August 2, 2013

Never Stop Growing Up.

A couple weeks ago, journalist Connie Schultz had this piece in Parade entitled “Life in the Middle Ages.”  While I have not yet approached middle age, the article resonated with me because it discussed the exciting side effect that with growing old, “[y]ou get to keep growing.”  In the article, Schultz included a passage from Gail Godwin’s The Finishing School, which was particularly moving:

          There are two kinds of people . . . One kind, you can tell just by looking at them at what  
          point they congealed into their final selves.  It might be a very nice self, but you know you
          can expect no more surprises from it.  Whereas, the other kind keeps moving, changing. 
         With these people, you can never say, “X stops here,” or “Now I know all there is to know
         about Y.”  That doesn’t mean they’re unstable.  Ah, no, far from it.  They are fluid.  
        They keep moving forward and making new trysts with life, and the motion of it keeps them
         young.  In my opinion, they are the only people who are still alive. 

The second type of person is who I hope to always strive to be.  Never resisting change, never being stunted by some internal block, never shrugging my shoulders and saying "I am who I am" in the face of challenge with myself and others.

On some level, however, I agree with the common notion that as people get older they get stuck in their ways and become complacent.  After all, if it works and if it ain’t broke, why  fix it?  But on the other hand, just ‘cuz it "ain’t broke" doesn’t mean it couldn’t work better, and you could actually be a happier, more content person in the end. 

One of the requisites of an assistantship I got for grad school included teaching English 101 to college freshmen.  At the time, public speaking was perhaps my biggest fear in the world, which was even bigger than my fear of snakes; it was that big.  I knew that I wanted this assistantship because my M.A. would be paid for, but I also realized how good the opportunity would be for me because it would force me to overcome my fear of public speaking. 
In the spring and summer preceding the fall when I was slated to begin the program, I did some personal work, the first step reflecting on what the root of this fear was.  It occurred to me that a big part of it was lack of confidence, of someone making fun of me, of being rejected on some level -- all emotional things.  But the other part of it was simply not knowing how to do it.  After doing some soul-searching, I decided that counseling would be a good way to work through the issues, so I talked to someone about it (i.e., a counselor).  (For any of you on the fence about counseling, I am a big fan; just make sure to find the right one, for you.)

During the initial sessions, we talked about all the kinds of things you would imagine: my upbringing, siblings, family dynamics, my fear of public speaking and why it was so scary to me.  I only met with her a few times before our sessions turned to conversations about astrology (she saw strong Virgo tendencies in me, which was interesting) when I knew that her work with me (for the time anyway) was done.   
The big takeaway of my counseling sessions was not playing the victim, of not pigeon-holing myself into a static version of Sarah for years to come.  It was after the counseling that I realized how capable I was of overcoming this public speaking thing (as well as other things).  I may not like it, and it may always be stressful for me (oh, it is!), but I can learn to do it without crippling fear and I can even learn how to do it well.  Needless to say, despite the horrific nightmares the evening before, I didn’t faint the first day of teaching English 101 and actually did a decent job.  And guess what?  I’ve since touched, even held, my share of snakes too. 

It’s true that we are not completely malleable – I will always prefer to be the wallflower than the attention whore – but we all have a rather vast sliding scale of self-improvement, and oftentimes we can even surprise ourselves with the things we’re capable of.  Sometimes we set limits without even realizing it, and perhaps it’s because we’re satisfied with where we are (which is totally okay!).  But when those limits become limitations that prevent us from living the best life possible, or in some cases, even hurt the people we love, it’s worth pushing ourselves a little harder and a little faster. 

After all, we’re all capable, and more important, worthy, of change, growth, and becoming better versions of ourselves.  

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