• I hate growth: a guide to change, by Jeff Jay

I Hate Growth

a guide to change

by Jeff Jay

Change is necessary, they say, but sometimes I just don’t like it. I may be conflicted on the inside and realize I need to do something I’d rather not do. Or outside circumstances might force me to change, for my own good. But I just don’t like this whole personal growth thing, becoming a better person, or adopting a healthier lifestyle. The prospect of change and giving up comfortable habits is disagreeable, and it’s often driven me to say, only half-jokingly, “I hate growth.”

The problem is, God seems to be endlessly enthusiastic about change, growth and transformation. It drives everything from super- novas to butterflies. Allow me to imagine the caterpillar, for a moment, munching on a leaf. What does he hear from on high?

“Dearest caterpillar,” says the Lord. “How would you like to be a butterfly?”

“I’m good here,” says the caterpillar.

“Don’t be afraid!” says the Holy One. “Just wrap yourself in a cocoon, transmogrify yourself, fight your way back out, and fly up into the sky. It’s going to be wonderful.”

“You’re kidding,” he says. “You want me to do what?”

I can relate. Do I really have to do this thing I’m told I have to do? I’m perfectly happy with my unhealthy habit, or whatever it is I’m supposed to change. Sure, I may have been munching on too many leaves, metaphorically speaking. But there are worse things. You may say I’m in a rut, but it’s my rut. It’s pleasant, in its own way. And a rut requires no effort.

Here’s the thing: when facing the prospect of doing something that seems difficult, the inertial force of not-doing is formidable. Like gravity itself that holds me in place, change makes the proposed transformation seem difficult, undesirable and unnecessary, even counter intuitive. No change seems better than any possible change because no change rewards me for inaction. I remain comfortable. Neuroscientists tell us the brain is lazy. It wants to conserve energy as much as possible. When you want to defend sloth, it’s good to reference the neuroscientists. Who’s going to argue with them?

STEP 2 – TRUSTING A HIGHER POWER

The key to successful growth, change and transformation is simply this: they are not intellectual exercises. We may think we need to get ready to change or get comfortable with the idea, but we’re wrong. If we look back on any big change we’ve made in the past, we see something different. We didn’t think our way out of the problem and deliver ourselves into a new place. We got our feet moving. In my case, growth has usu- ally been spurred on by the most reliable of all stimulants: pain and suffering.

Twelve Step programs are change-making machines. They don’t ignore the intellectual side of things, but the emphasis is on action. Yes, you will do a deep personal inventory, probing your secret fears and wrongdoings, but this work will be done in writing with the help of a sponsor, and it will lead to further steps. AA works be- cause it breaks down the elements of change into specific action steps.

Yet there is also a movement of the mind and spirit that undergirds this change. The crux of it is contained in the words of Step Two. “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

The simple but effective linchpin is the word “could.” It acknowledges that we don’t have certainty, and in the beginning, we may have little idea of how it all works. We simply come to believe that recovery is possible – that a Power greater than ourselves could – maybe – perhaps – save us. The word sanity comes from the Latin sanus, meaning health in body, mind, and spirit. It is rich with meaning, though these days we constrain its meaning to mental health. In its original, larger context, “being restored to sanity” was being restored to a vigorous life; mentally, physically, and spiritually.

So, for change to occur, we don’t need to be ready. We don’t need to wrap our heads around the details. We must simply come to believe that change is possible, and that we are not going to be its vital force. This second part is both crucial and paradoxical. Most of us naturally think we must supply the willpower to make it happen. Step Two says no, it will be a Power greater than yourself that will restore you to sanity. You can no more heal yourself by willpower than you can heal a broken bone by willpower. Yes, there are things you have to do and actions you need to take, but your feverish brain is not and cannot be the agent of its own change. You must simply come to believe that a Power greater than yourself can do the job.

One of the slogans in twelve step recovery is “keep it simple.” You may begin the process without a scintilla of faith. You may be angry at God, or despairing of God, or you may have stopped believing all together. We understand and we don’t try to argue or instruct. God works through people, so if you don’t currently have faith, you can simply follow the herd. Leave your theological objections for another day. Stick with the winners. Hang out with the people who are staying sober, and do what they do: go to meetings, get a sponsor, and so on. Concentrate on doing the actions, instead of analyzing them. Step Two does not quibble about religion; it simply seeks to bring us back into the fold. But for some, even the most tentative return is too much to ask.

This dilemma echoes Augustine’s passage on lost sheep, in his Sermon to Pastors. He exhorts his readers to go out after the lost sheep but warns that some lost sheep don’t want to be found. Augustine quotes the recalcitrant sheep: “I wish to stray…I wish to be lost.”

