I am indebted to a woman who has suffered for many years with M.C.S., and who is now old, disabled and shut-in. She gave me the words that title this piece, and described an amazingly poignant experience I now want to focus on. She was reflecting, with a group of old people, on the difficulties associated with self-care. She spoke of taking care of oneself in the midst of the very conditions that age and infirmity thrust upon us, then she mentioned how these things had “forced her to grow.” Being the kind of person I am, I heard her, and began to reflect upon what all she meant by that comment. I want to share some of these reflections with you, because I believe they reveal the painful, miraculous and paradoxical nature of human life.
As an older person, I have slowly become aware that things I used to assume, are not the way I had made them out to be. This is one of those learnings, I experience from time to time. Because she was able to give voice to her awareness of forced growth, I was able to take it in. And what I am taking in — is changing my awareness; awakening me to just how complex and incredible existence is. She basically shared her burgeoning awareness — that the tragedy that befell her — was the very same painful and shocking experience that had forced her to grow.
“Another fucking growth experience.” How often have you heard that expression? How often have you used it? We have the awareness that growth experiences can be uncomfortable and unpleasant, but do we really know that even tragedies like illness, disability and accidents have that same growth potential folded within them? Out of the fire and ashes, a transformation can occur. That may seem like an abstract possibility for some lucky few, but is it really a possibility for the rest of us? Yes. And here’s why.
For many years she dwelled in the heartache of having her normal life snatched away from her. It was a long time of deep and agonizing loss, of loneliness, of anger and hopelessness. She didn’t know it, for all she could experience was the ache of grief and hardship, but something else was also happening. The very burn of painful loss was delivering a sensitizing awareness; a world was opening, as her familiar one dissolved. The scalding reality of loss carved out a new consciousness.
It took her awhile to recognize it, to believe that something good could come of something so bad. Then, she thought she was crazy for a while. But, eventually, she adjusted, and came to accept the fact that she had become more aware, sensitive and compassionate. Being broken down, by Life, had made her more whole.
What impressed her the most (and me, having gone through my own phoenix experience) was that the changes that took place, had occurred, without any effort or intention on her part (or mine, for that matter). She didn’t change deliberately; rather, she was changed by what she had gone through.
In reply to the question “why,” comes this answer. There is a kind of molting that human beings go through, sometimes dramatic (like the traumatic experiences we had) but mostly just inconvenient, dismaying and uncomfortable. These “fucking growth experiences” mostly are accompanied by an experience of dread, but they turn out to be blessings in disguise, molting human-style.
Knowing this, which most of us begrudgingly do, doesn’t make the experience more pleasant or endurable. It doesn’t lead to praying for hardship, nor does it mean truly embracing those undergoing this kind of struggle. But this kind of awareness could provide a balm to the fear that haunts human activity. There is a maturing aspect of who we are. We don’t have control of it, but we can rely on it. It is human to molt into shape.
It might be useful to remember this tendency, this aspect of human nature right now. Life has our backs. Sometimes (maybe times like this) things have to get worse, before they get better. Everything has to be in doubt — the possibility of death brings about the possibility of Life. Nature regularly and faithfully forces growth, not out of malice (though it looks that way for a time) but out of a terrible kindness. Forced growth is that terrible kindness, or as Ram Dass calls it, a “fierce grace.”
Considering the possibility that evolution is at my back brings ambivalent feelings. I like the idea that I may grow just because I am alive, but I am chagrined when I face the existential fact that I may be grown in ways I would not choose. I am always surprised that I am equipped for such vulnerability and adaptation.