Primal urges

Spiral Shell Inside

I have been recently cogitating about the nature of growth and development, the idea of balance/imbalance, and how systems (any kind, including people) seem to exist in a dynamic process where they move through chaos to a state of order and then back to chaos again.

Most of us have lives that we live close to capacity. Long hours at work, family responsibilities, plus hobbies and passions outside of work and family make life busy, ideally in a satisfyingly full sort of way. It often seems like just when things are working pretty smoothly for the most part we add something to the mix that rocks the boat. This has led me to wonder, are we as driven to disrupt the status quo as we are to maintain it?

I think we all have an inner tension between wanting things to be easy and smooth-sailing and having a hard-wired need to push ourselves a bit further, because it’s at the boundaries of our current capabilities that we are driven to grow.  As soon as this idea came to me, I thought of many more recent examples close to home: my mother leaving her job…and then starting graduate school…and then “retiring”…and then opening her own pottery studio. My husband worked his tail off finishing his Ph.D. while working full-time and with a newborn at home – and when he finished, he started poking around for something else to stretch and challenge him.

It could be that I surround myself with chaos junkies, but I really don’t believe that. Dodson and Yerkes showed that our performance is best at moderate levels of arousal (i.e., stress). Our own nervous systems prefer it. I think that at a basic level we are also happiest at moderate levels of stress and we will create our environments and experiences that give us the “right” amount for us. But we can’t maintain a perfect state of equilibrium without motion (rocking the boat).

I picture it like a spiral moving up and away from a center point of equilibrium. We start out circling within a calm, small point of equilibrium, but our nature propels us out of this orbit in order to grow. We push away from the point of equilibrium and headlong into something that requires us to add new skills or abilities so that we can organize ourselves back into a period of calm and balance. Now we are spinning in a comfortable zone that is bigger than it was before. Once that starts feeling stale and boring, we leave that orbit in turn by adding something new to the mix or challenging ourselves in some other way. These periods throw us out of balance, but in righting ourselves we stretch until we again find ourselves at the point of calm and ease.

So when you find yourself stretched to the max (or up in the wee hours yet again with a newborn and have time to spare), consider the possibility that this period of discomfort is a natural state that you will move through and come out of wiser, stronger, and more skillful. As always, try to be mindful about what orbit you want to be aiming for, what skills you will need to be able to function in it best, so that you can move into your new space more gracefully.