A Word from the Editor
I enjoyed all the feedback I received on the first issue of Noneuclidean Cafe. Thanks to all of you who wrote or discussed it with me.
I’d like to use this Editor’s Column to talk about one of the questions I received. A friend of mine from Texas wrote, “I found the most interesting parts to be the submissions on personal growth—I'm never quite sure what this means: New Age sorcery? Computers interfacing with human wetware?”
Yes. Excellent question. Personal growth. A phrase many of us use regularly. What the hell does personal growth mean?
If I look at it from a whimsical frame, I’m tempted to say it follows in a long tradition of interesting miscellaneous categories. Long ago, when people didn’t know why something happened, they attributed it to the gods. Over time, God grew from this miscellaneous category (a general-purpose reason to explain floods and why the canoe-maker has no kids) into the prime-mover of all things.
More recently, it’s become common to attribute things that seem to happen without reason to the unconscious. Why did Mrs. Putnam say her husband is dense when she meant to say “He's by the fence”? Unconscious drives. Like God, the Unconscious also quickly grew from a miscellaneous category, for things that don’t fit anywhere else, to the prime-mover of human behavior.
And as religion changed from a vengeful, for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God of the Old Testament to the thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind, and thy neighbour as thyself New Testament God of Love, the unconscious changed from the amoral wish-fulfillment and sexual/aggressive drives of Freud to true self, archetypes, and an unconscious that wants what’s best for us, if we’d just stop getting in its way. From this frame, personal growth is the name for the miscellaneous category into which we stuff all those wonderful things we’d like to think the unconscious can do for us.
Of course, as I said, this is a whimsical view. The facts suggest otherwise. If we look at personal growth from a historical frame, the publication in 1859 (well before Freud cast all the interesting stuff into the Unconscious) of Self-Help, by Samuel Smiles, launched a long line of books on how to better oneself. Over the years, the focus of those books spanned developing character to developing personality, making friends to making money, finding God to finding one’s true self. In the 1800’s the books were driven by underlying beliefs in Christianity and character, while now they are driven more by underlying beliefs in Eastern spirituality, finding love, making money and vaguely-defined ideas of realizing oneself.
And while we are looking at different frames for understanding personal growth, there is of course the marketing frame. One only has to read the New York Times Nonfiction bestseller lists, or walk into the Barnes and Noble on Sixth Avenue and Twenty-first Street, where the last I looked there was a whole Chicken Soup for the Whatever section, to know that personal growth is a marketing term, and a potential path to riches for publisher and author.
But, given that there are whimsical, historical and marketing frames through which to view personal growth, what does the term mean to those of us who find personal growth an important element of our lives? Well, to give my own answer, it is one way to agree with Shakespeare that, at least sometimes, fate “lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Personal growth is the belief that beyond our genes and childhood and situation—there is choice. We don’t have to accept who we are and the way we experience the world as an absolute; we can change ourselves, and through changing ourselves, we can live in a world that looks and sounds and feels very different. We can change the things we don’t like about ourselves, and we can be the things we want to be to a far greater extent than we’ve been conditioned to believe.
Now, I think responsibilities come with taking that path. And maybe the greatest of these responsibilities, it seems to me, is to acknowledge how incredibly blessed and lucky are those of us who get to take workshops and seminars and read books on personal growth. Throughout history and geography, the majorities of people have and are struggling for food and shelter, to achieve lives free from poverty and violence. To have the relative wealth, time and security to pursue our personal growth is a great privilege.
I’m not sure I answered my friend’s question to his satisfaction, though I hope he’ll write again and let me know if I didn’t.
By day, James Swingle does business training and personal growth workshops and coaching, which you can find out about at www.jamesswingle.com. By night, he founded and edits Noneuclidean Cafe, where he hangs out with writers and other dangerous types.
Photo by Robert Kalman.
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Article Copyright © 2006 James Swingle. All rights reserved.
Photo Copyright © 2006 Robert Kalman. All rights reserved.