It’s the human condition, whether we’re discussing life-threatening addiction or everyday inflexibility. When I resist the changes I need to make, I too wish to stray. I wish to be lost. Augustine’s insight is nearly universal. Alcoholic denial is like that, too. “I don’t have a problem…I want to be this way.” And it’s true. In the throes of addiction and despite all consequences, I want to keep drinking.

Naturally, that’s why Step One precedes Step Two. I must admit I have a problem and acknowledge that it’s making my life unmanageable. The path to a practical, durable faith that will actually bear fruit is traveled inch by inch. Yes, I have a problem. Yes, I may believe that a Power greater than myself can restore me (even if only through the power of the group). Now what?

STEP 3 – TURNING MY WILL OVER TO GOD

I must commit. I must make a decision, in the words of Step Three — I must “turn my will and my life over to the care of God, as I understand Him.” It sounds impossible, but then the word “care” stands out. I have free will, so I can’t turn my will over like a set of keys. But I can turn my will over to the care, safekeeping and guidance of God. I can try to make my will congruent with God’s will and try to do what God would have me do, rather than what I might desire in the moment. “We are not saints,” says the literature of AA. “We are only trying to grow along spiritual lines.”

Most people don’t have a dramatic come-to-Jesus moment that completely reforms their life. Rather, people are drawn in gradually, despite their skepticism. In AA, once a person admits they have a problem, even if they don’t “wish to be found,” they’ll be welcomed into the group. They don’t need to meet any qualification other than having a desire to stop drinking. In early AA, they actually removed the original qualifier: “honest desire.” It was a bridge too far.

Many people do have a powerful spiritual awakening; but for the majority, it’s a quieter process. We don’t try to force it. We’re confident that if they continue to do the action steps, they will encounter that Power greater than themselves— God—who will restore them to wholeness again.

I smile when I think of an old friend of mine who was a militant atheist. After a number of years in AA, he softened into an agnostic. For him, it was a profound change, and one that surprised him. To this day, he is still too cantankerous to consider  any orthodox religion, but he is willing to investigate the Unitarians. He amuses me to no end, because in my eyes he is on the path to an invincible faith – as long as no one tells him so. He does not want to be found, but he is willing to search.

AMID CHANGES, LOVE STEADIES US

When we think along spiritual lines, there is often a conflict between faith and works. Which is more important? How do they complement each other? But when it comes to loving God, Jesus proposes a four- fold way. He says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Heart, soul, mind, strength.

Jesus leads with the heart, which is sincere and fervent. A wholehearted person is holding nothing back; they are genuine and ardent. Or child-like. In matters of the heart, we don’t debate.

Jesus then leaps to the soul, the ineffable. The passion of the heart is a springboard for faith, launching us into the realm of the spirit. The love of God is indescribable because it is done by the Spirit through our spirit in a way we cannot comprehend. We can only release ourselves into the mystery, into the cloud of unknowing. Here, we can even find peace.

Happily, Jesus doesn’t leave us in the clouds, though we might wish he would. We are brought back to earth for the work of disciplining and developing our minds. Left unbridled, our minds can rationalize anything. Jesus asks us to train them in the love of God, to keep us on The Way.

Finally, Jesus implies a two-fold strength. First, we need strength to enlarge our understanding and love of God, but we also need strength in the everyday sense of doing practical work for the love of God. In case we miss this point, he adds: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” After our interior work, our efforts are always directed toward others. “By their fruit you will know them.”

The take-home message is: if you get this part right, everything else will fall into place. Depending on the version you choose and the language you speak, the Bible contains as many as one million words. Jesus boils it down in two sentences in Mark 12:30-31. Just imagine your-self being there in the moment he uttered these words. I suspect his listeners found them breathtaking. I also suspect that those who were fallen away, who were lost sheep, were intrigued and captivated. I can imagine one such lost sheep in the crowd, listening to Jesus’ two sentences and thinking: “I can do that.”

Only moments earlier, this lost sheep may have been defiant, wanting nothing to do with the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Temple. But when he heard Jesus’ simple directions, he experienced a change of heart. Jesus’ words about loving God and neighbor are simple and clear: who could possibly argue? They seem to open a way that is expansive and possible, that could restore one to sanity, that could bring one back to the herd, to bring one home.

When I’m defiant, when I fight against the changes I need to make, it’s best to stop thinking. I may resist growth, I may even say I hate growth, but relief comes only when I move my feet and get myself to a place where I might find an answer. My dilemmas are not unique, after all, and neither are the most effective solutions.

So, I join my fellow travelers on the path. They didn’t want to be found, either. We have all strayed, and we might stray again. So, we stay faithful by walking together. When another strayer comes along and joins us – if ever so doubtfully – our journey becomes a joy.

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This article originally appeared in Human Development magazine, Volume 43,     Issue 4 – Fall 2023. It was the final print issue of the magazine.

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