Facilitating Acceptance, Part III:
Making Growth the Goal
Making Growth the Goal
It’s difficult to accept reality, at least when that reality doesn’t give us what we want. We find ourselves traveling down the road in one direction, and we expect it to continue on and take us to our desired destination, but REALITY takes a different turn. Sometimes we even flat out deny that the road has changed course. To begin with, we become angry and frustrated. We stress about where our actual road is leading, and we feel sad and depressed that the path is not going our way. In a certain sense, we continue to travel in the same direction in our fantasy, and miss the turn off. This equates to real conflict and dissonance, because our wishful path diverges and strays further away from our actual path of reality.
There are different levels of acceptance. At the one extreme, we tolerate and bear reality, because we must. The unstoppable flood waters of life rush forward. Despite our having built walls upon walls of sand bags, we are powerless to stop the oncoming waves, and eventually to some degree we must accept it. The other extreme is to completely embrace and welcome that which life gives us. Such a lofty level indeed requires a lifetime of work, however it behooves us to place this ideal on our map. We must know the optimum to strive towards.
When we’re fixated on where we want our road to lead, we’re getting stuck on a goal that no longer fits. We see only what we want to have, to attain, or to accomplish at the end of that road. We lack the flexibility to change our direction as well as our goals. It may be too difficult to just stop wanting what we want, and thereby accept REALITY. It’s often more practical to target the part of the equation that is easier to change.
In the book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues studied happiness in thousands of people around the world. They wanted to know how some individuals were able to attain happiness and optimal experiences despite facing adversity, in what he calls Flow. One colleague studied a group of people who suffered from paraplegia. He noted that “. . . a large portion of the victims mentioned the accident that caused their paraplegia as both one of the most negative and one of the most positive events in their lives. [The] tragic events . . . presented the victim with very clear goals . . . The patients who learned to master the new challenges of their impaired situation felt a clarity of purpose they had lacked before.”
Similarly, Csikszentmihalyi examined people who work happily in monotonous jobs and barren environments. He found that those who succeeded to do this changed “constraints into opportunities for expressing their freedom and opportunity.” In other words, they changed their focus and goal.
The common theme in all these studies is that happiness does not depend on external events and circumstances, but on how we interpret them. To many, this concept sounds foreign, almost like a fairy tale. However, even if that happiness were sustainable and would last (contrary to studies that find that winning the lottery soon leads to depression and misery), such external circumstances are not necessary for us to feel happy and fulfilled in our life as it is now.
As time passes, the lobster continues to get larger and larger inside its shell. However, the shell is composed of dead material that doesn’t grow along with the living tissues contained inside it. When the lobster gets too tight and constricted, it sheds its old shell and grows a new one. Analyzing this phenomenon, we observe what prompts the lobster to shed its shell and grow a new one: pain and discomfort. When it becomes too tight and uncomfortable in the old shell, only then can growth of a new shell occur.
Do our difficult and painful situations prompt us to grow? We don’t like hearing this, and wish it wasn’t that way. I personally noticed how all my children grew and got a little older each time they fell sick and then recovered. The struggle shaped and matured them. As the saying goes, “If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger.” This pattern can be applied to all of life’s struggles and sufferings: when we experience difficulties, when we are squeezed like a lobster, we grow if we choose to. Making growth the goal can always fit, even with our most difficult circumstances.
In any tough life situation, the fitting question to ask is “How should I work to grow from this?” People can even grow from their addictions. In his book Recovery Zone, Patrick Carnes develops Csikszetmihalyi’s observation that addicts use their brains in ways similar to successful achievers. While achievers focus intensely on accomplishing their goals, addicts obsess about the substances, relationships and processes they are addicted to. With proper guidance, work and growth, addicts can actually learn to harness their addictive patterns and use them for success. In fact, they must do this for sustained recovery to occur.
It makes good sense to check our goals and see if they fit with where our path is actually leading. In addition to our often not being in control, we want the path to lead to certain destinations because of our limited perspective. We imagine it would be best to win the lottery, to have the luxury car, to make that business deal, etc. We feel so certain that these things will be good for us, but reality doesn’t take into account our limited perspective.
We perceive the world with only a mere 5 senses; our 2 eyes see in only 1 direction, and only the present moment that is in front of us; we are blinded by many things, such as bribes, desires, fears, and idealization; we even see things that aren’t there; we aren’t privy to how today’s suffering will shape us and make us grow; we don’t perceive which of our actions the suffering at hand is correcting; we don’t see our future; we don’t know about past lives, that may be driving and directing current happenings and events. This list is just for starters.
Rav Eliyahu Dessler gives the metaphor of a scribe involved in writing, who is being viewed through the keyhole of the room’s door. From this limited perspective, the onlooker can conclude that the quill and hand attached to it are moving by themselves. If the viewer can expand his perspective, though, and see the whole picture, he will realize that there’s a person who’s directing and moving the quill.
Just being aware that our perspective is limited helps us already to accept reality. We can admit that we don’t see the whole picture and can’t truly know where our path should lead. When reality takes a different turn, modifying our goal allows us to get back on the right track. Choosing to make our goal to growing from situations always fits, even if we can’t see why the quill moves the way it does. We don’t have to even know where our path is leading in order to choose to grow from that path.
Try it on
I encourage the reader to ponder this perspective. Think about how your life would be more fulfilled and full if you always asked yourself how you could grow from your situations and made that your goal. Consider where you would be by now and what you would have accomplished. We don’t like hearing that “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Often, though, we have no choice. “Life happens,” to all of us. I invite you try out this perspective, to work towards acceptance, by making growth the goal. If you get stuck, speak to others about it, or you can contact me. Here’s to your growth!