty sort of waiting for the end. That’s not a life any of us want or are called to. Even if we are bound to a bed, we can grow.

Further, we know that skills and expertise atrophy if they aren’t used. That’s why I reject the well-meaning sentiments of a lot of mom-sites that say, “don’t worry about this or that. It’s not the ‘season of life’ for that. You’ll have time later.” This is true when it comes to keeping an immaculate house. Parents of young children have a real struggle there. But when it comes to skills and development, that advise isn’t helpful. We can’t abandon a skill or knowledge set (such as drawing or politics) and expect it to be there fifteen years later when we have time again. There’s never time. Skills diminish in time. Do it now.

That being said, for the mom in me and for other moms, parenting is a hugely demanding and developmental moment if we let it be. It can teach us and stretch us further than we ever thought possible. It demands that we love selflessly and nurture a new life that we will one day have to relinquish to live on its own and make its own decisions. It’s a huge undertaking.

Yet in the midst of parenting, the parents can and will flourish by continuing their own development. It will make us better parents and caretakers and better spouses, (provided of course that we can order it properly to our vocation to Faith and family life).

As I thought about all this, it reminded me of Erik Erikson’s Stages of Development, which I learned in high school. For adults 40-65, he identifies the primary challenge as “generativity vs. stagnation.” He understands stagnation as “a dissatisfaction with the relative lack of productivity.” His his concept of generativity is a little different from mine of growth. For him, generativity specifically involves contributing to the next generations. That’s very important. I think it’s also important to note the importance of growth for our own individual well-being too. Creating, growing and developing turns us into the people we were meant to be as spouses, parents, children of God, artists, or whatever.

So we must grow boldly where we have never grown before. In order to be happy and in order to be the people God created us to be. It’s hard once the schooling ends, but it is all the more essential.

Up Next: three types of activities in life: creating, consuming, relating

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