During one of my attempts gardening, a friend explained to me that regular pruning can help plants to thrive, even when its branches were not already withering. He told me stories of fruit farmers taking heavy chains to beat trees, the stress of which would cause the trees to respond with more life energy, becoming hardier and generating fuller fruits. I’ve heard about “fire climax pines” who reproduce only after burning. Given my difficulty at keeping plants alive, I took more insight than practical accomplishment from this information.
These examples suggest to me that some capacities emerge only in response to adversity. Episodes of chaos and challenge confront us with what does not work, what is lacking in resilience. The converse is also true, as we discover what solid ground supports us, what truly endures. When facing adversity, we could abandon what is no longer useful and dedicate energy to what is resilient, potentially enriching life.
When suffering, some folks tend to close up and withdraw; others become angry and hostile; others dramatically perform pain; still others behave as though everything is fine while inside feeling a sense of desperation and collapse. These strategies can all serve as forms of denying the truth of what is happening inside and outside by fixating on one tendency, one facet of experience. Denial can be a life-saving coping mechanism when used judiciously. Denial is problematic when it is our only tool and we do not realize we’re using it.
When we prevent ourselves from facing the anxiety of the challenge, however, we lose an opportunity to respond creatively. Crises can precipitate a time of great growth and renewal in personal, spiritual, and systemic development. Long-standing structures of belief and habit that blocked growth give way, making energy available for new forms.
(I recommend not saying this or anything like it to someone sharing fresh pain and grief with you. Messages like “How can you make the best of this?” or “This will lead to better things” can be experienced as cruel, dismissive, and potentially as blaming the suffering person. I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it. Quashing that urge is hard, but try! If you are fortunate enough to not be in the midst of a crisis and talking to someone who is, I recommend starting with simple empathy and offers of help. Later, when the person is ready, you can start talking about meaning and growth.)
We do not need to rush into this kind of change and growth. Those alarms going off inside are worthy of attention and respect, though not necessarily obedience. We can give ourselves time to avoid and freak out. We also need to give ourselves time to feel the pain and disruption of the challenge. We can also give ourselves time to check inside and ask, “What is it that I want for myself? What kind of life or system do I want to create?” I often need to remind myself of this. We do not need to know how to get there. In fact, it’s better to not cling too tightly to any one solution when in the middle of a crisis. What helps is simply to orient the inner compass toward the life we desire and try to connect to the hope that you will get through this crisis and thrive.