A few days ago my husband turned thirty. He isn’t a fan of birthdays or milestones of any kind. Every year — as long as I’ve known him, anyway — his May and June are lived through a haze of thorough retrospection and introspection. I think we all reflect on our lives to some extent, especially around personal or collective new years, but I’ve never met someone who does it so consistently and completely. I’ve never known someone more committed to becoming than him. It’s what I find most admirable — and most annoying — about him.
My husband is very enthusiastic about the idea of growth mindset, a psychological concept from Carol Dweck, PhD. This kind of approach to life reconstructs failures as foundations and believes in the possibility of being better. It’s not blind optimism; it’s choosing courage and pressing into potential. Its fuel is learning, the most renewable resource. In contrast, a fixed mindset puts its weight behind inherent skills and strengths. In doing so, it imposes limits on how much one can do and who one can be. People with fixed mindsets — especially those whose abilities have carried them a fair way — can be devastated by failure. This is because they see their achievements and defeats as reflections of who they are not what they have or haven’t done. I’ve got a pretty fixed mindset. I despise falling short and I take sharp hairpin turns whenever I approach known, or probable, failure territory. I like knowing where I can succeed and staying right there. But I’m working on seeing the world differently and, more importantly, raising our children differently. (None of that means I’ll stop teasing his obsession with growth mindset, though!)
My husband’s response to many things in life — including his successes — is to dig in and explore how he can do and be better. He doesn’t choose to plant everything in his garden; he grows a few things to incredible fruition rather than yield a variety of moderate crops. He lets his roots burrow down into considered, measured, and intentionally selected things. He’s devoted to steadfastness and he never allows discouragement the final word. He’s a man of great depth and wisdom because he works hard on his heart.
And he works hard on mine, too. It’s remarkably frustrating at times; I’m not always up for the challenge. But it’s also, possibly, his greatest gift to me. He doesn’t let me lock the metaphorical garden shed or hang up my dirt stained gloves. He also doesn’t let me hop on some new vegetable trend. He’s persistent and focused in his growth and he keeps me persistent and focused in mine. This blog is a great example; although my readership has declined, he encourages me to keep practicing my writing because, “That’s what this is actually for.”
Here’s the thing: growth is hard. Examining shortcomings and subpar finishings isn’t the way that I want to spend my life. I’d rather move on from them — and quickly — if you don’t mind! It’s exhausting to be perpetually improving and never proficient. It’s sandpaper to my soft self-worth and it’s another thing on the checklist that will never be checked off. But maybe… Well, maybe it’s not supposed to be checked off? Maybe it is the checklist. Maybe the whole point of the growth perspective is that we never arrive and, therefore, never become ignorant and irrelevant. Maybe the moment we think we have nothing left to learn is the moment we reveal the fullness of our foolishness. Maybe growth is ever continuous, and growing is the uncomfortable gift of life.
I heard a quote in a podcasted message last year that was life-altering. Of course I didn’t write it down, but it went something like this: some people are in your life to show you that you’re not quite who you think you are. If I’m honest, my husband does that to me all the time. He uncovers my heart with thoughtful insights, he invades my attempts at avoidance, and — like all partners — he pesters me into poor behaviour. He shows me I’m not all I want to be — not yet. I like to think I’m a good person. More than once I’ve exclaimed in frustration and indignation, “I’m a freaking foster mom,” as if that gives me some sort of good person credibility. I have pretty high standards for myself and I work hard — when I’m not crashing just as hard. But I’m also painfully awake to the truth that there remains plenty opportunity to become better.
These days I think it’s fair to say a lot of people and situations are revealing true inner character to many of us. Between isolation and/or an excess of family time, fear, controversy, restlessness, political conflict, doom scrolling, and the blinding spotlight on our pervasive problem of racism — between all that, we’re being confronted with a hell of a lot of ugly coming out of our hearts. I can only speak for myself, so I’ll say that my areas in need of weeding and seeding are getting a lot of fresh air right now. I’m becoming increasingly mindful of where I’m weak or wrong. More, I’m learning to commit to the deep wounding of my heart so I can dig out the decay. And that doesn’t appeal to my love of comfort at all.
What we’re diving into in this time of history is not going to be brief or breezy. If we let it, if we let Him, it will consume and transform us all. It will hurt and take; it will heal and restore. It will be a laborious process, but it won’t leave us unfinished. What we’re wading into, what we’re swimming out into the current of, is what my husband lives in — but the waves come swifter, deeper, higher, and harder. They terrifyingly arch over us, swirl around us, and grab at our footing. When we, some day, find ourselves on solid ground again, the world will be different and we — we who hurl ourselves into the grit of growth and trauma of transformation — will find ourselves on reborn shores. May our gutted and rebuilt hearts be found worthy and ready to settle on land that doesn’t esteem us as we’re accustomed.
We must not underestimate the depth to which we must submerse ourselves in reformation. We must not lay down when we get weary and forget to get back up. We must not recoil when things get too intimate and irritate our infected family sins. We must not fail to hold up our brothers’ arms as they fight the fight of generations.
This is the garden we want to nurture. This is the crop we want to grow. This is the harvest we want to reap. This is worth the sweat, the grime, the aching knees, the sacrificial hearts. This is the change most worth making — but also the change most difficult to endure. Every moment of backbreaking cultivation, every guttural sob, and every rasping, ragged, exhausted breath is the glorious expansion of growth. Our earth is being fully tilled, our rotted roots are coming up, our weeds are being identified and extracted. All we can do is lean in to this season of unbecoming so that we may become better.
This isn’t a story of failure. This is a story of getting up, of diving deep, of blooming.