Are you a pruner or a stretcher?
As you know when you prune a bush or a tree you do it either to restrain growth or to direct growth in desirable ways. It strikes me that most people go through life actively pruning themselves. Often once they reach adulthood they try to keep themselves exactly the way they always have been. The world may change around them, but they always want to be, and be seen, as the person they were.
For these people growth, change and age are things to fear and to be denied as much as possible. I frequently link these types to conservatives. But in some ways I am also a pruner. I’ve found a hairstyle I like, for example, and I can’t see changing it. Perhaps this is because I am pragmatic and my hair will otherwise look like a bird’s nest. Or perhaps I am more than a little intimidated with the thought that people might perceive me in a different ways if I were to change my hair style. I notice I am also somewhat compulsive about taking care of my body. I try to maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly. God forbid that I spend more than an hour in the sun without sunscreen. Some part of me sees myself as an aging but well oiled machine that might keep working forever as long as I keep everything running in optimal condition.
To continue the pruning analogy, sometimes pruning is done to ensure growth is channeled in certain directions and not in others. Low hanging branches are pruned around the trees in our yard to facilitate mowing and leaf collection. We don’t necessarily want that one branch to extend over the house and come down in a windstorm, so off it comes. People do the same thing. Marriage is a typical example. If we married folk have non-monogamous feelings we try to prune that part of ourselves but we allow those parts of us that want to have a closer relationship with our spouse to grow. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Often we go back and repeatedly prune the same portions of ourselves over and over again. If it happens too many times it is reasonable to ask if we are denying growth that really should happen. Maybe we are meant to live a life in multiple marriages or relationships, but we actively fight these impulses through self pruning.
Without pruning the bush continues to grow. But even with the pruning the growth never really stops. New twigs spring out periodically and will grow. The roots of the bush continue to grow to some extent because they are not seen. It is the part above the ground which is artificially shaped to make it appear a certain way. So it may be that we restrain the growth manifested in our conscious behavior, but subconscious needs and desires continue to grow.
Plants can’t prune themselves. But people can. This is one of the things that make us truly distinct from most other species on our planet.
I’ve noticed that there are some people who don’t believe in pruning. I will call them stretchers. I suspect these people are fairly few and far between. Stretchers take life one day at a time and spend a fair amount of time pushing themselves into new areas of exploration. They stretch themselves to encompass a wide variety of experiences. The underlying philosophy, if there is one, seems to be that this is both natural and good thing to do.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time observing people around me and I’ve come to admire the stretchers. I do so, I think, because I need to stretch myself more than I do and these people are fine examples. My friend Lisa, for example, is fully exploring her metaphysical side. She is open to ideas that I consider somewhat dubious at best and hokey at worse, but that hasn’t stopped her from investigating astrology, paranormal experiences, body charkas, healing touch and psychics. Her husband, for his part, has taken up boating and skiing for his midlife stretch.
My friend Renee seems to be taking an outward directed stretch instead of an inward one. She’s working on doing the midlife career switcheroo, and has gone back for a second master’s degree so she can work eventually at a non-profit agency and help out somewhere, probably in the developing world. She has also engaged herself in politics, an area I gather she never really dug into before, and is actively promoting justice and democracy for Palestinians and people in the Arab World in general.
For myself I am trying to stretch in new directions too. But it doesn’t always work. Grad school was a big stretch for me, but that experience is now four years behind me. It had the effect of moving me to where I needed to be, and to give me the self confidence that to some extent I was lacking. Since then I’ve tried teaching (which I’ve enjoyed). I’ve also tried coaching and mentoring, not in the area of sports, but with young adults. I have taught a Sunday school class and now I am a youth advisor at the UU church.
I’m not sure I’m doing enough stretching because I often find myself back in the pruning mode. But I’m working on it and will continue to work on it. For me this effort seems almost an imperative in midlife. It seems to be a way that I can cope with my aging and my mortality. I have to feel engaged. I have to feel in charge of my life. It is how I find meaning.
I’m not sure where this is going. If I were a bush, I might well be a large and shaggy looking thing when the whole process is over. But hopefully I will have explored and learned a lot more about life and myself. A life, particularly my life, seems a terrible thing to waste. I don’t know what awaits me, if anything, after death, but the growth imperative seems to be a part of life, and I need to fundamentally embrace it.