I’m noticing a few things as I get older. I suspect I’m a little slower than many at learning some important life lessons, but I’m grateful that some things are becoming clearer to me. If I knew what has prompted these learnings, I’d be glad to share, but I’m really not sure. The bottom line is, better late than never.

Some of my latest learnings are about growth – personal growth, not physical growth, and its connection to stress. We all seem to grow physically based on factors such as genes, diet, living conditions, exercise, etc. We can have an impact on our physical growth by engaging in healthy practices from infancy forward, but for the most part, we are “programmed” to comply with our genetic pattern.

The kind of growth I’m thinking about it not physical. It is not even intellectual. It is a growth that starts deep within ourselves and grows deeper, putting down deep roots into the soil of our values, hopes, and foundational beliefs.

We have experienced some severe weather recently. The trees around us have been stressed severely by winds and rain. The rains soften the soil into which the trees’ roots are growing; the winds break branches and sometimes even cause the trees to fall over and die.

Which trees are most likely to withstand the storms and find themselves even stronger once calm has returned? The ones with the deepest and strongest roots, assuming they are free from disease and other damage.

How do trees develop a deep and strong root system? Their roots are strengthened by storms, especially wind. A tree needs to be stressed by wind to create a strong root system. Wind stresses the roots, causing them to grow deeper and stronger in response so that they will be able to support the tree as it grows taller.

Also in response to wind, trees form a special kind of wood, sometimes called “stress wood” or “reaction wood.” This wood has a different structure from the normal wood of a tree and helps the tree position itself where it can get more light or other resources. This is why we sometimes see trees with contorted shapes (leaning toward the light) that are able to survive in those shapes.

In one study, sweetgum trees were staked, immobilized, and shaded. It was found that those trees allocated most of their carbon to height growth. Some of them were unable to remain upright once their stakes were removed. They had not been allowed to grow strong through stress and testing.

When we focus on moving up the job or education ladder, the income ladder, the size of house ladder, or the ladder to any other external success goal we might have, we will not be serving ourselves well if we are not at the same time deepening our roots into the soil of our growth in areas that are not quite so visible.

These areas might include relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and others; time spent in quiet contemplation or meditation of whatever materials support our values and beliefs; paying adequate attention to self-care which could include discovering what lessons there are to be learned from stressful situations that arise.

When we self-medicate or distract ourselves to avoid stress, we are like the tree that was staked so that the stresses of winds could not help it strengthen and deepen its roots. As a result, it was much more likely to fall over when the supports were removed, even in the absence of wind!

Stresses can be seen as opportunities to get very curious about ourselves. That is deep work. We might ask ourselves questions such as these:

  • What are the first signs that I am experiencing stress?
  • If I don’t notice the initial signs, how might I become more self-aware?
  • What belief about myself or my situation is leading to the stress, and is it really true?
  • What opportunity presents itself in the form of this stress to learn more about myself and deepen my roots?
  • Am I able to contemplate the situation and answer these questions without judging myself negatively?
  • How can I see this situation as a positive opportunity for growth and deepening awareness?

It might be helpful to discuss these questions with a trusted friend or advisor. Sometimes we are not the best observers of our patterns of behavior.

Just as with a tree, the growth of our deepening self-compassion and self-awareness may not be obvious. Over time, as we persist, we will begin to notice changes analogous to the increasing ability of a tree to withstand stronger and stronger winds and rise high and majestic above the surface of the earth.

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