This article originally appeared on the Support4Change website, and is reposted here.
As we grow and change, we must retain some flexibility to help us deal with new situations.
I love people. I love my family, my children . . . but inside myself is a place where I live all alone and that’s where you renew your springs that never dry up. —Pearl S. Buck
Is there anyone who doesn’t admire a beautiful seashell? When we find them washed up upon the shore after a storm, it is as though they are gifts from God, a legacy of the sea creature’s life. These multi-colored, elaborately designed former homes of living creatures grace a special place on a bookshelf, brighten simple bowls, and are made into jewelry.
For centuries humans have admired the stripes, wavy lines, chevrons, dots, triangles and other motifs of seashells. However, it has taken modern science to discover how the shell is formed. According to an article in American Scientist, May-June 1995, by Brian Hayes called “Space-time on a Seashell,”
Here is the most important thing to know about the pattern on a mollusk shell: It is a two-dimensional record of a one-dimensional process. The shell grows along one edge only, where material is laid down by a row of cells at the margin of the animal’s mantle. Pigment deposited at the growing edge forms patterns that (with few exceptions) are never altered thereafter. If you could unroll a shell and flatten it out into a rectangle, the pattern would form a space-time diagram, with position in space measured along one axis (say from left to right) and sequence in time recorded along the other axis (from top to bottom). A physicist would look at the flattened shell and call it a Feynman diagram; lines within the pattern are “world lines,” tracing the entire history of motions through space.
Apparently there is an interplay of “activators and inhibitors,” substances that are produced in the pigment cells and also act on those same cells. Patterns are created depending on how much pigment a cell is designed to produce and how much it is inhibited from producing that pigment over a period of time. The synthesis of these factors, natural decay of cells, and diffusion of these substances will “determine the pattern generated as the shell grows. Small changes in these rates can cause major reorganizations of the pattern.”
People aren’t much different than seashells
When someone observes us over a period of time, they can see that we aren’t always the same. We leave a different impression of who we are at different times along that space-time continuum because changes occur in our lives. As much as we may not like change, without it we would remain plain and dull. It is through our reaction to hundreds of experiences over a lifetime—experiences that involve the loss of one identity and the creation of another—that we become quite distinct and colorful characters.
Consider the stages of life through which we pass. We begin by learning how to simply “be.” As we move toward about the middle of our first year, we discover that “doing things” is not only fun, but learning seems a natural part of this life we’re beginning to explore. From there we move into other stages to build on the skills we developed in earlier stages.
Pushed by nature and circumstances
Thus throughout life we are pushed by nature and circumstances to react to forces that require us to expand, although, fortunately, we’re often able to relax a bit and take a breath before the next learning experience begins. At the juncture or margin of each stage we face the realization that we must let go of “who we were” because our boundaries have been pushed and we’re now in a new stage. If we are to move effectively in that new stage, we’ll have to give up the illusion that we are still back in an earlier part of our lives.
Notice what happens when a young woman meets a young man. When they decide to get married, her identity changes from being a single person to being part of a couple. They have a baby. Now the woman expands her identity to be both a wife AND a mother. As the child grows, the woman gradually changes her identity again to that of being a mother of a toddler, then the mother of a school-age child, then the mother of a teen-ager, and so on. As her child moves out into the world and begins his own family, she never loses the sense of being a mother, but now she has to expand even more and accept a daughter-in-law, even though she had no vote in his choice of who will now fit into her extended family.
This is how all of us progress through life. We may take different paths through these stages and certainly not all of us follow the “traditional” route of marriage, children, etc. But we all face times when we must shift our identity.
Change of Identity at Our Margins
The margin where one identity evolves into another is the precise place that we create a new pattern, a new way of being in the world. The circumstances that force a change may be positive, such as a promotion that carries a great deal of responsibility we didn’t have before. Under these circumstances our adjustment to the loss of “who we were” and the creation of “who we’ve become” is relatively easy. What happens, however, when a disaster strikes and our loss is great? The factory burns down and we lose the job. A husband has a sudden heart attack and dies. A serious illness prevents our participation in activities in which we excelled.
If we are not flexible at margins of change, if we are unwilling to see that life sometimes requires us to look for solutions in another direction, we will create a rigid personality that can’t operate effectively within the reality of our new situation. This doesn’t mean that shifting identities is easy. Complete change does not often happen without tears and heartaches. But the forces of life that act as “activators” for growth allow us to express meaning and value in a new way that wasn’t possible before. If we recognize this, then what others will see when they look at us is a person with strength, courage and resiliency. Even more, when it is time once again to move into another stage of life, another way of being in the world, we will accept change as not only possible but desirable.
Remember, a seashell has no choice of what he leaves behind. We humans, however, have the capacity to decide what we will be. After your life is over, will people say that you were inflexible and unyielding, changing only with great difficulty? Or will they know you were willing to grow, to expand and to be the best you could be in whatever new circumstances you found yourself?