There are the paths not taken, realities which will never be ours. Lost directions that, when faced, when embraced, bring us into grief for our unlived lives. (See Part 1)
But how about the paths we do take, the realities which are ours? The directions we wholeheartedly travel, the hard-won progress we make? Surely there, we are safe from grief. What’s to grieve? We have those things.
But we didn’t have them sooner.
There’s a shadow side of attainment. We ought to be elated, yet we find ourselves pained. In our relief, we can now feel what it’s really been like. What’s it’s been like without that which we just received.
We needed this a long time ago.
What might our lives have been like, the unlived versions in which we’d gotten our needs met, reached our milestones, learned vital lessons, in time to have prevented what we suffered?
With the gifts of hindsight, we imagine that what we’re capable of today would have been possible then. In our retrospective, our protective emotions come in to tell us that the suffering could have, should have, been avoided.
Shame says, “if only you were more acceptable.”
Guilt says, “if only you did a better job.”
Regret says, “if only you made better choices.”
And wouldn’t that be nice? Because even though shame, guilt, and regret are no fun, what a lovely thing to feel we had been in control all along! That if we just do what we need to do to get things right without ever having to learn or climb, we don't have to suffer again.
These feelings make us more prone to insulation attempts, staying stagnant so the pain of growth can’t find us. Yet what we don’t grieve through living, we will grieve that we never lived. If we accept that grief finds us either way, and resource ourselves for it as best we can, then we are truly free to grow.
How can we cope with the grief of growing?
1. Don’t add insult to injury. When you find your jubilation tainted with heartache for the suffering you’ve endured before now, resist the tendency to add shame to the pile. We’re taught to just “be happy” or risk being ungrateful, yet singular feeling states are quite rare. It’s common and healthy to have sorrow mixed in with celebration.
2. Remember that grief is love. To mourn for the self is to love the self. How loving towards past “you” to wish they had not suffered so. We comfortably feel this way towards our loved ones, pained for what they went through, that relief did not find them. Why wouldn’t we wish the same for ourselves?
3. Think wisdom. Growth is not just about getting what we need and want, though it’s wonderful when that happens. Growth brings expansion. We gain a wider view of ourselves, our lives, and the world around us. With both pleasures and pains comes earned and invaluable wisdom.
4. Get good at grieving. What supports you in grief? Consider the elements of company, comfort, release, and meaning-making. There are countless versions of each, both in connection and in solitude. Turn to the wisdom of thinkers, professionals, loved ones, or your own past experiences to find what works for you.