I’ve been thinking lately about growth and its relationship to difficulty.
Brian and I just spent a week in Fort Collins, Colorado, finding a house for our family to live in when we move across the country at the end of this month. We stayed in a dirtbag hotel, in a “non-smoking” room, which was non-smoking in that it wasn’t currently on fire. My clothes still smell like that stale room, even after a washing. Our first full day in town, we picked up a local paper to check the classifieds, in case anyone still used the paper to advertise rental houses. We didn’t find any houses, but we did find these horoscopes. I put them on an art journal page with a dictionary entry for the word partnership:
In case the picture’s too blurry: Brian’s a Sagittarius, and his horoscope reads, “The dramatic change you are attempting may seem risky to others.” My horoscope (Aquarius) reads: “The easy way is sometimes also the right way, but not this time.”
We agreed that the two readings seemed to fit together, as well as each of us, individually. What we’re doing is certainly not easy, and last week was particularly hard. The crappy hotel room, the hopeless feeling after seeing one house after another that was obviously intended for college students. The “beer pong” poster in the living room, the bongs and pot growing equipment, the bent window screens and wide gashes in the drywall that the landlady didn’t even bat an eye about. The one non-student house with a bitter divorced current tenant who argued with the landlady in front of us about how much he owed her for rent next month. It was a wild rollercoaster. I kept telling myself, “Only one of them has to be good. We only need one to be good.”
And we found it, we think. The landlords are a middle-aged couple who own several investment properties in town, including some with students. But this house is in good shape, and they wanted a family. The current tenants are also a family, with a little boy. The neighborhood has students, but the current tenant–and a friend who delivers for FedEx and knows the personality of the neighborhood–both told us it’s pretty calm. The owners are a former art teacher (wife) and a GIS/computer map imagery professional (husband). It felt like a cozy house, and reminded me of the house I lived in during high school, of which I have many fond memories. Here’s a photo:
It’s a bit smaller than our current place, and more than a bit more expensive. So we paused, but not for long. The answer was yes. It really couldn’t be any other answer, for us. It was like grad school, when only one of six programs accepted me. This, or nothing. The only real competition was a house that wouldn’t be available until September, which would mess up Jack’s entrance for pre-school and special needs services. We signed the lease three days after we saw it.
So now we’re back on the east coast and plotting our course through the moving process: calling utilities companies, packing boxes, giving stuff away, selling furniture. And we have returned to our son, who has been a bit spoiled by his grandparents, which leads me to another point about difficulty. Jack cried our first day away. He wanted to see the white fan in Jack’s room. He wanted to see Daddy. He wanted to go home. It broke his grandmother’s heart. And so despite our urgings to encourage as much independence as possible, to let him tie his own shoes and feed himself, even if he gets frustrated, she gave him whatever he wanted and did as much for him as she possibly could. She left his room light on at night, so he barely slept, because she didn’t want him to cry again. She has told us that she thinks we push him too hard.
Then I remembered something a friend posted on Facebook about her son getting early intervention with a therapist. The therapist told her that she’s a softie, and she doesn’t really make kids do things they don’t want to do. The mom responded quickly and firmly: “I hear you,” she said. “But don’t underestimate him because of a label. He is very intelligent and capable, and in the long run, it will help him much more to be challenged.” Amen, sister! And so we responded to Jack’s grandmother in similar fashion. It was very hard, because she has been so generous with her time and energy, and she loves Jack so much. But we need to know that she’s on the same page with us. I told her that she may think we push him too hard, but his therapists push him harder, and they are the reason he’s doing so well.
And here’s the revelation I had. Facing and overcoming fears and difficulties is how we grow. Not just how Jack grows, but how we all grow. We need to bump up against the edge of what we think we can do. Because all of us — every last one of us — can do more than we think we can. That’s what Brian said to his mom: “He can do more than you think he can.” But later, I added, “He can do more than he thinks he can, too!” We all can. But it’s uncomfortable and scary, and we often avoid it. I know I do. I know Jack’s grandmother does. He does, too. He gets scared of new people and new places and new situations. But once he’s had some time to acclimate himself, he’s actually quite brave. He loves the ocean, though it used to terrify him. He often fears and then studies and then approaches new tasks, and the process usually doesn’t even take very long. We just need to be patient (and firm) enough to give him that space to find it out for himself. And that means, sometimes, watching him cry and letting him suffer, when it’s the very last thing we want to do.
Maybe that makes us bad parents. Maybe it’s a sign that we’re not protecting him or helping him enough. I think that’s how I felt about my own parents, who often left me to my own devices growing up. But now that I’m raising a kid myself, I have to wonder how much of my parents’ method of child rearing was laziness and how much was deliberate, a way to encourage me to act and grow independently. It helps me forgive them and give them more credit than I have in the past. I am independent, and I have been strong, and that’s thanks mostly to growing up the way I did.
So, now we’re facing another hurdle: this cross-country move, with a three-year-old boy and a 17-pound cat. But the experience in Fort Collins and with Jack has bolstered my resolve. It reminds me of the fight scene at the opening of Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne is in a Bhutanese prison, and this huge guy says, “You’re in hell, little man. And I’m the devil.” The guys hits him twice, and it looks bad. Then Bruce stands up and says, “You’re not the devil. You’re practice.” Makes me feel like a badass just typing it. Here’s the clip, if you’re interested:
Difficulty is often unpleasant, but it’s how we get stronger, how we get better, how we practice being a fully alive human being in this world. It’s called growth.