BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 2013 (edited 2019)
We grow from the womb to the grave. Our bodies, minds and spirit adapt to the surrounding world. While growth is inevitable, the manner in which we grow varies.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost
Every year, I meticulously trim my climbing rose. I don’t gently trim; I chop. By mid-season, the branches still reach the eaves. Chop, chop. I learned that pruning promotes healthy new growth. I was apprehensive the first few years, only cutting back a few inches; but the climber always responded and grew back with new shoots and vibrant colored flowers. When the rose receives sufficient sunshine, water, and fertilizer, the winter pruning revitalized the plant. Nature is the master teacher. From watching the rose, we learn about life. We share characteristics with roses, giraffes, dogs, spiders, and all living forms—small and large.
Humans need healthy environments. Both physical and emotional growth requires friendly surroundings, providing the necessary security and love. We can’t live in impoverishment and flourish. Growth in self-esteem, security, flexibility, self-discipline, and compassion all depend on proper nourishment. Whether plant or human, growth insists on nutrient rich environments and sufficient mechanisms by the organism to process the nutrients.
Healthy organisms develop abilities to collect nutrients from surroundings—the plant extends its roots; the person builds social networks. Sickly organisms’ abilities to self-nourish shrivels—leaves curl, roots contract and people isolate. The healthy plant extracts more nutrients from the soil; thicker foliage absorbs more energy from the sun. This sad process gathers resources for the healthy while limiting those most in need; illnesses, addictions and overwhelming emotions limit positive interactions.
We ignore these realities and blame the sick for being sick; demanding them to extend roots that have already perished.
Failure to thrive befalls humans and plants. Lack of healthy human contact stagnates growth. A dreadful discovery found in the orphanages and hospitals of war-ravaged regions is that young children—with adequate food, shelter and water—become sick and die when deprived of modest doses of contact. Adults may survive (physically), but also suffer from rejection and loneliness. We need warm, accepting relationships.
As a child abuse detective, I investigated several cases of child neglect. One particular case remains etched in my memory. A six-month old child was rushed to emergency, lethargic, and lifeless. The child had been losing weight for the last two months. I encountered, up close and personal, a child failing to thrive. The child’s growth stopped, and he began to lose weight. At six months, the youngster’s weight dipped below his original birth weight. Embarrassed and young the teenage mother waited until near death before seeking professional medical intervention.
Failure to thrive isn’t a third world disease. Many children needlessly suffer varying degrees of failing to thrive. In this case, a teenage mother lost affection and disconnected with her child because of the normal fussiness of a colicky baby. The excitement of a child rearing faded with reality; caring for an infant is thankless work—especially as a single parent. The child’s transition from breast-feeding to formula caused irritability. The emotionally taxing crying wore on the young mother. She struggled with her own emotional immaturity, her insecurities while stuck home with a needy child.
An environment of limited resources (financial and emotional), poor parenting models, and a host of other unknown complexities combined to overwhelm the neglectful mother. Neither mother nor child were having needs filled—both wanting but incapable of giving what the other needed.
The young mother tearfully admitted lost interest in the baby. She began propping the bottle on a pillow and going to the other room—sometimes hours at a time. The crying was intolerable, and she lacked the skills to soothe. The doctors conducted dozens of tests seeking a cause for the weight loss and near fatal illness. No disease was discovered. The child lacked human touch. Several months of attention from caring nurses and modern medicine revived this beautiful baby boy. The young mother received resources, training and counseling. Healthy human contact was essential for the young mother, too.
Impaired childhood attachments and past abuse damage our capacity to enjoy intimacy. Intimacy frightens, reminding of past hurts, digging into the partially healed wounds. The fear activates defenses to protect. When past attachments were painful, new attachments excite fear. The anxiety inhibits closeness. The past impoverished relationships interfere with absorbing nutrients in the present.
The past colors the present. The building blocks constructing present perceptions is our explanations used to understand the past. Present perceptions then influence future perceptions—often drifting further from reality. The expectations prompt emotion. Processing complex past experiences, littered with hurt, complicates reasonable assessments of the present. We construct safety zones to protect, establishing warning markers of danger, even though safe in the present, when those markers are crossed the experience ignites emotions, sending us scurrying for protection.
The whole essence of learning—human adaptability—requires memories (explicit and implicit) to guide the future. Learning is an adaptive system.
Our threat management system scans the environment for threats. New opportunities, even when only loosely similar to the past, trigger strong emotions. Our warning-system moves into protective over-drive. If we don’t recognize the influence of the past, we may justify the over-reaction, labeling it legitimate, and denigrating the non-existent environmental threat. New opportunities are discredited and abandoned.
Processing complex past experiences, littered with hurt, complicates reasonable assessments of the present.
Are we doomed to these self-perpetuating cycles? It’s a painful conundrum; lack of environmental nutrients stymies growth but fear prevents creating a healthier environment. There is no simple answer. We need to stop fruitless searches. Healthy living is complex; not solved with simple resolutions. Because of complexity, we always will face struggles. But there is hope. We can embrace the difficulty of our existence without discouragement. Futures can improve. Doing right in the present can transform futures. We must start small; introducing little, healthy activities into our daily routines.
We’re not alone. Others have traveled this path. We can too. The effective answers aren’t clever rhymes or magic cures. The effective answers never effortlessly circulate on social media; because they lack the attractiveness of simplicity—promising ease. The effective answers can be boring, requiring concerted efforts. Expectations of ease motivate rejecting of the difficult conscious attention required for sustained growth. We discard healthy advice for over-simplified-psychological garbage that offers limited benefits. The less attractive but more effective answers take second-seat to viruses of thought that spread effortlessly through the self-help crowds. We must be more discriminating with the programs we choose to construct our futures.
Growth requires basic building-blocks. We need relationships, experiences and resources that nourish. Without these building-blocks, growth stalls. We must effectively process the nutrients these resources provide, skillfully integrated beneficial experiences and people into our lives.
Growth is a progression of small changes. We can only create nourishing relationships by correctly identifying harmful thoughts and behaviors. When we welcome the work with patience and consistency, we grow. We obtain new heights. We experience new joys. We enjoy greater intimacy. Hopeless addictions loosen their grip, the terror of rejection softens and the fear of failure retreats. The small building-blocks combine to create a pillar of strength—not because of a magic potion or a secret skill but through perseverance to take a path few have chosen.
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