A few weeks back I was feeling disappointed and mildly depressed about the course an old friend's life has been taking. Nothing dramatic or bad has happened--I just expected something more or different from him as a person and a personality. I chatted about this experience with a few people, trying to figure out whether I should be disappointed, or why it mattered to me at all. Part of an email from Victoria both summed up and illuminated what I was feeling. She wrote: "Persons often don't become their better selves. Lives aren't structured like those of bildungsroman protagonists. People stagnate, become lesser versions of themselves."
Huh! I thought. That's right. Sad, but right. I walked around thinking about this idea for a couple of days, and then, because I don't have a commonplace book wherein I inscribe Wise Sayings, I posted that sentiment (in quote marks, but without comment or attribution) as my Facebook status. I hate it when people do this sort of thing--post vague declarations that seem to demand concerned follow-up questions--but I liked Victoria's formulation and I figured no one would be interested enough to comment anyway.
To my surprise, I got a flurry of responses, most of them negative. Even after I'd provided some limited context and explained that I believe quite strongly in the potential for personal growth, but that it's useful to be reminded that not everyone chooses to pursue their own potential, I still got pushback from people insisting that I was denying personal agency; that everyone does grow, even if it's not in the ways we expected; that there are different kinds of success; and that it's ridiculous to hold someone else to our personal ideas about their potential.
None of this commentary was hostile--a lot of it seemed anxious, and eager for everyone to come to some consensus--but the experience startled me. I consider myself as optimistic as any American about the human potential for growth and change, and as flexible as any creative-class liberal in my definition of what counts as success or provides personal fulfillment; I don't regard stepping off the career fast track or becoming a stay-at-home parent as evidence of stagnation. But you'd have to be a moron not to recognize that some people shrink rather than grow over time, becoming less rather than more mature, open, generous, or interested in the world around them.
It's hard to know whether my interlocutors' comments were about deeply-held philosophical objections (or even more shallow ones: every day, in every way, we're getting better and better!), or just an anxious response to the life stage at which many of us now find ourselves. When your life has always been a series of goals--getting a degree, getting a job, getting promoted, finding a partner, buying a house, having kids--it's hard to know what to do with yourself once there are no more goals (or once the goals feel less necessary, or come more slowly, or aren't yet visible on the horizon). If there's no Next Thing we're focused on, or if there are no penalties for not achieving it, will we just stagnate? Have we already failed to live up to someone else's idea of our potential?
These are understandable worries, I think, but they miss the point. Growth and progress aren't measured by easy external markers. They're measured what you think and do and feel and how you relate to the people and the world around you.
Which means that maybe I am wrong to feel disappointed in my old friend; we're no longer close enough for me to know what's going on in his head or his personal relationships. But I'm not wrong to believe that we're capable of becoming lesser as well as greater, or that we should bear this possibility in mind, if only to guard against it.