By Scott T. Allison
One of my favorite topics is how we grow throughout our lifespan to become our best selves, our truest selves. My colleagues and I have written about how human development parallels the metamorphosis that people undergo to become heroes. This parallel suggests that we’re all meant to grow into the hero of our own life journey.
What triggers our personal growth spurts?
The consensus of people from all backgrounds, especially from psychology and spirituality, seems to be that three mechanisms exist that propel us toward self-growth and transformation. These mechanisms are nature, love, and suffering.
These three phenomena don’t operate independently – they are bundled together, interdependent, working in combination to help us blossom into our best selves.
Briefly, here’s how these three processes tend to work:
One important truth about human transformation is that natural processes are in place for it to happen. We don’t have to plan it or engineer it. In fact, if we do try to impose our will on its genesis and direction, we may be worse off.
A child, for example, doesn’t have to do much to grow physically. Nature arranges physical transformation to happen in a sequence of stages. We always have to do our small part, however. By eating right and getting exercise, we can allow natural physical growth to unfold in healthy ways.
The same is true for emotional and spiritual transformation. By nature, these areas of growth are programmed into us. But again, we have to do our part — and “we” means as a community, not in isolation. We need parents and social bonding to nurture us, and we must make choices that cultivate social connections with people who are good for us.
Nature supplies us with the raw materials for our awakening, and it’s up to us to work with nature to reach our fullest potential.
Love is central to personal transformation. Some of the most powerful stories in literature and film are tales of a person who is stuck in an immature stage of development. A situation arises in the person’s life that opens their heart to love, and quite suddenly, the person is transformed into their best self.
There are many examples. In the movie Groundhog Day, our hero Phil Connors is a selfish, depressed jerk. But then he finds his colleague Rita, who role-models selflessness, love, and enlightenment. Phil’s love for Rita transforms him into his best self.
Storytelling reminds us that any kind of love can transform us, not just romantic love. The Grinch, for example, steals all the Christmas presents from Whoville, only to discover that all the Whos down in Whoville don’t care about material things. They only care about the Christmas message of love. Once he absorbs this message, the Grinch is transformed into his best self.
Richard Rohr once observed that suffering awakens us because it makes us more receptive to loving and learning. Suffering is humbling, and we know that humility opens us up to trying new ways of seeing the world.
Every spiritual tradition emphasizes the role of suffering in heroically transforming us. For Buddhists, suffering is the necessary path to enlightenment, as expressed in the Four Noble Truths. The First Truth is that suffering is an inevitable part of life. The Second Truth is that our suffering is caused by selfish desires and attachments. The Third Truth is that we can let go of these selfish pursuits. The Fourth Truth lays out the path for transforming our suffering.
Christianity also regards suffering as the key to heroic transformation. The symbol of Christianity, the cross, is emblematic of the immense suffering experienced by Christ during his crucifixion. Christ’s suffering is culminated by his resurrection, which is the ultimate transformation from mere flesh to the highest possible state of existence. The story of Jesus helps us trust that suffering is the path to becoming our best selves.
I’ve written about how suffering can produce many psychological benefits. Specifically, suffering (1) has redemptive qualities, (2) signifies important developmental milestones, (3) fosters humility, (4) elevates compassion, (5) encourages social union and action, and (6) provides meaning and purpose.
Suffering is an inescapable part of life. People spend their lives avoiding it, yet we do so at our own peril. Carl Jung once noted, “Every psychic advance of man arises from the suffering of the soul.” Yet while some suffering is necessary, let’s remember that some suffering is unnecessary. As Alcoholics Anonymous cautions its members, we should “avoid the deliberate manufacture of misery.” Yet when suffering knocks on our door, we can open it and embrace its gifts.
Allison, S. T. (2019). Heroic consciousness. Heroism Science, 4, 1-43.
Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., Marrinan, A. R., Parker, O. M., Spyrou, S. P., Stein, M. (2019). The metamorphosis of the hero: Principles, processes, and purpose. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 606.
Allison, S. T., & Setterberg, G. C. (2016). Suffering and sacrifice: Individual and collective benefits, and implications for leadership. In S. T. Allison, C. T. Kocher, & G. R. Goethals (Eds), Frontiers in spiritual leadership: Discovering the better angels of our nature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rohr, R. (2011). Falling upward. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Worthington, E. L, & Allison, S. T. (2018). Heroic humility: What the science of humility can say to people raised on self-focus. Washington. DC: American Psychological Association.
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