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Growth by Evolution Rather than Acquisition
by Reg Harris
In our modern culture, self-worth is usually measured in quantifiable terms: to become bigger, more powerful or more valuable. We think about growth in our personal lives in much the same way, as qualities we can measure: more income, a better job, a nicer house. However, in The Way of Transition, William Bridges writes about a different kind of growth that is not quantifiable.
It doesn’t involve expansion, simply the mysterious process of maturing. Its goal is not an increase in size (or intelligence or sophistication or experience or skill), but simply ripening. This is not growth by acquisition, but growth by development or evolution (2001, p. 187).
We don’t confront the challenges to this type of growth as we would challenges to maturing: that is by trying to defeat, surmount or overcome them. Bridges tells us that we transcend barriers to maturing when we quit perceiving our problems as obstacles and recognize that they are really signals telling us that the time has come for transformation. We must let go of our old understandings—our old ways of believing and acting—and begin the transition to new, broader and more mature ways of seeing and being.
Heroic, for most us, has to do with facing and overcoming challenges: slaying the dragon or turning back the foe. However, as Bridges points out, there is a different, more subtle kind of heroism: the courage to recognize and act when we or our lives are “ripe” for change. In situations like these, we don’t slay the dragon; we assimilate it by consuming its message.
When Problems Signal We’re Ripe for a Journey
When we look at our journeys through life as ripening or maturing, problems cease to be obstacles that we must overcome or “fix” and become invitations or signals that it is time for us to move on in our lives. They are messages from the Self to the self, the person we could be tapping on the shoulder of the person we are and saying, “Time to get out of the way.” We need to realize that we cannot make a new beginning without making an ending, so the question becomes, “What is it time for me to release?”
Viewed in this way, problems are opportunities to take a deep sigh, look into ourselves and release behaviors and understandings that, at one time, may served us well, but which now limit rather than serve. As Bridges tells us,
What the problems are, really, are old solutions that have outlived their usefulness. From that point of view, whenever we do away with a problem instead of listening to its message, we trigger a string of events that lands us in trouble (2001, p. 188).
Bridges calls this process “relinquishing.” In the journey context relinquishing usually occurs during the “Road of Trials” and in the “Abyss.” The challenges we face in these stages force us to explore our old understandings, our old beliefs, limitations and behaviors. We must do this through our failures because successes don’t expose limitations or contradictions.
Expanding our Horizon of Understanding
Because these old understandings have become our go-to strategies when coping with life, we continue use them as we face the challenges in the journey. However, the journey takes us beyond our known world, our world of competence and comfort, so the challenges we face are outside our horizon of understanding. As a result, old beliefs become invalid and coping strategies lose their viability. We must relinquish these obsolete understandings to make room for new, more functional understandings. This is often difficult because we construe letting go of something as ending it. However, letting go is really a beginning, a realization that our transformation and “rebirth” has begun. Trying to make this realization go away is “no more than turning off the alarm that woke you up” (Bridges, 2001, p. 15).
When “relinquishing” is complete, we enter what Bridges called the “neutral zone” (in the journey context, this is the “abyss” or “void”), a period of no-self, when old meanings have been deconstructed and new meanings have not yet formed. It is a time of emptiness, confusion and angst because it is–ironically–our time of greatest freedom.
With no meaning structure, our sense of being in the world is gone; however, with no meaning structure to bind us or restrict our vision, we are free to create a totally new meaning structure, a structure that better fits who we are and what we are becoming. Thus, if we embrace the abyss, it ceases to be time of chaos and fear and becomes a “fertile void” out of which new meaning and new being can emerge. Existential psychologist Rollo May described this experience of awakening to new possibilities in life:
The grasping of the new meaning always presents the possibility and necessity of some personal decision, some shift in Gestalt, some new orientation of the person toward the world and the future. This is experienced by most people as the moment of most heightened awareness; it is referred to in psychological literature as the “aha” experience (1983, pp. 141).
With no meaning structure, our sense of being in the world is gone; however, with no old meaning structure to bind us or restrict our vision, we are free to create a totally new meaning structure, a structure that better fits who we are and what we are becoming. Thus, if we embrace the abyss, it ceases to be time of chaos and fear and becomes a “fertile void” out of which new meaning and new being can emerge.
Modern Culture Makes “Ripening” Difficult
Unfortunately, in our high-speed, technologically-oriented, outcome-based culture, allowing ourselves to ripen and mature organically is difficult, if not impossible. The life-transforming chaos of the abyss is usually interpreted as a threat, a crisis to be solved rather than a message to be heard. To escape the turmoil or restore a sense of security, we flee into consumption, work, alcohol, drugs and technology, or we may get drawn into groups offering ready-made identities.
We soon realize, though we may not admit it, that there is no security in escape, in ignoring the natural flow of our lives. Should we try to ignore the flow, we will discover that activities or projects which had been satisfying and fulfilling, become shallow and meaningless. When we are “ripe” for growth or change, we must listen to the message in the challenge and accept the Call: there is no life in escape because there is no journey.
Bridges, W. (2001). The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
May, R. (1983). The Discovery of Being: Writings in existential psychology. New York: W. W. Norton.
Copyright © 2003 by Reg Harris. All rights reserved. Updated November 18, 2015. All rights reserved. Apart from properly cited quotes and short excerpts, no part of this article can be copied or used in any form without written permission from the author. For permission to use, please contact me.